A few weeks ago, we celebrated our son Patrick’s fourth birthday (Patrick was born still on April 2, 2014). We were feeling confident in our birthday traditions and grief journey, so we didn’t plan for the world to stop this year for his birthday. Through his past three birthdays, we’d learned that the days leading up to the actual birthday were usually far worse than the actual day. So, we planned—or didn’t plan, as the case may be—accordingly.
That was a mistake, and his fourth birthday ended up being the hardest birthday yet. I felt the pull of time marching on without him and significant guilt that we didn’t fully stop and celebrate him like we have in the past.
Here’s what I learned about grief at the four-year mark, along with things we’ll be doing differently going forward:
1. We still need to stop and give ourselves the day to celebrate our son.
The grief may not feel as acute as it did the first few years, but we need that time to come together as a family and celebrate and connect over our son’s birthday.
Going forward, we’ll both take the day off of work so our focus can be on Patrick and activities as a family.
2. We still need extra support from our village around Patrick’s birthday.
We didn’t invite others to join us in a project for Patrick’s fourth birthday. We didn’t tell people what we’d need that day, partly because we didn’t think we needed as much this year. As a result, we didn’t feel the community support that we have in the past. It felt very lonely. He felt forgotten. We felt forgotten.
Going forward, we’ll organize a project in his memory for his birthday, inviting people to remember him with us. This will help us feel more supported—help us feel like he and his family are not forgotten on his birthday.
3. We still need our celebration traditions, and we need to build on them each year.
Each year, we’ve gotten a key lime pie as Patrick’s birthday “cake.” I craved key lime pie while I was pregnant with him, and I feel like this is one of the few things I actually knew about him. Well, this year, we were almost thwarted in our plans to get a key lime pie. The grocery store where we usually get the pie had gone out of business, and I didn’t discover that until we were finishing lunch. I was devastated. We did track down a pie, and my husband picked it up on his way home from work. But, it felt like another way that our [lack of] planning for the day let Patrick down. The mama guilt was fierce.
Going forward, we may start making the pie. Also, we definitely want to find ways to include our daughter more in activities around the celebration. In fact, it was a completely unplanned (on my part) activity at her playgroup that really saved the day for me. The theme for the day was “family,” and the kids made a handprint craft that represented their family. We included Patrick in our family, and it meant so much to do that craft that day.
It turns out that it wasn’t enough to “just” do the things that had been meaningful in years past. We need to find new things each year to make that year’s birthday meaningful.
At the end of the day, I posted a picture of our daughter with her craft on Facebook, letting people know what a challenging day it had been. I learned from several other loss mom friends that years three and four can be extra challenging, as there is less open support and the guilt starts to really set in.
We weren’t alone after all. This four-year mark is another milestone in the grief journey. It was painful, but we learned from this milestone. Next year will hold even more meaning for the lessons we learned this year. It’s ok to still be in pain. It’s ok to still need to stop. It’s ok to still need support. It’s ok to cling to those traditions and want to build more. We must be true to our journey, our son’s memory, and ourselves.