Each of us carries various diddies ingrained from childhood. My favorites were always Stop, Drop and Roll, If It’s Yellow Let It Mellow, and Let ‘Em Work Let ‘Em Live. OK, the last one may be odd, but these highway signs really spoke to my heart. Most people follow the age old wisdom of Put Trash In Its Place or Don’t Be A Litterbug. Sure, there is a ton of litter, but most well-mannered and mindful people will not wad up a receipt and throw it on the ground.
The few caveats to this rule are:
- Cigarette disposal
- When there are 2+ teenagers in a car with no adult supervision and they just finished eating fast food (an open window often substitutes for a garbage can)
- Cities during a rainstorm — when the sidewalks become a broken umbrella graveyard
- Intentional balloon releases
Parents often discourage children from dumping their lunchbox trash on the ground, but for some reason, balloons in the sky can be fair game.
Watching a colorful object drift peacefully towards the sky, perhaps with a note attached, is usually a welcomed and accepted tradition at funerals or on days of remembrance. Balloon releases are appealing, the symbolism makes sense. They are particularly powerful and commonplace when kids are involved — either when the deceased is a child, or a child is part of the grieving party.
Planes fly about 7.5 miles above the earth’s surface — an ordinary party balloon can travel to a height of about 6 miles (weather balloons might make it to 20 miles above earth - though I’ve never seen a balloon release with weather balloons). I think most people would agree that we don’t fly through the souls of our beloved ones when we ascend to cruising altitude.
What happens when we die is the age-old question, and there are more than 7.5 billion different ways to think about what's next. While I will admit that my knowledge of different religions and their beliefs on the afterlife is limited, I think it’s safe to say that nearly all will agree that the next realm of existence is not limited to the altitude of a released balloon. Many folks believe that after death a person or their spirit or soul is still with us, that they are able to see us or be with us as we continue living. Because of this, it doesn’t seem necessary to send a latex orb into the sky to pass on messages to our deceased loved ones. Whatever beliefs we hold, or whatever practices we choose, should not be harmful to the organisms still living on our planet.
Balloons are joyful, nostalgic, and when filled with helium they delightful rise into the sky eventually disappearing from view, but they're hazardous. They can travel over a thousand miles — making their way into oceans and beaches — even when they’re released several states away from the sea. While they make up a small proportion of beach litter by weight, they’re considered to be in the top 5 most dangerous types of beach trash, both because once popped they can be appealing to animals as food, and most loose balloons come with a non-biodegradable sting that can entangle wildlife.
Photo credits (L to R) Pam Denmon/US Fish & Wildlife & Fran Baer
After years of saying that it was OK to release 100% latex string-free balloons, The Balloon Council (Yes! There is a Balloon Council!) has retracted that recommendation and now officially encourages people not to release balloons at all. Ever. Not even the balloons labeled as biodegradable.
The Balloon Council’s new slogan is: Don’t Let Go: Inflate, Weight, Enjoy. I love the ‘weight’ pun. I can just imagine children incorporating the slogan of the Balloon Council into their everyday vernacular. The If It’s Yellow Let It Mellow of 2019.
Alternatives to Balloon Releases:
All is not lost - there are still plenty of beautiful ways to honor a loved one that don’t involve strangling birds and choking sea turtles:
Plant trees or native flowers - You can create place to return to year after year - with hopefully more beauty and abundance as time progresses. You can search for a species that connects you to your loved one (perhaps using the language of flowers) as a guide, or select a species that might bloom at a significant time of year (maybe on their birthday, anniversary of their death, or another special season).
See the Unseen - Part of the allure of a balloon is that we can watch it drift away until it can no longer be seen. A balloon connects to the sky and the wind and the act of disappearing is symbolic of taking our love to a place we cannot see visually. It is very powerful. The reverse, creating physical representations of what we cannot normally see can be equally powerful. These also work great when children are involved:
Catching the wind | Kites or ribbon dancers - A child could appreciate the opportunity to write a message, attach it to a kite, and sending it up into the sky. Ribbon dancers should not be overlooked, and while the average person won’t be able to achieve this without some serious practice, a child may enjoy writing a message on the ribbon and bringing the ribbon dancer outside to release the words to the sky.
Sunlight Rainbows Using Prisms - It’s very Pollyanna, but also quite beautiful. This could be a meaningful indoor activity, or be used year round for a moment of reflection if your home is situated well with the sun. In our house, the early morning winter sun hits a chandelier to create a wall of rainbows every morning.
Movie still from the 1960 Disney production of Pollyanna
Bubbles - especially the big ones to make it special: Bubbles are like short lived balloons. There are even bubbles mixed with helium that act much like a balloon without the same harmful side effects. There are DIY options, or going with a rental company to achieve particular balloon designs.
Painted Rock Garden: The idea of a painted rock garden at elementary schools went viral a few years ago when an art teacher pursued the school-wide project after reading the book Only One You.
The elementary school near my hometown created a rock garden in memory of a student, Lucas, who died nearly a year ago. Children were encouraged to paint rocks in his memory or in memory of someone they love and miss.
Photo credit to Bedford Central School District - Image of the Lucas Harashima Rock Garden at Pound Ridge Elementary School.
Non-permanent displays: Alternatively, you could thoughtfully use what is there to create something temporary and beautiful.
Photo courtesy of Dig This Chick
Floating flowers - Putting flowers in water gives a similar feeling to releasing balloons - if you release in a river or ocean you can watch the flowers slowly disappear. This also works well if you’re scattering ashes (which will quickly become invisible once placed in water), but you can track the ashes if they are marked by flowers.
Boats and candles (with a string to reel them in) - I have volunteered at a camp for children with critical illnesses and they conclude each session with a wishboat ceremony. This camp uses the boat to release a child's wishes, but others could include messages to their loved ones. Boats are all attached with string so they can be retrieved.
Photo from Camp Sunshine’s wishboat ceremony. Photo courtesy of Camp Sunshine.
Song or Music - A group musical experience (and you don’t have to be talented to do this). As a former camper, I always loved the human rain storm.
There are a multitude of thoughtful, creative, and environmentally responsible ways to engage with our loved ones after their death. We should stop normalizing balloon releases. If you wouldn't dump a bag of balloons on the sidewalk, then you should never release them intentionally into the air.
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