How to Celebrate a Birthday When Your Baby Has Died | Episode 052 with Ashlee Proffitt on The Joyful Mourning Podcast | www.themorning.com/episode052

Episode 52

This week we celebrated my son’s birthday. He would have been turning 11 years old. 

Celebrating the birthday of a baby who has died is incredibly hard. And over the years it has often felt impossible. Like I might just be crushed under the weight of that reality.

In this week’s episode I’m sharing with you all the things I’ve learned about navigating birthdays over the past 11 years. I’m telling you why I think they are so hard, what you can do about it and a few very practical ideas to get you started on creating meaningful and joy-filled birthday traditions even in the midst of sorrow.

THREE REASONS WHY THE DAY IS SO HARD

01. We Don’t Know What To Do

The obvious reason why birthdays are so difficult is because our baby isn’t here. But the not-so-obvious result of our baby not physically being here is that it leaves us without the traditional or “normal” ways we would celebrate a child’s birthday.

We simply don’t know what to do on this day, we’ve never been in this situation before, we likely don’t know another mama who has gone through something like this so we don’t even have an example to say ‘yeah that sounds like a good idea.” And there aren’t exactly Pinterest boards or mommy blogs dedicated to ‘how to plan a birthday party for your baby in heaven’ (sidenote: We do have a lot of resources over on The Morning Pinterest page even for this very topic if you are interested, pinterest.com/thejoyfulmorning)– but in general there isn’t a ton of information or inspiration about what to do on this day.

When I posed a question about this topic of celebrating birthdays in The Joyful Mourning Community one mama said, “Will you talk about how you should or shouldn’t celebrate/acknowledge it?”

I think that question is very revealing as to how many mothers are feeling — “How am I supposed to do this? How should I celebrate or how shouldn’t I celebrate?”

We simply don’t know what to do and that can lead to two responses, either we don’t do anything or we try to do all the things. I think there is a beautiful place in between those two extremes that will help to bring joy to these hard days.

02. We struggle with the expectations others might have of us

Will they think we are weird to celebrate our baby’s birthday who isn’t even here? Do they want to be involved? Do they not want to be involved?

We anticipate navigating their emotions and their words and their actions as well as our own on this day and that just feels so overwhelming.

Along those same lines of anticipating having to manage other people’s expectations is this — life does in fact move on. 11 years later I can say with absolute certainty that life moves on. Just like any other birthday in your family, there will be responsibilities and deadlines, appointments and commitments that will be scheduled on or around this day.

Unfortunately, for every mother that has ever lost a baby, this day is not sacred to anyone else but you and your family. And that feels utterly painful. And the effect of life moving on plays itself out with you having to make more decisions.

Decisions about what you will say yes to and what you will say no to on or around this day. Decisions that will often feel awkward to communicate. Decisions that may disappoint people. Decisions that feel overly heavy when you add in the weight of caring what others might think of you. I have some ideas about how to make this a little easier that I share down below!

03. We want to do it perfectly.

This is our one chance a year to celebrate this life that we love and long for. Our one chance, seemingly, to mother our baby.

So, naturally, we want to do it well and thoughtfully and with intention and purpose. But this desire to have the perfect plan and perfect traditions and perfect little celebration leads to absolute overwhelm and decision paralysis about how to actually celebrate the day, making the anticipation of the day almost harder. This has been something I have struggled with tremendously over the years and I would love to help you not struggle in the same way.

And alongside all of those things, of not knowing what to do or how to do it and managing the expectations of others and wanting the day to be perfect, is the fact that just having to think about and plan a birthday for a baby no longer here makes us face the reality of the what-ifs and what-should-have-beens. On a normal day we can simply acknowledge those things and grieve them but then move on. But birthdays and anniversaries and holidays force us to dwell a bit on what’s been lost, and who’s missing; making it that much harder.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED ABOUT THOSE 3 THINGS:

01. You don’t know what to do.

Planning, creating traditions and communicating expectations are incredibly helpful when you don’t know what to do or how to celebrate this day.

There are a few ideas to get you started listed out below, but these are just to get you started. Asking the question: “What would be meaningful to me and to my family on this day?” Is a great place to start. Also simply asking: “What would a little girl/boy turning ______ years old want to do on her/his birthday?” and let the answer to those questions dictate how you celebrate this year.

In my experience, now 11 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 ahead of time necessary, which is especially important on a day that is filled with so much emotion. Emotions are just a bit heightened on days like this and the last thing you want is to spend the day fighting because you envisioned the day going differently than maybe your spouse or partner. So spend some time talking about your expectations for the day, what you would like to do that day, how you would like to celebrate — make a simple plan so that you know everyone is on the same page. 

Regarding traditions, some people love them, some people hate them. I want to share the pros and the cons of creating traditions.

The benefit of having a tradition in place makes it so I don’t have to do quite as much thinking and decision-making. We establish the thing that feels right for our family and that’s just what we do, every year. It helps manage expectations, it takes a lot of pressure off having to come up with a new plan, and it provides a sense of stability to season that feels so chaotic emotionally. Traditions like, a book we always read together, a place we always visit, a restaurant we always go to, a game we always play, a specific thing we always do.

The problem with traditions is when they are difficult to accomplish or make happen and then there’s a year you can’t do them and you find yourself facing feelings of shame or guilt that you didn’t celebrate the birthday the “right” way.

So, if you are into traditions, find one that is meaningful to you and your family and make it simple and doable so that it can be pulled off year after year. 

02. Navigating other people’s expectations

This is incredibly difficult but it does get easier. I remember my son’s first birthday I just thought everyone would think I was crazy for wanting to do something to celebrate his birthday and to honor his life. Instead of thinking me crazy they were incredibly supportive and said “you tell us what you want and we will make it happen.”

Here is the reality — people may think you are strange or weird but this is me, your big sister who is just a little farther down the road saying, it doesn’t matter. This wasn’t their baby. They aren’t the ones celebrating the life of a child that isn’t here. I don’t say that to pit you against them, but more-so to just remind you that until someone walks through this they just can’t understand fully the weight of a day like this. And that’s ok.

So, yes, some people may think you strange or odd but there are thousands of other women and men, mothers and fathers with babies in heaven, who understand your desires to make this day special in a way that feels right to you and we are all cheering you on. 

I would also say that from my experience, having some sort of plan in place and establishing expectations ahead of time does make it easier. While those around you may not fully understand your desire to celebrate this day, those that love you want to support you — even when they themselves might not know what to do. They are looking for cues from you — so tell them, talk to them. Establish one of those simple traditions and invite them into it. Or make a plan and let them know how they can be involved or not. Again, this doesn’t have to be complicated or extravagant, just as long as it’s meaningful to you. 

03. It’s never quite perfect.

No matter how much planning and effort and thought and intention you put into the day it will never be perfect. Even normal days of celebration are flawed and plans go awry so we must acknowledge that it simply can’t be perfect.

I think somewhere in my mind I am desperately trying to make up for the fact that my son is not here by planning and executing a perfect day in remembrance of him. For so many years, I fought to celebrate perfectly because maybe I thought that would make me feel closer to him or more connected to him or make the fact that he was gone a little less painful.

But it doesn’t do any of those things and in fact chasing after a perfect day tended to make me feel even more broken and despairing. And at the end of the day, disappointed. One more thing for me to grieve. The reality is nothing will bring him back. Not even a perfect day. So, in recent years instead of chasing a perfect day I have tried to think really hard about what would make the day a win and then prioritize accordingly. 

Just one final thought about a chasing and wanting a perfect day, maybe you aren’t the type to struggle with this or maybe you are, either way I want you to hear this; my son’s birthday is a special day. It’s the day he was born! Your baby’s birthday is a special day. A meaningful-life-changing day. Forever a beautiful and amazing day BUT here is the truth that day will forever feel a bit off now, a bit uncomfortable, and nothing I do that day will ever feel quite special enough — because the reality is it’s broken.

Death entered and my son’s birthday will forever be a moment every single year where we intentionally sit in the tension of brokenness and joy.

Knowing that truth, that it will always feel a bit uncomfortable and nothing I can do will make it feel special enough or make the pain go away, takes the pressure off of me feeling like I need to make it be the best day ever.

Because yes, while it is such a sweet day, it’s also broken. And as believers we can sit in that tension and allow it to point our hearts to Jesus, knowing that one day He will restore all that brokenness we feel so tangibly right now. 


So we’ve established a few of the things that feel hard about birthdays, let’s talk about some practical ways to help alleviate some of the difficulty.  

5 TIPS FOR MAKING A BIRTHDAY PLAN

to read the full post on these tips, read this post.

  1. Mark your child’s birthday on all family calendars at the beginning of the year.
  2. Block out the week of your child’s birthday.
  3. Make decisions beforehand.
  4. Start planning the month before.
  5. Discuss & plan by asking these questions:
    • Will we take the day off work? Are there meetings, appointments, commitments or deadlines we need to reschedule or communicate with others that we will be shifting around?
    • What will you do on that day? (if you are stuck, ask yourself “What would a little girl/boy turning ______ years old want to do on her/his birthday?”
    • What needs to happen in order to make that happen? (i.e. buy balloons or a birthday cake, book a hotel room for a night away, etc.)
    • Will you invite others to join in your celebration?
    • What commitments will you need to back away from?
    • What already scheduled things will you need to say no to?
    • What special traditions will you continue?
    • What special traditions would you like to start?

12 IDEAS FOR CELEBRATING A BIRTHDAY

for a complete list of ideas and explanations read this post

  1. Make or order a birthday cake or your favorite birthday dessert.
  2. Visit the cemetery and decorate with flowers. Or you could go where you spread ashes or just to a quiet, beautiful place that makes you think of your baby. 
  3. You could organize some kind of release — like balloons, lanterns or butterflies.
  4. You could make or buy a piece of personalized jewelry. 
  5. Write a letter to your child..
  6. Buy a book that is age appropriate for the age your child would be turning. 
  7. You could do random acts of kindness in your baby’s honor.
  8. You could plant a flower or a garden or a tree.
  9. Create a memory box. 
  10. You could get a tattoo using your baby’s name and birthdate, footprint or another symbol that represents their life to you. 
  11. Go shopping for age appropriate toys for the age your baby would be turning and donate them to children’s hospital. 
  12. “Adopt” a child through a sponsorship program with the same birthday as your child.


THANK YOU TO THE JOYFUL MOURNING PODCAST PARTNER:

CULTIVATE WHAT MATTERS

I wanted to thank Cultivate What Matters for supporting The Joyful Mourning Podcast. Cultivate What Matters are the creators of the PowerSheets Intentional Goal Planner as well as the Write the Word Journals — two of my most favorite tools for intentional, purposeful living.

For the grieving mama who may find opening the Bible to be too difficult in this season, The Write the Word Journals are a perfect solution. This tool takes the overwhelm out of opening the Bible and provides a simple way to consistently spend time reading God’s Word — where I believe true healing can be found. To check out all the details about the Write the Word Journals (as well as a generous 10% coupon code from my friends at Cultivate What Matters head to http://www.themorning.com/cwm)