A child’s birthday is about relishing in the gift of their life on Earth…an opportunity to lavish them with affection and declare our sentiments. Unlike other holidays, it’s a day solely devoted to one particular child marked with traditions, ceremony and celebration. We marvel at how quickly the years have passed and reflect on who they have become.
In celebrating, we also ring in another year of life. We look forward to all of the milestones that await and imagine who our child will be in five, ten, or even twenty years. Will she go to college, marry, and have children? Will there be a house full of cousins and grandchildren some day? Or will she feel called to religious life?
But when your child’s life on earth ends abruptly, birthdays take on a whole different meaning. Instead of something you enjoy planning and celebrating, your child’s birthday becomes something you survive and a painful reminder that there will be no more birthdays.
Evie would have been 12 tomorrow (August 7th). Now, in the pictures, she is forever eleven.
This year, there will be no more breakfast with Daddy and dancing to their favorite song. No more birthday hugs. We can’t ask her how she wants to celebrate or watch her open up her gifts.
I have been dreading Evie’s birthday since the day she died. I never imagined that last year at this time we would be celebrating her last birthday on earth. I’ve kept the above picture on my phone as a way of preparing myself for the inevitable. My thoughts have been consumed with how we will celebrate her life differently this year and I’ve shed countless tears. In talking with other bereaved parents and reading about how they celebrate the birthdays of their deceased children, I’ve come across varied responses. Some have parties to honor their child or visit the cemetery and have a special meal. Others prefer to lock themselves in their room. I desperately want to do something to honor her beautiful life but I know that no matter what, it’s going to be painful.
In our case, August presents an even greater challenge because it is a month of celebrations. Eden’s birthday is the 9th and the girls always celebrated together. Cecilia’s birthday is also in August as well as my brother who passed away. That’s not to mention other family birthdays that occur this month in addition to our anniversary of becoming Catholic and Eden’s baptism day.
A big part of me wants to crawl in a hole and come out in September.
Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays…they will never be the same without her. Celebrations that I used to look forward to have become a source of dread. When you lose a child, the year feels like a relentless cycle of holidays, parties and events. I find myself looking forward to a month with nothing on the calendar. I guess I’m not in a very celebratory mood these days.
But I still live on earth and I’m still a mother. My kids aren’t going to let me skip all of these special days and escape to a deserted island no matter how badly I might want to.
That does not mean, however, that I need to win an award for the most amazing birthday party or cake. I’m not required to put on a happy face and pretend like I am not hurting inside. A birthday doesn’t necessitate that I post pictures on Facebook of all of us having a good time amidst piles of presents, guests, and sugary treats in an attempt to veil the sorrow of missing a huge part of my existence. It seems that sometimes we get so caught up in the celebration that we forget the reason behind the ritual.
Evie absolutely adored family traditions and she loved to celebrate…but not in a way typical of some children. She enjoyed marking the days, but her way of doing so was quite simple…a few hand-picked flowers in a Mason jar, a homemade card with words of love, a hug. Although she had many friends she never wanted to be the center of attention. She was quite happy to have everyone at the party bring a donation to charity rather than a gift. Her favorite celebrations were those that revolved around the liturgical year and the saints. Usually, when asked what gift she would like for her birthday or Christmas, her list was pretty simple and/or generally related to her faith. Her most recent gift request, before she died, was her very own tea set to use for hosting saint feast day parties. Just this past October, before she passed away, she held a tea party for St. Thérèse complete with roses and store-bought chocolate eclairs. Before that, she asked for a guitar so that she could learn praise and worship songs. She was getting quite good at playing those.
So this year, I’m taking a cue from her. I’m going to simplify the celebrations and focus on drawing my family closer to the great heavenly feast that awaits those who love Jesus. Because instead of fretting over party-themed foods, gifts, and decorations, the reason for the rituals should compel me to look deeply into the eyes of my children on their birthday and tell them how much they mean to me, how much Jesus loves them, and what a gift He gave me when they entered my world. Special days beckon me to stand at the foot of the cross and embrace my faith in a God who heals our brokenness and holds our future in His hands. I can thank God for the gifts He has given us on Earth while also allowing my pain and heartache to be evident.
Because you can hold pain and hope at the same time. Jesus did just that when he wept over the death of His friend Lazarus even as he walked toward his tomb to raise him to new life.
On Evie’s birthday this year, we will attend mass together as a family where Heaven and Earth collide in a feast of love. We will eat Poppyseed Chicken Casserole and Dairy Queen Ice Cream Cake (her favorites). We will share memories with her closest friends. But most importantly, we will tell her what a beautiful, loving, compassionate, kind, thoughtful, and simply extraordinary daughter she was and how very proud we are of who she became in eleven short years. And although we cannot see Evie’s beautiful, slightly crooked smile when we declare these things, we know that she hears us.
Although her absence from our lives is beyond painful, I wouldn’t take back a second of our time with her. I thank God for every moment I was privileged to have as her earthly mother as I entrust her now to her Heavenly Mother. And I will continue to mother her by loving Jesus and others until the day of our heavenly reunion in a place where every day is a tearless celebration of Life.