We generally rejoice when someone’s birthday comes around, especially if it’s someone we know. There’s an expectation that the person should be happy and grateful for being alive to mark another birth anniversary. Most people, including myself, will send a ‘happy birthday’ message, prayer, and sometimes a gift during this period.
How do we wish a bereaved person a happy birthday?
A birthday can hit during a difficult time in a person’s life. The difficult period could be the death of a loved one. It’s even more painful for some bereaved people whose loved ones died on their birthday, in their celebratory season or during the festive season.
On these occasions, it isn’t easy to know what to say or do. When a bereaved person’s birthday comes around, we are most likely to respond in our natural fight-flight-freeze reaction to this perceived threat of not knowing what to say or do.
My wife Chidinma had died five months before my birthday. For us, the last five months of the year were what we fondly referred to as celebration months because these months were littered with celebrations within our nucleus family.
I always kicked off and set the pace of the celebration months with my birthday. We had our independent and collective rituals to mark these celebrations. You can now imagine the anticipation leading up to my birthday following my wife’s death. I was also still in the claws of acute grief, and my birthday was fast approaching—my first birthday after the death of my loved one.
We often look forward to our last or first celebration/birthday before significant life transitions, such as our last birthday as singles before marriage, our first birthdays as married couples, our first birthdays as parents etc.
I never imagined that I would have a ‘first’ birthday without my loved one, Chidinma. I imagine the same is true for anyone bereaved.
Let me take you through a glimpse of my first birthday after the death of my loved one. We had entered my birth month, and the countdown to the date had begun. My heart got heavier as my birthday drew nearer.
When the waves of grief relented, my heart and thoughts occupied themselves with memories of yearly timestamps leading up to my birthday. It looked like a movie slice, just like how your iPhone shows you the pictures you had taken in a particular week over five years or more.
I saw laughter, joy, happiness during this brief transitory period. There were beautiful, fun and mischievous memories.
Without any form of warning, I felt my heart claw back into depths of grief like the gory scene in the passion of Christ when the soldier tore through Christ’s skin as he whipped Him with the whips that had claws.
Each day closer to my birthday felt like being whipped like that movie scene. I could hear and feel my anxiety, the pulse. I had never experienced being irritable at that height before. There were many things I wished for.
Grieving on your birthday changes everything.
One thing worse than celebrating a birthday alone is facing your first birthday after losing a loved one. As the day drew closer, I wondered if my birthday week could disappear from the calendar. I wished to sleep through the entire week.
There are some others that I cannot share with you. I can share with you that what was historically a celebration month rapidly became a horrific nightmare that I wished and prayed would vanish.
Whilst this raging internal war was going on, externally, caring friends and families enquired on what I would like to do for my birthday. What they didn’t know was that each time they asked made me feel worse.
What made me feel worse wasn’t because they asked how I wanted to mark my birthday during my grief; the absence of my loved ones’ presence made it feel worse. Chidinma’s absence was palpable. I imagine that ignoring it would have been more hurtful.
By the time my birthday came round, I was exhausted, tender and vulnerable. I had been pelted and knocked out by every emotion you can imagine. I wanted to be left alone, but I forgot to switch my phone off. As I reached for my phone to turn it off, a call came in from one of our friends who had been and still is actively involved in helping us during this grieving process.
We exchanged greetings, and then she said, ‘happy birthday.’ For those of us who enjoy watching movies, you’ll have noticed that there’s a sound and colour change in most movies when the mood of the scene has changed. The sound is more pronounced in most Bollywood and Nollywood movies.
Telling me happy birthday felt like an eerie silence before a storm was about to hit. This silence felt like forever, and I responded irritably, “……. tell me what is happy about this birthday? Tell me…..”, “Can I give all the sympathy and empathy back to have the one person I really want?”
By now, other text and WhatsApp messages had begun to come into my phone. I said to her that perhaps I should put a message on my social media status: “Please don’t wish me happy birthday! There’s nothing happy about this day!”
We both agreed that it wasn’t a good idea. We spent a little more time talking and ended our conversation.
This conversation got me thinking a lot. I wanted to respond to everyone who had a happy birthday in their message: “there’s nothing happy about this birthday. Nevertheless, I am grateful that you mustered the courage to reach out to me.”
Almost every close friend and family heard a variation of “there’s nothing happy about this birthday.” I even said to some of our friends, “if you must wish me, please remove the ‘happy’ and say birthday wishes.”
I am super grateful for our friends and families who have accepted me for who I am. I often reflect on the impact of sometimes sharp responses on them. They have carried me well. One of these days, I will do a reflection video with them about this grief journey.
I made this thought in my journal and pondered why we assume that someone is happy because it’s their birthday? Why do we genuinely send people birthday messages? How many people are intentional about the messages they send to people on their birthdays?
I imagine that reading this may make you feel guilty, and the questions that may come to your mind include how do you say happy birthday to someone grieving? How do you wish the first birthday after the death of a loved one?
My decision to share my grief journey has never been and still isn’t to make anyone feel bad or guilty. But to shed light on my experience, I hope someone may find it relatable to validate their grief experience or learn lessons about how to support anyone grieving irrespective of their type of grief.
So let’s get back to the question of how do you say ‘happy birthday to someone grieving? The thought of wishing someone a “happy” birthday following the death of a loved one might seem strange and sometimes even feel awkward.
Birthdays can be a painful trigger for someone bereaved. When these occasions come up, it is always challenging to know what to say or do for a bereaved person on their birthday, but completely ignoring them would also be hurtful.
What to Remember When Observing a Birthday After the Death of a Loved One
When it comes to birthdays, as well as grief, everyone has their own expectations. Grief is processed differently by each of us, and birthdays may trigger grief in some people while not others.
Remember to respect your loved one’s decision to celebrate their birthday after losing someone close to them, even if you have the best intentions.
It’s crucial to let the bereaved person take the lead and decide how they want to spend their birthday. Even with the best intentions, it’s essential to respect their preferences. Allow them to celebrate in whatever way they like, without making them feel judged.
There are many ways in which a bereaved person can process grief, and birthdays may trigger grief differently for each person.
When wishing someone a Happy Birthday after a death in the family, remember a few things.
Although every person is different, it is always better to be a little more sensitive after a loss. You may also want to consider tailoring your birthday wishes depending on who in the family passed away.
Before you say anything to someone bereaved on their birthday, please consider their experience with loss.
It is unlikely that they will be happy if you send a “happy birthday” card or message. Use a “thinking of you” card or message instead.
On what can be an extremely trying and triggering day, a message of love and support on the bereaved person’s birthday can help the bereaved person feel loved and supported.
Here are some examples of the message of love and support you can share with someone bereaved on their birthday:
“I know that without xxx, you are going to have a hard day, but I wanted to let you know I am thinking of you.”
“Your birthday is today, and I haven’t forgotten it. Please allow me to treat you to a cup of coffee or lunch.”
“I know you don’t feel like celebrating, but I want you to know I haven’t forgotten your birthday. I hope you find a few moments in the day to realize how important you are to all of your friends and family.”
Grieving is a highly personal experience. It doesn’t matter how you grieve. I feel it’s important to share that support is available if you have lost a loved one. You can receive support from Balanced Wheel.
Losing a loved one is a painful experience. You don’t have to grieve in a particular way. Support is available if you have lost someone close to you. Support is available from Balanced Wheel.
You can eventually cope with your loss by getting the proper support. Sharing your experience of grief with others who are experiencing similar things can be more helpful than trying to cope alone.
So, I invite you to join our peer-to-peer bereavement support group.
Are you grieving the loss of someone you loved and would like to join our support group? We will start with two bereavement support groups in September.
Would you please complete this interest form to register your interest for any of the next bereavement support groups?
I would also like you to forward it to someone who could benefit from a bereavement support group.
I’d love to share your coping with grief story too.
I intend to expand the blog and resources on the website to include stories of other people who have lost a loved one, not limited to losing a spouse. I’d love to hear about how you handled grief. Would you please let me know if you would like to share your story.
I am also open to having anyone anonymised if that’s your preferred option. Complete the contact us form with the text “I would like to share my story.”
To Be Continued Next Wednesday…
I would like to hear from you. Would you please share your thoughts, comments and reflections below? Thank you.