March 9 was Annie’s sixth birthday.

Knowing how to celebrate Annie’s birthday is always such a tricky thing in our family.  Believe me, I have to fight the urge to just ignore the whole thing— because celebrating it takes effort and gearing up and memories that are hard.  Actually, on the day of Annie’s birthday, I talked Peter into letting me clean his church office.  As in spend the whole day going through papers and dusting shelves and trying to keep Eliza from bugging our assistant Pastor all day.  See?  I was avoiding.

But avoiding takes away beauty that’s hiding right behind my brokenness.  Not celebrating what we’ve been handed, however hard it is, makes me bitter and inward.  

There’s something about her birthday that makes it so hard for me.  Maybe because she was never old enough for me to know what her favorites would have been— what she would like for dinner or what her favorite cake would be.  I don’t get to put up the banner and light the candles.  This year she would have been six— SIX!— and I’ve been watching all her little friends have their birthdays in their kindergarten classrooms and for some reason, it just knocks me back.  Six seems so old, so long ago since I looked in her eyes and felt her soft skin.

But we’ve learned a lesson sure and without fail— the best thing to do is to use our pain, to not just let it settle deep and sad, but to instead find a way to be thankful for the ways Jesus allows us help others in our grief.  It takes the sting out of suffering, remember?  

So the kids had the day off on Friday and we loaded up and went to the place we always go… the city where we said goodbye to her in the hospital.  (You’d think we’d hate going there, but no, we love it.  I know it’s weird) We spent the day doing things we have made into traditions without even meaning to— having a treat at the cupcake store, going to the bookstore and picking out a brand new book.  We went out for dinner with our dear friends and spent the night crammed in a hotel room made for two people.  We laughed a lot (and we also disciplined a lot, but let’s just let that memory slip away, shall we? Nevertheless, you should know that there were plenty of “those moments” during the weekend.)

In between the fun and crazy, we planned to do something we’d never done before.  We packed a whole bunch of $5s, $1s and little envelopes.  We stuffed money in the envelopes and wrote on the outside, “Finders keepers!  Have a great day!”  Whenever we felt like leaving an envelope somewhere… we did.  There was no rhyme or reason to it, no expectations on how much we would leave.  We just did it.  And we had a total blast.  Kate left one in a mug with the name “Kate” written on it.  We left several in a little courtyard where university students were constantly walking to and from class.  We’d watch from the car and go crazy when we thought someone was going to kneel down and pick it up.  Seriously, you should do it sometime.  So fun.  We bought a cupcake for the lady next in line at the cupcake shop and we gave $20 to the sweet girl working up a sweat trying to keep the “free breakfast” at our hotel stocked.

All the money that we wish we could have been spending on a little girl turning six, we instead used to brighten the day of several strangers.  Honestly, we could’ve spent that money on a million different things.  We could’ve spent her birthday at home being sad.  It certainly would’ve been easier and probably less dramatic (seriously, our kids can fight at the tiniest thing), but it wouldn’t have been as joyful.

Choosing to redeem our grief into something that will help others will never come back empty.  Jesus uses every single little hurt, every single little thing for His glory.  Even if it’s giving a stranger $5.  Or paying for a Mom’s cupcake (we found out she had just dropped off her daughter on campus).  Or letting someone know that their job is not unnoticed.

Also, it’s a blast.

P.S. We do our best to do something for others every year for Annie’s birthday.  One year we took a package to the nurses who cared so tenderly for her.  Last year we made bracelets for a maternity home in Kenya.  We’ve taken a load of books for kids who have cancer.  If you’re facing a hard day, maybe taking a deep breath and doing something for others is just what you need to get through the day.