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Grief is…on birthdays

October 30, 20235 min read

Grief is…on birthdays

In my last blog I talked about having Ben’s birthday on our cruise. I’ll share more about that, but I want to back up first.

Let’s start at the beginning. Birthdays after the death of a loved one can be really hard. Not just theirs but yours too. And anyone’s really. Birthdays mark the passing of time which means every one marks more time between when your loved one was here and now. That passage of time is hard to comprehend and navigate.

For most of us, birthdays are a time of celebration. We get together with friends or family and do something fun, eat something delicious and there’s cake. Rarely do we receive unsolicited compliments, but we do on our birthday. With social media, we get birthday greetings from people that previously wouldn’t have known it was our birthday. It’s a time of connection.

Grief is isolating. Large groups of people are hard to navigate. Happiness seems unattainable and small talk excruciating. Time is all murky and while it moves forward you often are untethered from it or actively resisting it pulling you away from the time when your loved one was here. Birthdays bring all of that together.

Here’s how grief and birthdays have banged into each other for me, over time.

Kathleen’s birthday was 4 days after Ben died. We ignored it all together. The celebration we had planned with him has never happened.  

Ben’s first birthday was excruciating. How could it be that he was supposed to be turning a year older but he wasn’t here? I knew I needed to do something to mark it so I made goody bags for his close friends with some of his favourite things in them. That gave me something to focus on in the month leading up to his birthday which was hard and also helped. On the day, tears.

Then came my birthday, exactly a month before the thanaversary of his death. Acknowledging it felt impossible. I removed my birthday from my social media profiles and explained to family I didn’t want to celebrate. That created tension and I did what was right for me and mostly ignored it.

In the meantime, other people had birthdays. The first year after Ben died I couldn’t acknowledge any of them. The constant marking of time combined with the celebratory happiness was just too much. When friends’ children had birthdays and they posted the pictures and celebrations I would just scroll on by. Just too hard.

And over time, it got easier. In the second year, I got a notification that it was one of my friend’s children’s birthdays and felt it was time to wade in and wish them a virtual happy birthday. That all went well until that inspired the algorithm to then show me my friend’s message to their daughter. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had thought she was turning 22, Ben’s age when he died. But I was wrong. They had always been Ben’s younger friend but now were turning 23, older than he was when he died. That was gut wrenching. Again comes the cognitive dissonance that is so common in grief. How is this possible? How can this younger friend now be older? How do I make sense of the nonsensical? I again took a step back from birthdays to allow all the feelings to flow and my brain to make sense of it all.

Kathleen has had two more birthdays since then and we get better each time at finding our way. That week will always be complicated and we need to celebrate her birthday.

My birthday comes and goes. Maybe this year I’ll feel like doing something more than takeout. And maybe not.

And this year Ben had a birthday too. He would have been 25. That’s a milestone birthday and there would have been celebration. We were on the ship on his birthday and new we needed to do something. Ben loved champagne. Real champagne – no sparkling wine or prosecco for him. The ship had a champagne tasting which felt like the perfect way for us to honour him. I learned lots about champagne and how it is made. I learned why his favourite kind is so delicious – it’s the aging. I learned the story of the name “Veuve Clicquot”, his favourite, and wondered if part of why he liked it so much had to do with the story of Madame Clicquot and her innovations in champagne making. And at the end of the tasting, when everyone was gone, we raised a glass and toasted him with a tear. He would have loved it.

I’m not sure what the future will bring with birthdays. I’ll take them one at a time. I’ll celebrate when I can and send fond wishes when I’m able. I’ll always acknowledge the birthdays of those who have died if I know them. Grief is like that, one day, one moment, one breath at a time.

If you are grieving, know birthdays can be hard. You get to do what is right for you. Celebrate, ignore, create a new way to acknowledge them, light a candle and just breathe.

If you are supporting a griever, a message, card or call on their loved one’s birthday is an amazing gift. A message on their birthday is lovely too. All with no expectation of a reply. Let the griever lead. If they don’t want to celebrate, there is no celebration.

If you are a business leader supporting a griever in the workplace, know the lead up to birthdays may be hard. The griever may be more sensitive than usual and want some support. Or they may want to ignore it all together. If you are a workplace that celebrates staff birthdays, I hope attendance is optional. Let the griever lead. They know what is right for them.

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About Suzanne

Suzanne started writing as a way to process and share what was happening with her on her grief journey. She discovered that people wanted to hear and learn from what she was experiencing. She has now become a Certified Grief Educator and is determined to open conversations that will help normalize grief.

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