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!
When 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.
It 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.
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,