Nobody to Blow Out the Candles—Finding Birthday Traditions after Your Baby Dies

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

Last year, as I spread the rich chocolate frosting on Henry’s birthday cake, the smoothness that wouldn’t be punctured and punctuated by candles broke me open. I let loose tears that had been waiting for something to free them.

Birthdays are like that. Winding me tight, waiting for release, and as we move further away from the day he was born, that tension seems to happen under the surface. I almost don’t notice it. Until I do—because I’m snapping at my kids or crying over a song—or breaking down over perfect frosting.

Part of me is in denial that Henry’s birthday is coming up fast.

It’s OK because I don’t need to send out invitations or ask what kind of party he’d like to have. I don’t need to think about a present or hope the weather cooperates.

His birthday isn’t about what he wants, but about remembering him, celebrating his life. And to do that I fall back on tradition. Birthdays are hard, and not having to figure it out every year helps.

I keep it simple: on Henry’s birthday, there will be cake for breakfast, and I will work in his garden. 

We’ll eat chocolate cake and sausage with our neighbors—the once little girl who offered to sit with Henry on the first day of kindergarten and with her brother, who came in every day the winter after Henry died asking, “‘Enry ‘ome?” The tradition started with the living after he died, but we extend to Henry. He’s part of us.

I’ll buy something new for his garden and give myself space and the soothing work of weeding and tending.

These traditions evolved over the years as I settled into what felt the most right on a day that never will be.

The first year I was at a loss. I stressed about finding the perfect way to honor Henry’s birthday, convinced that it would be what we did every year.

I read about things other people did:

  • Planting a tree on the first birthday
  • Random acts of kindness in their child’s name
  • Balloon releases
  • Delivering bags to be distributed at the hospital
  • Buying and donating a gift for a child your child’s age
  • Fundraisers for causes related to the child or grieving parents
  • Taking the day off as a family

There were lovely ideas, but many of them were too much for where I was. I felt like I should do more, but I did what I could.

For Henry’s first birthday, we gathered with family. We released one heart shaped balloon and gave others to Henry’s cousins. We planted the peach tree that I had intended to plant for him had he lived—and a red flowering hawthorne that family had sent to us.

And we received a gift—a sign for Henry’s Garden. From that the lasting birthday tradition grew.

Henry’s Garden is a mishmash of perennials that people have given us and the I have selected each year. It’s dotted with heart shaped rocks. Each year on Henry’s birthday, I clean it up—weed it, move things around, plant something new. I’m at home in the garden, so spending time there is soothing for me. I’ve been out there in mist turning to torrential rain and in unrelenting heat. I’ve wiped away sweat and swatted at bugs. And through it all, my heart opens wide to my boy not there.

I’ve spent parts of Henry’s birthday eating burgers and keeping my kids from falling in a pool. I’ve set up for Science Night at school. I’ve read stories and breathed through meltdowns. But there is always cake. There is always time in the garden. Every year I hold space for my boy in a world that keeps on moving.

Do you have a birthday tradition? How do you honor—or just get through the day?