Navigating Grief Balloon Release after Loss

Is it Hello or Goodbye?

Pioneer Orchard Park in Ft. Steilacoom, WA is a small, grassy knoll overlooking an amazing panoramic Puget Sound view. There is a big, old fashion wooden swing that could seat four adults facing two and two comfortably. On the opposite side of the park is a large platform stage, its short white fence marking the edge between earth and water. It calls you to come peer outward and dream. I can image this as a perfect spot for a wedding.

It’s July; it should be hot enough to require a glass of lemonade nearby. But this morning is unseasonably cool and overcast. Children are climbing and swinging together, running up and down the hills. The grass is wet with dew. Adults are gathering, chatting, drinking hot coffee. Today, the fence circling the platform is anchor to dozens of red, white and blue balloons. The rail that marks the park’s edge is filled with more balloons, some pink with butterflies imprinted on them. There are more red, white and blue balloons here, too. All of them have big square note cards dangling from a string.

The flier said, “We invite you to come honor and remember any loved one you may have lost. Soldier, Marine, Airman, Coast Guard, Navy – child loss, parent, friend.” This was a balloon release memorial tribute presented in honor of the 5th Stryker Brigade of Joint Base Fort Lewis-McChord. 250 troops returned home from Afghanistan July 22. According to the Tacoma News Tribune, “For members of the Stryker brigade, it’s been a rough year – 36 members have been reported killed, mostly in bomb blasts.” There was a handmade quilt spread out on a table, each square featuring a soldier, and space for families to pen a small note of remembrance.

Yet, I was here for a more selfish reason. I wanted to observe and participate. I love balloons!

August 2 marks the 10th anniversary of my dad’s death. It hardly seems that long ago. I thought it might be a good time to send a message. So I, along with a friend, traveled up the road to silently share this moment of loss with others. As I prepared my balloon, each little task had a meaning. I chose a white balloon because dad didn’t go for fancy things; same for the card. I’m not sure I know if he had a favorite color. I penned my message, including a side note to my grandparents, as well. Again, nothing fancy, mostly love. Then we walked around and waited for the collective moment.

I find this all a humbling experience, grief in general, that is. But standing among the families of our military is even more so. They share a loss and bond I’m not sure I can comprehend. They are, for the majority, young, with babies in tow, toddlers on the run and young children exploring their world. They learn and teach lessons that must require them to grow up too quickly. And they do this for us. Death is never is about one person. The families of our soldiers are an integral part of the equation of who goes to war in our names.

At precisely 1100 hours, the people gathered at the stage, holding bunches of balloons each, as many represented notes for those who could not attend. I stood above the crowd so I could watch the big picture (and take one, too). I carried my one little balloon and held tight and peered through the cell phone lens. I was just out of earshot, but a few words came over the hush to meet me: family, soldier, remember, honor… Then the countdown: five four, three, two, one.

I let go of my balloon after I snapped the photo. It floated upward alone allowing me to watch my specific balloon for some time. As they all traveled through the air I could not turn away until they just disappeared as little specks.

In saying goodbye again, I can only believe I really sent a message of hello. This was going to dad! And as happens in Washington in the summertime, by the mid-afternoon we were presented a blue sky, perfect 70+ degree warmth and an open path for all those balloons to rise higher into the heavens.

2 replies
  1. Michelle Schuyleman
    Michelle Schuyleman says:

    It was wonderful to share this morning with you, Joan. It will be a cherished memory for years to come.

  2. Joan Hitchens
    Joan Hitchens says:

    Since this post and even at the release itself, I have had mixed feelings about the use of balloons in a release as I worry about the environmental impact. I didn’t address this in the article as I was focused on the personal aspects of the ritual itself and my thoughts on saying goodbye or hello.

    Today I was on a call with bereavement professionals discussing bereavement rituals and the use of balloons that brought this back to mind. There are a couple of thoughts to consider. The issue is whether latex balloons, which are made from the sap of rubber trees, are really bio-degradable and then what are the ideal environmental conditions for assuring they do degrade properly. The other and usually more prominent concern is that the balloon string might cause tangling or choking hazards for birds. One suggestion is either not use a string and write the message directly on the balloon itself, or use a very short 2-3″ string to tie the note closely to the balloon. (Cotton string?!) It is a delicate balance. Here are a couple of resources for a quick overview to decide for yourself. or Note: these are both balloon advocate sources.

    In the conversation, callers noted that different communities and regions had other ritual releases such as butterflies or doves. This makes some happy while there still may be dissent on using live creatures in such a display. A delicate balance…

    As defined on the call, rituals help the bereaved to understand the change this death has made on their life, and rituals help the bereaved maintain a connection to their loved one in a meaningful way. Balloons, dance, candle lighting, song, butterflies… any or all may show the way. We’ll keep exploring.


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