Child Loss: Saying “Happy Birthday” When Our Child is Gone

Never in one million years did I think I’d ever be faced with the agony of how to celebrate my child’s birthday after his death.  Yet, it happened to me just as it happens to thousands of parents every year.  Yet, strangely enough, we don’t talk about how to do this.  Why?  Because truthfully, society seems to shun talk of death —  especially the death of child.  Add to that the fact that we want to honor our child’s “birthday” after death, and we often get stares from people like we’ve gone totally crazy.

Today, let’s push aside all thoughts about what others think.  I’m going to share some thoughts with you about how I celebrated my sister’s birthday (she died at age 13) as well as my son’s birthday (Samuel was born still).  Maybe this will help you feel less “odd” and more at ease with finding a way to honor and remember your child without feeling the pressure from others to simply let the day pass by as another day.

My sister Carmella died on June 5.  Her birthday is January 24th. The birthday before her death was so special.  She had been sick with pneumonia and was in the hospital.  Lots of people sent her cards, and a group from church and from the place where my dad worked collected money and put the money towards something she really wanted — some Barbie dolls and lots of Barbie outfits for her dolls.  My grandmother baked a cake from scratch (as she did for all of our birthdays) and the celebration was wonderful!

birthday cake 13When January 24th came around again (the first birthday after her death) my family was silent.  Nobody knew what to do.  This was new territory for us.  We had never walked this path before — never had we been in the shadow of death and we were scared.  And hurting.  And, so confused. We were dreading January 24th!

My grandmother, a very humble lady and so wise in her ways, never said a word.  She did something, though, that set the plan for us for years to come.

She baked Carmella’s birthday cake just as though she was still here with us.  I won’t be untruthful and say it was a good day because it wasn’t.  It was horrible.  My mother was paralyzed with grief.  She sobbed for hours on end and then drank until she passed out.  It’s the only way she could get through the day.  At that time we didn’t have books available to use about how to get through grief.  We didn’t have support groups.  And, sadly we were not encouraged to talk about death.  My mom was so alone in her pain!

One of our neighbors, Julie, made a big pot of homemade spaghetti sauce and delivered it to our door.  She remembered it was my sister’s birthday! How wonderful that was, and it is a gesture that we will never forget!

My dad was a man of very few words and by this time my mom and dad were divorced, so I don’t know what he did other than grieve by himself.  Our hearts were broken in a million different ways.

Being sixteen, I was not about to talk to my friends about this.  They wouldn’t have understood at all.  But, what I did was follow my heart.  I secretly took a piece of cake and some noodles and sauce (my sister’s favorite) and I went alone to the cemetery.  It was cold outside and I was sobbing.  Just the thought of visiting the cemetery alone made my stomach feel sick.  I thought I was going to throw up from a combination of nerves, sadness and fear.  But, I remember that day so well.

I sat on the ground and talked to my sister.  I cried as I told her how much I loved her and missed her.  I said, “Grandmom baked your cake.  It’s got lots of icing on it just how you like it.  And, Julie brought your favorite noodles and sauce.  I brought you some.”  I had written a birthday letter to my sister and as I sat the cake and small dish of pasta on the ground, I sobbed while reading the letter.  My tears flowed like a river.

HeadstoneIt was so important for me to recognize that day — to “do something” in honor of my sister.  It was awkward and felt weird, and it hurt so bad that I thought I was going to die.  By the time I left the cemetery my eyes were tiny slits from crying.  I drove the mile up the road to home, ran though the house, made it to my bedroom and sobbed for the rest of the night.

But, I did it.  I honored her day!  And, that felt good!

I have no special traditions that I keep each year for honoring Carmella and Samuel except one thing that I do religiously that is comforting to me and brings me great peace.

Every year I plant a few perennial bulbs in memory of each of them.  I plant them in the fall and wait all through the long winter in anticipation for spring to come when I can see them blooming.  To me, this represents the fact that love can never be broken — not even by death and life is eternal and goes on forever and ever and ever.

On each of their birthdays, I set aside time for crying.  I know that sounds a bit bizarre, but I already know that I’m going to cry so I plan for that, and it’s okay.  I remember.  I reminisce.  I think about the good moments that are now the memories that I cherish.  Sometimes I pull out pictures of Carmella.  (Sadly, I have none of Samuel — something I will regret all of the days of my life!)  And, I always, always light a candle and allow it to burn for a full 24 hours on their special day!


There is no right or wrong way to honor our child’s birthday after our child is gone.  We have to find what is right for “us” — create our own traditions.

Throughout the years, I’ve talked with thousands of parents of child loss and they have shared some amazing ways they have celebrated their child’s birthday — a day of remembrance.  They have made some new traditions, and I’d like to share with you just a few of those ideas.

I encourage every parent to do something — anything — on your child’s birthday.  As painful as it is, it will help you to know that you have set aside special time just for you and your child.

Here are a few ways that others have celebrated and honored their child’s life:

1)  Write a poem and read it at the cemetery.

2)  Visit the cemetery and decorate with balloons.

3)  Gather together some close friends and family members and have a balloon release.

4)  Have a birthday cake with your child’s name on it, and gather together with a few of your child’s best friends to share stories of your child — happy stories.  And, allow yourself to remember and smile through your tears.

5)  Release a lantern with your child’s name on it.  I just did this and it was so healing as I watched the lantern float peacefully through the evening sky!

6)  Set up a special place in your home with your child’s picture and a candle and burn that candle on your child’s birthday.

7)  Buy and wrap a gift and give it to a child who has been forgotten or is sick and in the hospital.   If you don’t know of such a child, check with your local ministers for help in finding a child who needs love.  Do this in honor of your child!

8)  Gather your family and/or some close friends together and create a memory box.  Decorate it and keep it in a special place where people who visit you can place a special memory of your child in the box each year on his/her birthday.

9) Have a butterfly release.  Invite friends of your child’s to participate.

10) Create a memory garden and each year on your child’s birthday add something new to the garden.

balloon releasememory gardenlantern releasebutterfly releaseI love you Mellie (Carmella) and Samuel — forever 13 and forever my baby boy! I will always remember you, always honor you, and always cherish the day that you were born!


Please feel free to share any ideas that you’ve used to honor your child’s birthday.

If this is a “first” for you, I strongly encourage you to do something.  As painful as it is, it will make you feel better when you have some kind of plans for your child’s birthday!  Use this day as a way of hugging your child, keeping your child close at heart, and letting others know that they are free to celebrate the specialness of your child with you!

Love and prayers,


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Child Loss: What Happens When there is Little Support?

When child loss occurs, nobody knows what to say or do.  So, many times people say whatever pops into their minds, and that’s usually never a good thing and offers very little, if any support.

When I delivered my little Samuel, I held him close to me as my tears drenched his face.  He was born still.  I knew ahead of time that his heart had stopped beating, but never did I dream that my heart would stop beating, too, when he entered this world.  Even though he was not alive, I still felt safe and close to him when his body was still inside of mine.  Does that makes sense?  It’s probably so hard for a father to understand this, but for those of us who are moms, we get it.  Our child was a very real part of us — growing inside of us each day, depending on us for nutrients and safe keeping.  When my little boy died, part of me died, too.

It’s strange looking back some twenty-five years now since Samuel’s birth (is it called a birth if he never lived outside of my body?).  I remember so few details about most of my pregnancy with him, but those final hours — I remember them as clearly as though it was yesterday.

And, I remember what was said to me when Samuel was born still.

One friend (who I later stopped calling “friend”) said, “You’re just lucky that at your age you didn’t have a baby born alive with a hole in the heart.  He’s better off.  You’re too old to  be having kids.  This is God’s way of keeping you from a lifetime of pain.”

I can still see her face as she stood in my dining room telling me this.  I had just come home from the hospital and she was doing her good deed and delivering food (a pizza) for my family.  It was a long, long time until I ever ate pizza again, and a much longer time until I talked to this woman again.

pizzaBy the way, I was forty when I delivered Samuel — a fine age to be a mama, I thought!

After that comment, I was very selective who I talked with — it was easier to cry in private than it was to share the innermost thoughts of my heart and risk getting hurt all over again. 

I didn’t need Scriptures shoved down my throat about how I should have a stronger faith.  It certainly didn’t help me to be around other’s babies (why do people think they should shove their baby in your face after yours has just died?).

The fact is — I needed my baby, and I knew that wasn’t going to happen.  I felt like I had dropped into a bottomless pit and the darkness was enveloping me and there would be no way out. I felt alone and hopeless.  This was the same frightening despair I felt years before when my sister died.  Broken to pieces all over again.  How would I ever find the strength to fight my way through this?

My heart hurt so bad that it caused my body to hurt.  I had aches and pains and a sick stomach.  My back hurt.  My head hurt.  I had no energy.  I couldn’t eat.  All I wanted to do is sleep and cry.  Day and night — sleep and cry.

Where are my friends?  Where is my family?  Where did everybody go!

alone_mcitrus-comTo this day, I don’t get it.  I don’t understand how my family didn’t see how much I needed them by my side.  I don’t understand where my friends were.  I don’t understand, but I did learn some very valuable lessons.

1.  Don’t ever place your faith in people!  Sooner or later, friends and family will disappoint us.  That’s a hard, but true, fact of life.

2.  Don’t ever think “this can’t happen to me”.  This can happen to me, and often it does!

3.  Talk about death as though it is real because it is!  Death is very, very real and it’s less frightening when we talk about it openly.  Talking about death helps to diminish our fear of death.

4.  Force yourself to have positive thoughts for 15 minutes a day.  This does help.  I know it sounds trite and a bit corny, but this is one of the things that helped pull me out of the deep, dark, angry, frightening pit of despair.  I repeated positive thoughts over and over in my mind thousands of times a day so that my grief wouldn’t keep me pressed face down to the ground.

5.  Come up with a plan — you are the only one who knows your heart.  If your plan is to stay in bed 8 hours today and get up for 1 hour, then that’s the plan.  But, if you have no plan, I can guarantee you that you’ll stay in bed for 24 hours.  Have a plan and stick to it!

6.  Others share similar painFind them and get some support flowing.  Maybe your support will be found online.  Maybe you’ll join a local support group of parents who have lost children.  Maybe you’ll buy every book available on child loss to read for your support.  Do what works for you, but find support!  Most often the support will not come to you.

7.  Take a walk every day.  I don’t care if it’s only for a minute.  When I was at my lowest point following Samuel’s death, my “walk” was 22 steps to the bathroom and back.  That’s it.  That’s all I could do at first.  Slowly, I added steps and an extra two minutes.  By the end of a year, I was walking an hour around an open field breathing in fresh air.  Sure, I cried many times during my walks, but…..I was walking!

8.  Face your grief head on.  Scream.  Cry.  Punch a pillow.  Throw a book (preferably not at a person!).  Have your “discussion with God” and tell Him how you really feel.  Let it all out.  And, when you do, you’ll find that afterward, you’ll feel tired enough to sleep — really sleep.  Not just toss and turn.

9.  There will come a time when we will have to say, “This really did happen and I can’t change it.”  Some people like to call this part the reality and acceptance of our child’s death.  We can fight it.  Kick.  Yell.  Curse.  Hold our breath until we faint.  But, the hard, impossible-but-true fact is “my child died” and that is now part of my life.

10.  Say it a thousand times over a day until you really believe it.  “I am never completely alone.”  “I am never completely alone.”  “I am never completely alone.”  Even if the entire earth has abandoned us, God is still near.  Breathe slowly and deeply.  Do it several times until you clear your mind a bit.  In my pain and sorrow and the depths of my darkness, I was able to find God again.  For a long time, I slept with my Bible under my pillow.  My tears fell on the pages and soaked them night after night, but I finally was able to find the presence of God and He held me when no one else was near.


This is not an easy journey, and it’s never over.  The pain of child loss took residence in my heart the day my sister died, and it reared its ugly head full force again when my Samuel died.  But, many years later I’m thankful to say my days are more sunshine than rain now.  My nights are more calm than storms.

And, in my loneliness — God hasn’t left me yet! He is still sticking around to support me in my sorrow!  It has taken me 25 plus years to say this, but I can finally say in complete confidence that I am not alone, and I thank God for that every day of my life!

Feel free to share how you found your support.  As we share ideas and thoughts we grow and learn together.  This thing called child loss isn’t easy and we can’t do it alone!



PS  I wrote the book Silent Grief following the death of Samuel.  If you don’t yet have a copy I’d urge you to get a copy today.  The book will become your support and strength.  I wrote it and I still use it!

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Child Loss: Seeing Our Child After Death

People don’t like to talk about this subject.  They say it’s too disturbing.  But, worse is when it happens to you and you’re not expecting it, and then you believe you’re crazy.  Sometimes we honestly believe we can see our child who died walking among the living.  You didn’t lose your mind.  This is all part of your grief, and it’s time people began talking about it!

When my sister died at age thirteen, I was devastated!  I was only fifteen, and nobody had prepared me at all about death.  Why would they?  It’s something you don’t really think much about at that age.  And, truthfully, death isn’t a topic that we openly discuss — especially the topic of child loss.

What happened to me for more than two years was normal, but I thought I had gone insane.  I was too afraid to tell anyone about it at the time.  Enough pain had come into our family when my sister died.  My parents didn’t need to hear about me going off the deep end.  At least that’s what I thought — that my mind was slowly losing all sanity.

My sister died on June 5, and very shortly after her death I began having nightmares.  I would wake up choking and gasping because in my dreams I could see her reaching for me, and I was trying to get her — pull her back to me — but I never could quite reach her.  And, I would see her dropping down into a deep, dark hole as she was calling outdark hole for me to help her.  That’s when I would bolt up in bed breathless — unable to breathe.  The nightmares were horrible. But nobody told me to expect this to happen!

After several months the nightmares became less and less, but something else happened that was terrifying to me.  I could swear I saw my sister walking in crowds of people! In fact, on several occasions I would literally run up behind someone I thought was her and would tap the person on the shoulder only to have the person turn around and look at me with a look of shock!  I would call out, “Mellie, turn around!  I’m here.  I’m here!!!”  This happened not once, but many times — especially at school.

crowd_of_peopleThe feeling that followed was shock, then such devastating sadness.  I just couldn’t believe that she wasn’t the one in that crowd!  I’d walk away sobbing every time.  It was like life was playing a cruel joke on me.

I’m sure I’m not the only one this has happened to, but I never hear people talking about this mistaken identity of their child, or as it was in my case, of my sister.  I think it’s just too painful. But, I feel like it’s important to bring this out in the open because I know how terrifying it is to experience thinking you’ve seen your child or your sibling walking around only to find out that it was your imagination.

Grief is so hard on us and grief has so many different faces. In order to protect us from too much shock and too much pain, we can only absorb so much at a time.  And, that’s why we go through this period of thinking we saw our child alive.  It takes months — and sometimes years — to totally take in the reality of the loss.

I had visited my sister’s  gravesite on many occasions.  I knew she had died.  Her absence was felt every minute of the day.  But, it wasn’t until about two years after her death that I was finally able to understand the reality of what had happened.

Please, if you’ve had this happen to you, find someone you can talk to about it.  You haven’t gone crazy.  You’re not unusual or experiencing something that is out of the norm of grieving the loss of your child.

And, I beg of you if you have children who have lost a brother or sister, please talk to them about the possibility of them having similar experiences as mine.  They’re probably too afraid to ask you about it and living with nightmares and phantom experiences is horribly frightening.

By the way, the nightmares and illusions do eventually end.  It took me two years for them to subside.  Occasionally, I will still have a dream about my sister, but it’s mostly about everyday life and she is usually in a family setting that is happy.  I welcome those dreams.

I know this is a hard subject to talk about — very, very hard.  But, I feel it’s necessary to bring this out into the open to help those who are experiencing this to know that this is one more step in this journey we call child loss.

blue skyNow when I think of my sister Mellie (Carmella), I think of blue skies and blooming flowers. I know where she is and I know she is surrounded by love and all things beautiful, and that calms my spirit and gives me a sense of peace.


I know that there is only one Carmella, and she is no longer here on earth.  That doesn’t stop my love for her — not one little bit!  That doesn’t stop me from missing her — that will never happen.  But with reality comes a less terrifying grief.  I now understand what has happened and now my mind recalls more vividly the happy moments spent with her, thank goodness!   

May God bless each one as we travel this journey of child loss together.  This is by far the most painful, difficult path you will ever take.  I pray this has helped you to understand one more of the many faces of grief.



PS  I experienced these same dreams and phantom experiences when my son died, but it wasn’t as terrifying because I understood that this was part of my grief journey.  I hope that this writing has not been too difficult for you to read.  It is my prayer that you will be less frightened by your grief experiences.


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Child Loss: Where Are My Friends?

“What happened?  Where are my friends?” Those are probably two of the most pain-filled questions that parents and families of child loss ask following the death of a child.  This seems to be the one thing that is misunderstood the most by grieving parents. 

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Child Loss: Things People Say

Losing a child is horrible.  There is no description that can define the pain.  Unless you’ve lived it, you can’t fully “get it”, and there’s not one person who has experienced the loss of a child that would wish this kind of pain on anyone — not even their worst enemy. 

There are some things that are a blur and will always remain a blur following the death of my thirteen year old sister and then later on following the loss of my son and six miscarried babies.  But, the things that remain clear to me are the things that were said to me during my darkest hours of grief. The words that were meant to soothe the pain often didn’t.  And years later, I often find myself thinking about those careless words spoken so many years ago.

I don’t believe people mean to hurt when they say things to a grieving parent.  But, the words just seem to come out all wrong.  And, so it is my hope that by sharing some of these things others won’t continue to make the same mistakes.

“She was sick, so it’s best that she died young and didn’t have years of suffering ahead.”

“God always chooses the most beautiful flowers first.”

“God needed one more angel and so He chose yours.”

“It’s for the best.  You would have had a lifetime of struggles with a child that was sick.”

“Accidents happen.  That’s just how life is.”

“The next time you get pregnant, you need to take better care of yourself.”

“You’re so lucky that you have two other children.  Just count your blessings.”

“At least you had her for a while with you.  Some people never get the chance.”

“The baby probably had something wrong with it.  That’s why these things happen.  Count yourself blessed that this loss happened.”

“Rely on your faith.  It will get your through.”

“Just pray and everything will be okay.”

“Well, this was just not meant to be.”

“You’re strong.  You’ll get through this just fine.”

“In a few weeks you’ll be feeling good as new.”

“I lost my dog last year, so I know how bad you’re hurting.”

“I know just how you feel.”

“I know a lady who lost two children at one time.  At least you only lost one.”

“Think of it this way — God chooses only the strong to carry this much pain.  You’re one of God’s strong ones.”

“Time heals all things.”

“If you keep busy, you’ll feel much better in a few weeks.”

“In another month you’ll be pregnant again.”

“Now your lives will settle down.  I know dealing with a sick child was wearing you down.”

“God teaches us great lessons through our pain.”

I could go on for probably another hour with things that were said, but I’m sure you’re getting the picture.  I believe each of this things were said by people who meant well, but……the words only pierced deeper into the already open wound left by child loss.

Nobody can know exactly how another person feels!  God doesn’t need more angels or flowers in heaven.  No, life wouldn’t be easier or better without my child.  There are no replacements for children.  Time does not heal all things.  Great lessons can be learned through our pain, but great lessons can also be learned through our joy.  A few weeks isn’t enough time to bring about any healing from child loss.  And, faith is not measured by the amount of grieving we do.

Need I go on?  Words can hurt so much — even when they’re meant to help.

What helped me the most?  I often tell this story when I’m speaking to others about what to say to a grieving parent.  Something that helped me the most was hearing no words.  I will never forget when my son died a man from church coming up to me and just put his arm around me and allowed me to weep on his shoulder.  He had no words.  His eyes cried tears of sorrow with me.  He walked me to the car and gently helped me sit down.  As he waved good-bye his tears ran down his cheeks like a gentle rain.

I knew he was sharing my pain, and that helped me so much!

teardropAlso greatly appreciated were the words, “I’m praying for you.  I don’t know what to say that can help you feel better, but I’ll pray every day for God to somehow bring hope to you in this time of sadness.”

You and I know that there are no words that can bring healing.  And, tears are only a little bit water and a lot of feeling.  That’s why it helps so much to know that others are sharing in our pain in a sincere way.  We don’t need people telling us how to grow a bigger faith, how to stay busy and forget out pain, or how things will get better in few days.

We need a few moments of genuine sharing in our pain and a gentle hug and shared tear.

My love to each one who visits this site.  If you are in the darkness of grief right now, I am praying.  I have walked this path of child loss and it’s not easy.  But, together as we share and care, we will begin to find new meaning in the days ahead.



If you are in the Somerset – Johnstown , Pa area on November 14th, I’d love for you to join me and others as we talk about how to face the holidays without our child.  I promise you an evening of encouragement!  You can register here.

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