Caleb’s 18th birthday was a big celebration at a city pool with 50 of his closest friends and family, all his favorite snacks (Oreos, Skittles, Dr. Pepper) and some amazingly decorated Marvel cupcakes! Great pictures were taken and a lot of fun was had! There was only one thing missing from this super fun party…the birthday boy himself.
Navigating The Seasons of Grief
We have a forrest in our backyard and I have enjoyed watching how the leaves change between seasons. Seeing a picture of the trees in each season made me think of how my grief changes as the days, months and years go on without my boy. Today I’ll share how I’ve navigated birthdays, holidays, special occasions and my son’s death date over the last few years.
Caleb’s 18th birthday was his first one in Heaven, but it didn’t keep me from recognizing his special day and celebrating him. With him having been a Lifeguard, a pool party with all his friends and family felt like the perfect thing to do and I imagined it would be how we celebrated his birthday every year going forward. His birthday was 10 1/2 months after he died so there was still quite a bit of shock and trauma within me, but it was easy to plan with all the help and support I had. I was so grateful that everyone was supportive and wanted to be involved in celebrating his birthday with us. I remember throughout the party looking for Caleb because his spirit felt so strong, present and real, but I quickly remembered, “he’s not here” and those moments made my heart stop. Reality set back in that I was actually having a birthday party for my dead child.
What I didn’t expect for his next birthday was that I absolutely knew I couldn’t do the pool party again. The idea of it incredibly overwhelmed me. I felt very frustrated because I had expected to have the pool party every year, but I found myself back at square one wondering how to celebrate another birthday without him. As his 19th birthday approached we asked our friends and family to honor Caleb by doing an Act of Kindness on or around June 30th, and then to share it with us. We received numerous texts, messages and posts that filled out hearts with so much love and joy on a day that was otherwise, quite sad for us. Within our family we honored him with a few different acts of kindness such as, decorating rocks and leaving them around town for people to find. I did receive a few messages about rocks that were found, which I loved! I went to the Publix Bakery and paid for a birthday cake that someone had ordered for a June 30th pickup, and left a note with it explaining who Caleb is and why I paid for their cake. We volunteered with our church by doing a Vacation Bible School with kids in a local housing area and also served at a local homeless outreach ministry.
His 3rd birthday in Heaven is next week, and the anticipation of it has been the hardest for me yet! Maybe the finality of my son’s death and the inescapable presence of his absence, are taking a toll on my heart and mind. I’m realizing that the more I resist and fight against how grief changes over time, the more agony I’m creating. It would just be so much easier if I could depend on doing the same thing year after year for each special occasion! It’s not fair that I have to keep “figuring out” how I’m going to make it through a difficult day. I “know” that leaning in and allowing the natural grief to progress however it progresses, is where I’ll find the fortitude I need to continue enduring the most emotional and difficult days in front of me. This is not uncomplicatedly done! Grief is messy, I’m tired and bereft. I will always, always celebrate Caleb’s birthday, it is just so very sad doing so without him.
The experience has been the same across the board for holidays and special occasions. For Mother’s and Father’s Days, our girls celebrate us however they choose, but we don’t do anything beyond that. We don’t go to church on those days, because it’s just too hard. Caleb’s absence lingers under the surface of everything we do. New Years, Easter, 4th of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas each bring their own measure of difficulty, but I have noticed over time that the anticipation of the days are sometimes harder than the special day itself.
August 12, 2020, was the one year date of Caleb’s death. We took advice of others who had gone before us on this journey and made sure to have a plan for the day. I went walking with friends and we ate at one of Caleb’s favorite fast food places for lunch. We had a small memorial service at our church, a video I made for Caleb was shown, some sweet words and funny stories were shared about Caleb and and I had a box for people to drop a letter in that they had written to Caleb. The letters will never be read, but it was a way for some to express their grief and empty their heart out on paper. We asked our closest supporters to join us at Caleb’s graveside that evening where we expressed our words of gratefulness for their help, love and sacrifices they had made for us in the year that followed his death. They could have ran, hid and avoided us, but they chose to walk in step with us through the darkest days of our life, while carrying grief of their own. Caleb was remembered, he was honored and when we woke up the next morning, we stepped into a year that our son would never share with us.
The 2nd anniversary of Caleb’s Heaven Day was completely opposite than the year before. Because it fell on our school district’s first full day of school, my husband didn’t want to take the day off work and my girls didn’t want to miss school, but I did take the day off. I allowed myself a day to melt into my grief, feel all the feels, all the pain and all the devastation of the day my son died. I held his dirty laundry, laid my head on his pillow, wrapped myself in his blankets, listened to his voicemails, read our text messages, watched his Snapchats and laid on the grass and ground that covers his earthly body with tears rushing down my face. I needed a day to sit in grief and let it take its course, but it was extremely difficult to rebound from. It took 2-3 weeks before I felt the ground beneath my feet again. While I don’t regret allowing myself a day to grieve naturally, I will hesitate to let myself go so deep whilst being alone.
I share my experiences with the hope of normalizing your struggles and emotions that come with grief after a life-altering loss. It’s been hard for me to adjust and accept how grief changes with each day of significance. I know now that what worked for me one year, quite possibly will not work the next. By “what worked” I mean, expectations, emotions and plans for the day. While grief has become more manageable with time, I expect the ache that comes along with days of significance, will as well.
There are days and weeks where the waves of grief go from softly rolling onto the oceans shore to raging wildly in a hurricane, but Jesus steadies me through each wave. Knowing that I am with Him and He is with me, brings peace in the midst of the most difficult, messy and heavy days of grief.
I’d love to read your experiences with birthdays, holidays and death days. Feel free to email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment below.