We were walking around Barnes & Noble when Kate said to me, “Someday when I grow up and have kids, will you buy them a book on Annie’s birthday?” I laughed and teased her, “Well, what if you have six kids? How would I afford that?” Secretly, I hope that someday on Annie’s birthday I can take a whole truckload of grandkids to the bookstore and buy them a book. I hope that years from now we’ll still be talking about the ways she changed us and how Jesus has led us from sorrow to celebration.
We celebrated Annie’s seventh birthday a few weeks ago. Since she lived just six months, we never had a chance to have even one of those birthdays with her.
We’ve done something quite by accident, at least on our part. I have no doubt that when we were so fresh in our sorrow, Jesus led us to truly celebrate Annie’s birthday. Each year the joy in this day seems to overwhelm the sorrow a little more and it’s something we now work to intentionally cultivate.
Sometimes I have these ideas for posts and I hesitate to write them because I feel so far from an “expert” on these things. I don’t want you to think we have this all figured out, or that if you follow my suggestions life will suddenly be peachy. It’s awfully tricky to write about grief and healing because it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of life. But I’m pretty sure if I were to wait until I felt like an expert, I’d never write a single word.
So, full disclosure: Sometimes we knock it out of the park and feel like we’ve conquered the day. Other times, we end the day in exhaustion, feeling like we’ve blown it. Honestly, isn’t that like parenthood in general?
Here are six ways we’ve turned our sorrow into celebration:
We keep our expectations low. We try not to make birthdays so elaborate that when things don’t go as planned, we end up depressed. We expect there to be moments of sadness, moments when things are tense, moments when we feel so happy. In spite of our best efforts, there will always be BIG FEELINGS for everyone, young and old… because behind it all is a sorrow for what we really wish for: a birthday girl, here with us. When I have high expectations for everything to go beautifully and perfectly and then one of my kids has a bad attitude about something ridiculous (hypothetically, of course), I’m tempted to think the day is ruined. But I have to step back and realize that we’re all sad in our own ways and it’s hard to express feelings on these days. So it’s important for me to keep my expectations low, which makes it easier for everyone else to do the same.
We find a way to reach out. Serving in our sorrow is always, always a blessing— to us and to others. It’s impossible to stay stuck when you’re reaching out. Each year we try to take the money we would love to be spending on Annie for gifts and instead we find ways to bless others, whether strangers or friends. We’ve done different things over the years, but our favorite is to decorate envelopes and slip cash inside. This year we put $20s in a few envelopes, then sat in our car and watched people find them. It’s such a blast. We sat there and yelled and cheered inside our car and it was so much fun! It’s certainly not an original concept and there are a million ways to make someone’s day. You could pay for someone’s meal or help out a single mom. Get flowers for someone or be creative with a random act of kindness. Providing others with something they need gives them joy and makes you joyful, too.
We establish loose traditions. Every year we go to a bakery and eat cupcakes. Ok, here’s the deal. I decided this year we could probably find something more exciting, because the cupcakes are fine, but they aren’t amazing, you know? Ohmygoodness, my kids got so mad at me! Apparently I messed with the wrong tradition. Lesson learned. We will continue to buy expensive, so-so cupcakes and I’m going to be okay with it. Which means…
We go with the flow. We’ve had seven birthdays now without Annie and we no longer have the luxury of stopping everything and taking a day to celebrate. So we found the cracks of our week, stopping to remember where we’ve been and where God has taken us. That meant that we had our adventure earlier in the month. On the day of her birthday, after a full day of school and practices and small group, we declared a late bedtime and had a little party with banana muffins and pink lemonade. I want my family to remember these days as bittersweet, heavy on the sweet and light on the bitter. Going with the flow and not demanding that everyone should stop everything and BE SAD WITH ME goes a long way in creating good memories.
We guard against isolation. This one is tricky. Listen, I know how tempting it is to cut off all communication. Sometimes it’s good to step back and just reflect. But there’s a danger in isolating ourselves in our grief. Others are grieving the loss, too, and it’s good to give them permission to grieve along. I’ll often post on social media when the day is coming, even when it’s hard for me. One year we collected books for the hospital and we asked others to give. It was a great way for our friends to join us in our grief. On the flip side, if you feel quiet, be quiet. There’s also something very freeing about not blasting your feelings everywhere and being quiet. So basically, do what you need to do, but beware of isolating yourself in an unhealthy way.
We work on extending grace to others. We’ve all had it happen. Someone says something that offensive or makes it worse and I just can’t believe they would have the audacity to be so unhelpful. Those are the moments I have a choice. I can be angry and let it take over my thoughts… or I can be gracious to them, realizing that they most likely did not try to offend me. In fact, haven’t we all been there, when we desperately want to say something to help, but instead we end up saying something crazy or stupid? At those moments, I must choose to extend the grace that Jesus has shown me. It’s not easy, but it’s what I would hope others would do for me when I make the same blunder. I have to work to see the good intention behind the hurtful words.
So another birthday has come and gone, filled with joy and sorrow, good and bad. We made some good memories and we powered through some hard moments. We ate the cupcakes and stayed up late, which seemed like a good decision, but ended up making the next morning a little rough. Whatever.
Someday, when I load up all my grandkids to buy them cupcakes and books, I’ll remember the first hard years, squeeze them a little tighter and be thankful for the ways we intentionally celebrate how God is holding us until the day we can all be together with Him.
May you, in your hard anniversaries, have the courage to face the days with hope that God will turn your tears into joy. May you see that His good gifts don’t end in death. He will restore you if you just hold on.