Family Portraits After the Death of a Family Member

Family Portraits After the Death of a Family Member

One of the gifts of working in the field of children’s grief support is the support I receive from my family and friends. They always have their eyes peeled for interesting articles that relate to grief and loss. Usually they send the articles to me with a kind note, like “this made me think of you” or “thought you’d be interested in this!”

A few days ago my sister sent me an article entitled “How Family Portraits Boost Your Child’s Self-Esteem.” In the email she wrote a note: “I stumbled on an article about how important it is for young kids to see family photos for their confidence. You should write about what to do after one family member is gone.” Such a call to action could not be ignored!

First, let me give a brief overview of the article’s main points about family photos and self-esteem. When children see photos of themselves and their family they feel:

  • Part of a safe family unit.
  • Connected to something meaningful.
  • Loved.

…and they can immediately identify the people in their lives that create that feeling.

So what happens when someone dies? Do family photos become terrible reminders of the love and support that the person provided and has ended in their absence?

The simple answer is no, photographs actually play an important role in healthy mourning for children, but let’s break that down point-by-point.

Part of a safe family unit.  The individual roles of family members can change in the aftermath of a death. The safety, in that intense shake-up, can be lowered. Family photos remind children that they have been and always will be loved, no matter how much their family changes. Photos can also remind children of the past in a comforting way, and provide hope for the future.

Connected to something meaningful. Similar to feeling safe, a family creates meaning for children. Families allow children to feel that they are linked to something that is bigger than one individual person. When someone dies, family members can begin to feel isolated from one another. Keeping photos of the person who died reminds children that although the person has died the relationship hasn’t. The meaningfulness of the family does not die with that person, either. It changes and adapts into something new. Photos help children incorporate the loss into their life.

Loved. Children need to feel loved. They need to be reminded that they are loved. Photos are a simple way to show children that there are people who care very deeply about them. Think about the powerful message that a family portrait sends: everyone in this picture is valued so much that they are prominently displayed for everyone to see. Taking down a photo of the person who died can unintentionally send the opposite message. Instead, by keeping the family photo visible, children learn that the person who died was loved and is still loved, just as that child will be loved forever by their family.

Family photos can be incredibly helpful when children grieve. If you already have family photos displayed, take the next step with your child: talk to them about it. Ask them what they remember about the person and what they miss about them.  Share stories and offer to listen to all of their feelings. This, above everything else, will help children feel loved and supported.

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