Mebane surveys the tributes created by parents to memorialize their dead children in this compilation.
Families honor their children who have died in many ways: scrapbooks, websites, gardens, tattoos. One father finished restoring his son’s ’67 Dodge. They remember them with memorial benches and trees, with inscribed bricks and plaques, with custom pocket-sized stones containing pictures of the dead. In their names, their families give donations to charities, establish scholarships, host fundraisers, maintain hiking trails. The ways to pay homage to deceased children are nearly as numerous as the families who have undergone the grief process. Mebane decided to produce a layman’s study on the subject after his daughter Emma died in 2011. The information in the book was obtained via a survey that Mebane sent to an email list of bereaved parents, for which he received 147 responses. The replies contained “stories of undying love from these children’s families and friends, of things they’ve done to pay tribute to their kids’ accomplishments, memories, dreams, and inspirations.” He discovered that bereaved families are, by and large, interested in three things: keeping their children present in their lives, ensuring their kids are remembered, and trying to guarantee that some good comes from the loss. While the project could have been either highly depressing or exceedingly saccharine, Mebane manages to organize his information around the types of tributes, spotlighting various children rather than offering, one after another, their tragic stories. The reader may be surprised at the composition of his study. These were not all sick children: the most common cause of death for the group, at 51 percent, was vehicular accident. Nor were they all small: 40 percent were over the age of 20. While the departed are certainly central to the purpose of the book, Mebane’s work is actually much more about the grieving process, and the personalities of the mostly anonymous families come through more than those of the dead. If mourning is a window into the psychology of a culture, this book of American families shows a view of death that is compassionate, action-oriented, and ultimately optimistic.
A unique, if upsetting, sampler of the ways in which parents mourn.