Recently a baby was born in North Carolina with Trisomy 13, a chromosomal abnormality so severe most carriers die at birth. As the baby survived days, weeks, and months, his parents created an entire social media life for him, including Facebook pages, YouTube videos, and a gofundme site to help with medical bills. He became a symbol of overcoming the odds, with hundreds of thousands of people around the world donating and writing him internet messages.
He died four months later, and his parents called for a celebration of his life with a mass, world-wide balloon release. Here’s where the internet trouble began.
Environmentalists view helium–filled balloon releases as wildlife killers. Balloons break and fall to earth, where wild creatures strangle in their strings or eat them and die from digestive blockages. Photos such as this one, and beautiful but haunting movies like Midway, underscore the carnage caused by “celebratory” items like balloons.
On the one side, there were grieving parents with little or no environmental knowledge; on the other, people sympathetic to their loss, but unable to stay silent knowing their way of celebrating a single life would directly cause the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of others.
As usual with the internet, things escalated and civility went out the window. Those unable to fathom how one could celebrate a life by filling the skies with latex locked horns with those unable to fathom how any type of alternative could be suggested to a family during their time of loss. Name-calling and charges of agenda-promoting ensued.
It’s over; the balloons all went up between 4:15 and 4:30 on a Monday. No one knows how many.
What worries me, in the age of the internet, is that this type of thing will become more and more common. That people who didn’t know the deceased and don’t know each other will still want to take part in a quick and easy globally-synchronized ceremony, and not realize its ramifications.
So here’s a suggestion to the groups who work to discourage balloon releases, and to all you computer-savvy environmentalists: create a website filled with ideas for memorials/life celebrations. Link it (if possible) to balloon company and funeral home sites, which both push balloon releases, so it pops up whenever either is accessed. Make it easily found by mourning families, and fill it with photos.
Need something quick? Blow bubbles during the day, light a sparkler or an old-fashioned lighter and hold it up in the air at night. Throw flowers in a pond or river. More effort? Plant a tree, seed a wildflower field, build a playground swing or a park bench.
Raising money? The possibilities are endless, but the most inspired one I’ve seen is the Muddy Puddles Mess Fest, which took place for the first time this month, drew 1,500 people, and raised $50,000 in memory of Ty Campbell, who died of pediatric cancer last October at age five. The idea? Bring your kids to the mud pit/water fight/pie throw, and let them get as filthy as they like (and join them, if you’re game).
At the end of the website, make sure there’s a Please Do Not section, and describe, in gentle terms, why not. No balloons. No released doves, who will look lovely and symbolic as they depart, then starve to death when no one shows up to feed them. No buying invasive fish from the pet store and tossing them into a pond, where they will grow into behemoths and devour the native species.
It’s a wonderful thing when people unite to cherish someone’s memory. It just needn’t be at the cost of another’s life.
Have an idea for a life celebration? Add it, and please pass this along.
Wait, so these people were told not to release the balloons because part of the internet community was warning them that they would kill wildlife, and they did it anyway? Sounds more like they were self-righteous and not at all altruistic and not at all releasing balloons to celebrate life, considering they still selfishly went ahead and did it anyway. Plus if that baby had lived you know probably every single person who released a balloon wouldn’t care about that family. They just want to look like they’re doing something “nice” while doing the minimum of work.
I say this, because I volunteer frequently to help conservation, and often I am one of two people who ever show up. People don’t want to do the work, then get mad when their utter selfishness, laziness, and egotism gets revealed.
Thanks for writing a post that makes us more aware of this problem and provides some easily implemented solutions.
Ah, a bunch of people who don’t give a shit about life, pretending to celebrate life. OK. I have to agree with Maria on this. It is pretty obvious exactly none of those people would think to go out to clear up any of the mess.
This is a thoughtful, wonderful article, Suzie. Last year, I came across a large group of people trooping out to the end of a jetty, balloons in hand. They were memorializing the death of a teenager. Most of the group were teens themselves, some were crying. I stopped the two people who appeared to be the leaders and asked if the group could just hold the balloons and sing or hold a moment of silence. They got very angry at me. I can’t blame them, I’m sure they planned this for weeks and my protestations were too late. (I suspect there was also a time element involved since I found out afterwards that group events like that on the beach were against a town ordinance.) It was a very frustrating situation.
I think this is a great idea, the offering of alternatives. I love the mud puddles idea. Here are more, from the people behind Balloons Blow: http://balloonsblow.org/environmentally-friendly-alternatives
Thank you all for your comments, and I share your frustration. I just came across this site: http://www.balloonrelease.com , which specifically targets people who have lost a child and encourages them to release balloons. It is filled with things like “Please understand that even though some small pieces of the latex sap material (this is how they describe latex balloons) are breaking down in the environment, nature’s wildlife is familiar and genetically able to distinguish leaves, twigs, sap, bark, shells and other small objects also composting, and avoid them in favor of more suitable food.” More descriptions about “environmentally-friendly” balloons make it clear that the parents of the child I wrote about were taken in by this site. How to send the site owners photos of dead albatross chicks on Midway, whose parents fed them plastic and latex? How do you combat a site like this, which is filled with deadly misinformation?
The Balloons Blow site is a really good one, thank you Donna.