I am not a big fan of any type of balloon releases. I will explain why in a minute. But I can understand why someone would want to celebrate the life and loss of a loved one, friend, child or unborn with a symbolic gesture – a memorial balloon release. Grief isn’t a solid thing. It doesn’t have a shape or form. But it’s everywhere you look: in the eyes of those who remain, in the news, in the space where they were. A balloon release somehow makes saying good bye a real thing. It is an event. A way to share your love. I respect those feelings wholeheartedly.
As a father who has nursed a child through cancer I understand what it’s like to face the prospect of losing them. I have looked into the abyss and imagined what the world would look like from the bottom. It’s a deep and silent-screaming hole and – thank goodness – I was so lucky that I never had to go there.
So I get balloon releases. I see that letting go of a soul and watching it float off on an unfathomable journey could be cathartic and comforting. I can see that floating lanterns into the night sky is a deeply moving way of saying a last good bye to a soul as it fades into the distance one last time. I can understand the heartbreak, the need for something tangible, the celebrations, the longing, the pain.
So I understand your need for a memorial. But we need to find another way.
As a beach lover, I cannot condone balloon releases in any shape or form. I will become furious with those who release as a marketing stunt, to make money, to attract pointless attention or to mark a meaningless event. But I could never be angry with your feelings, because they are raw and real and guided by love, even though they might be misguided.
However, I will not forget the harm the balloons that are released will do once you lose sight of them.
Manufacturers of latex ‘degradable’ balloons will tell you that the balloons will ‘go away’ once released, that they will break down in the atmosphere, and that will surely ease your conscience, but we know, from years of beach cleaning, that this is not the case.
I find the results of balloon releases almost every time I go to the beach to do my #2minutebeachclean (have a look through the hashtagged posts of beach litter here and you’ll see lots of them). They come from hundreds of miles away sometimes. While much of the balloon might have disintegrated, the knot and some of the latex always remains long after you said your goodbyes, while their strings entangle weed (and anything else) in a deathly embrace. They just don’t go away, no matter how much you’d like to believe they do.
The headline image above is of a ‘degradable’ balloon found on a beach clean by Phil Ellery, one of our barefoot army. I show it to school children and ask them what it is. They always answer that they think it’s a jelly fish, the favourite food of the turtle. So if they can’t tell the difference, what chance does a turtle have? If that balloon was ingested it would, more than likely, kill what ate it. The turtle would be unable to digest the latex. It would block up the turtle’s stomach and make it difficult for it to eat or digest anything else. Eventually, later, it will die. If it doesn’t ingest the latex then it may well become entangled in the string, unable to swim or feed. Let’s not forget that. Balloons are litter and litter kills wildlife. I am not making this up.
Would your loved one want the memorial to their life to end in more tragic loss? You know the answer to that.
Because it’s as heartbreaking as your heart is breaking.
Alternatives to memorial balloon releases
If you are considering a balloon release I don’t want to get upset with you. You don’t need that. But it is important that you understand that there are other ways to celebrate a life that are equally moving. Here are just a few ideas for things you can do to remember and celebrate a life – and in a way that doesn’t harm any other lives. There are lots of other ideas at balloonsblow.org HERE.
- Plant a tree: it will last many lifetimes and will support more life.
- Throw wild flower bombs: again they create more life, and a riot of colour to make you smile for years to come.
- Float flowers on the water: a powerful way to let go by watching petals float away.
- Blow bubbles into the breeze: for another eco-friendly way to watch a soul pass.
- Transform an unwanted space: vacant lots, roundabouts and verges could use a little of your love. Watch new life grow from between the cracks!
- Write your best memories in chalk: they will stay for a little while then will be washed away, without causing harm.
Thanks for reading.
Martin Dorey, founder of the #2minutebeachclean