My son’s first birthday party was a joyful jumble of proud grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and energetic toddler friends. The cowboy theme matched his nursery. An old saddle served as a centerpiece, tiny boots as a utensil caddy. Cowhide cookies spilled out of a Stetson, and guests took home party favors wrapped in bandanas.
Birthday celebrations are major events, for children and the parents who plan them. Eventually, themed parties give way to dinner with friends, and toys give way to cash and gift cards. Parents are left to wax nostalgic on social media, reflecting on the ever popular phrase “the young man you are becoming.”
But when the birthdays come and the young man is gone, what then? What happens when the “becoming” is abruptly interrupted? What happens when cash and gift cards give way to flowers for a headstone?
My son Will was born on this day, twenty-five years ago, but I only got to celebrate fifteen birthdays with the boy who made me a mother. Here are ten things I’ve learned since his death, one for each birthday that has come and gone without him.
- He didn’t cease to exist because he died. Nothing can change the fact that he was here, and he was loved. He is still loved, and he is still part of my family. His death doesn’t change the number of children I have.
- Spending time with your children is something you will never regret. Sitting down to work a puzzle may seem unimportant with laundry and deadlines looming, but housework and responsibilities never go away. Children do, one way or another.
- Time does not heal all wounds.
- Having a support system is important, but so is solitude. No one feels Will’s loss the way I do, and there are times I need to be alone to feel it. This has ranged from sitting in a parked car with my Bible for half an hour, to renting a mountainside cabin and spending a week questioning God and my own existence.
- God is big enough to handle my doubts. My grief and rage never overwhelm him.
- Hearing Will’s name on the lips of others is a balm to my soul. Before Will’s death, I worried about mentioning someone who died to their loved ones. I didn’t want to remind them of their loss. Now I realize a loss of that magnitude is never forgotten, even for a moment. It never slips my mind that my child is gone. The mention of his name won’t shock me back into grief and despair. The mention of his name assures me that others remember and miss him too.
- Over the years grief becomes less of an open wound and more of a tender spot, cushioned by the passing of time. Even so, sorrow can strike without warning. Seeing Pokemon cards in the checkout line, or running into a childhood friend he didn’t have the chance to grow up with can claw at the bandages time has provided. When this happens the grief feels fresh and raw. Allowing myself to be sad is okay.
- Everything does NOT happen for a reason. Mourners are often told “everything happens for a reason” in the mistaken belief that it is a biblical sentiment. When I searched this statement on Bible Gateway it returned zero results. Instead it offered Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Do I believe God planned for Will to die at age fifteen? No. His death was the result of human error in the fallen world we live in. However, I do believe God is able to bless people through the worst circumstances. He will walk through tragedy with us if we let him.
- Joy is not the same as happiness. I will never be happy about my son’s death, but the assurance that I will someday join him in the eternal life God has promised to those who love him brings me great joy.
- His birthdays still matter. If I place fifteen white roses on his headstone for the anniversary of his death, it’s even more important that I take vibrant blue and yellow flowers to the cemetery for his birthday. I commemorate his death, but I celebrate his life. His life resonated with exuberance and joy. That’s what I want to remember.
Grieving someone who should’ve outlived you is a harrowing experience. If you travel this road, be kind to yourself. Grieve deeply. If you can’t stand the silence, surround yourself with family and friends. When the noise is too much, seek solitude unapologetically. Even though there are no more birthdays to celebrate, never stop celebrating your child. And never forget this promise: “I give them eternal life, and they will never die, and no one can steal them out of my hand.” John 10:28