Celebrating a birthday of a baby who has died can be as painful and as awkward as it sounds. The days leading up to my son’s first birthday were filled with dread and overwhelming sadness. I missed him desperately and wanted nothing more than to be planning a 1st birthday party, full of cupcakes and balloons and little baby games.
But instead I was trying to figure out what in the world does a mama do on the birthday of her child when her child is no longer living.
Along with the overwhelming grief I was plagued with insecurities, constantly overvaluing what people would think of me should I celebrate my son’s birthday. So my first word of wisdom to any grieving mother who is anticipating a child’s birthday: do your best to lay aside the idea that what people think of you, your grief, or how you should or shouldn’t celebrate has any actual weight or influence. I say “do your best” because I understand how difficult it is to lay aside what other’s think of you, especially if your spouse, partner, family members or friends aren’t supportive or simply don’t understand. Give them the benefit of the doubt and remember they love you, they’re most likely confused about how to be feeling and how to love you well too. And without getting defensive (because you don’t have to defend how you feel), help those around you to understand how you are feeling and what you need by communicating often, even if it’s awkward.
Secondly make a plan. In my experience, now 9 years of birthdays, it doesn’t actually matter what you do to celebrate, so long as there is some kind of plan in place. A plan protects as it makes communicating about expectations necessary, which is especially important on a day that is filled with so much emotion.
Below are my 11 favorite ways to celebrate but for our family the sweetest tradition over the past few years has been asking: “What would a little boy turning ___ years old want to do on his birthday?” The answers to that question are helpful in our honoring his life not just my idea of a perfect day.
So if you are anticipating your child’s birthday simply ask: “What would a little girl/boy turning ______ years old want to do on her/his birthday?” and let that dictate how you celebrate. And if you are stuck with no real reference points for coming up with an answer to that question, ask a friend who has children similar ages that your child would be turning. That’s a simple way to invite another person into your grief journey, giving them an opportunity to mourn and celebrate with you. (And if they look at you like you have two heads when you ask, help them understand what it feels like to simultaneously grieve death and desire to celebrate life; the more we can educate people on baby loss and grief, the better.)
11 WAYS TO CELEBRATE BIRTHDAYS
(when your baby has died)
1 | Make or order a birthday cake.
Decorate with your child’s name on it. We love making our cake as a family each year!
2 | Visit the cemetery and decorate with flowers.
My son is buried in Virginia and we live in Florida, so we visit a local cemetery that has a baby section and put flowers on graves there.
3 | Have a sky lantern release or butterfly release
Invite your friends or family to join you for this sweet moment.
4 | Make or buy a personalized piece of jewelry.
Have it printed with your child’s name, date or initials.
5 | Write a letter to your child.
Do this each year and keep them in a specific journal just for letters to your child. Each family member could participate, writing their own letter.
6 | Buy a book that is age appropriate for the age your child would be turning.
Make this a tradition and add to the collection each year.
7 | Do random acts of kindness.
Make a list of random acts of kindness and then do them throughout the day in honor of your child.
8 | Plant a garden or a tree.
Each year add something new to the garden. My “garden” is in our home and I have many that remind me of my son. Some from his memorial service and others we have purchased on his birthday or heavenly birthday over the years.
9 | Create a memory box.
Or a specific place in your home for to collect or display your child’s special things.
10 | Get a tattoo of your child using their name and birthdate.
You can use your own handwriting or have a calligrapher design it for you.
11 | “Adopt” a child through sponsorship program with the same birthday as your child.
Through Compassion International we “adopted” Kenzarsley, a little boy from Haiti whose birthday is the same day as my son’s heavenly birthday. Kenny-Z reminds our family that even admist death God is bringing life into this world.
Are you an experienced grieving mother? What is your favorite way to celebrate your baby’s birthday?