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.

Written by Suzie
Suzie Gilbert is a wild bird rehabilitator whose shameful secret is that on more than one occasion she has received a female LBJ, or a fledgling whatever, and has been completely unable to ID it. Luckily she has birder friends who will rush to her aid, although she must then suffer their mockery. She is the author of her bird-rehabbing memoir Flyaway (HarperCollins) and the children's book Hawk Hill (Chronicle Books). Her recent suspenseful, bird-filled adventure novel Unflappable (Perch Press) was selected by Audubon Magazine as one of their Three Best Summer Reads of 2020. She lives in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley and is always up for a good hike.