Grief: Celebrating Your Birthday After the Death of a Parent


BY: Diane Snyder Cowan

CATEGORY: Grief and Loss
I miss seeing “love, mom” on a birthday card.  My day feels empty.

I have spoken to a number of individuals who have remarked how difficult their birthday has become after the death of their mother or father. Every year on my birthday, I wait for the phone to ring for my aging parents to sing to me. I will miss their out of tune voices when I no longer get that call.

Knowing that this is a trigger for her, one of my employees consistently requests her birthday off. She is planning ahead. She knows she will not be productive at work. Whether she plans to visit the cemetery or look at photographs or allow herself to just sit, she has a strategy for the day.

Anniversaries, special events, birthdays, holidays, the date of death, smells, sights and sounds can all spark a grief reaction. You might be able to anticipate them or they can strike you out of the blue. Much has been written about anniversary reactions, but I have read little about the bereaved person’s birthday as the trigger. It makes sense to me. We wouldn’t be celebrating our birthdays if our parents hadn’t brought us into the world. Initially I thought my employee’s reaction was idiosyncratic, but since then I have met many other woman who experience the same trigger.

Preparing for an episode of grief could be beneficial. Knowing that you are likely to experience this yearly reaction can help you understand it and turn it into an opportunity for healing and growth.  And sometimes the anticipation can be worse than the actual day.

What can you do?
  • Remember that grief never goes away completely.
  • Many people experience anniversary reactions.
  • Start a new tradition in your mother’s or father’s memory. For example, make a donation to a favorite charity organization in their name.
  • Enjoy one of their favorite cakes or desserts.
  • Reminisce about your relationship with your parent and focus on the gifts he or she gave you and the good times you had together.
  • Look at greeting cards saved from previous birthdays.
Birthdays will continue to mark the passage of time. May the memory of your mother or father bring you comfort and joy.

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