This is something you may not know: each month, there is a particular day on which I think of Charlie more. Not that I’m sad, per se, but he’s just on my mind more. It’s the day of the month he was born on – he was born in June 19th, so on the 19th of each month, I am reminded.
In fact, throughout the year, there are actually many dates that might be reminders for a grieving parent. I’m going to list the ones I think are probably the most prevalent, so you can think about and talk about which ones might be important to the person you care about. And you can learn which ones it might be helpful for you to help remember – sometimes, just not being the only one holding the baby’s memory can make such a difference. Grief can be lonely.
1: The Birthday
The day the baby actually arrived. This might overlap with the day the baby died and/or the due date, depending on how that family experienced the infant loss. Each family chooses a slightly different way to mark the birthday, so be receptive to what works for your friend – and be aware that what works might evolve from year to year. For instance, for Charlie’s first birthday, I had an outdoor party, and one picnic table was designated for pictures of Charlie and memorabilia. I haven’t done that since, because that particular idea didn’t end up resonating beyond that year. However, having a fruity cake with some form of flower as decoration has continued to be very important to us.
2: The Due Date
When the baby was originally expected. Particularly if the baby didn’t make it to the due date, this can be a difficult day for the mom. I can’t speak to this personally (Charlie arrived a bit after his original due date) but it seems that it might be that one could imagine that “if only they’d made it this far, they could have been ok”. I’m not sure if that’s true for everyone, though.
3: The Death Date
Often more important if the baby died after birth. For many people who have a stillbirth, this is the same day as the birthday (sometimes the baby died during birth, but more often the baby died a day or two before and the exact date isn’t known). The significance of this, then, is highly variable. For me, the likely day of death leads into the day we found out there wasn’t a heartbeat, also the day I got induced, which leads into the next morning when he was born. So that whole string of days is difficult for me, but I generally talk about it as “his birthday” because for us it’s sort of one long experience.
4: The Day of No Heartbeat
Obviously if the baby died after birth, this isn’t relevant for your friend. For those who had a stillbirth, though, this is when the doctor or ultrasound tech turned to them and said – honestly, I don’t even want to type it. And often, this is the same day the baby is born, but for some it might be one day different, so it’s worth noting that might be a day to be gentle with your friend – it’s the day they heard the worst news in their life.
5: The Pregnancy Test Day
The date the parents found out they were expecting. This might even be at the opposite end of the year, so it might sneak up on people. For me it was the day before my birthday, so my own birthday was hard for a few years. Any of these dates that are hard might affect nearby holidays or events and make them difficult for your friend. Be patient as they figure out how to navigate grief and life. I had a very hard time around my birthday and holidays for the first few years, and was quite a grouch, but I am getting a bit easier to be around – and it’s been 5 years for me. It takes time, and some holidays might always be hard.
6: The “Month Day”
The day of the month the baby was born on. This is the one I mentioned at the beginning. Charlie was born on June 19th, so the 19th of every month is “Charlie’s day” in some respect. I don’t know if this one is common.
7: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day
The dates on which these are celebrated vary by country. In the US, Mother’s Day is in May, and Father’s Day is in June. Some families want to ignore these holidays and hide from the reminders in all the stores that “everyone else” has living children. Others want to embrace that having a baby, whether they live or not, makes them a parent. I, personally, want Charlie to be acknowledged, but still find it difficult to be in stores, and while I want the “mother’s day brunch” in a diner, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to see all the families, especially those with children Charlie’s age.
8: Other Big Holidays
The baby is a person whose absence is felt. I have found it very helpful to have a candle lit or other representation of Charlie visible in the room for many holidays. Even if it’s not talked about much. For certain holidays, the parents might choose to include the baby in some way (Charlie has a stocking and always gets one or two ornaments, for example, for Christmas) but this varies hugely – watch what your friends do, and give them space to experiment. If they generally like their baby mentioned, consider including the baby’s name on your Christmas card to them, or give a small “in memory” gift. Christmas in particular is also about a baby, so this can be very triggering for some people. I was a total scrooge for a few years at Christmas because of that. Halloween also is death themed, so some people hate it, and some embrace it wholeheartedly.
9: More Holidays
Cultural holidays and religious holidays less celebrated in the dominant culture. Keep in mind that in the US, the rhetoric surrounding grief – the trite sayings people use to try to comfort the grieving- are largely based in Western European Christianity, but not necessarily observing all minor holidays. So for some people, there are holidays in their religion, or saint’s days, or other observances that might have meaning for them. This is another opportunity to be observant and open to what you friends seem to be focusing on.
10: Significant Dates
Dates that would have been significant in the baby’s life as they grew up. This could include things like the first day of school, graduations, baptism and confirmation, weddings…. the list is huge and may vary widely based on the traditions of the family and the hopes they had had for their little one. This can also make attending other people’s occasions much harder. Especially for the first few years after a grief event, the grieving family may need to be a bit more distant and less involved. That said, they still don’t want to be excluded: invite them, but be generously patient with their needs to not come, cancel last minute, or leave early. An exception might be baby showers: it’s often best to gently ask if they would even like to receive an invitation. Baby showers are very conflicting: a grieving mother can be happy for you, but also furious that it’s working out for you, and jealous, and grieving, and just generally confused and sad.
What can I do?
What will be helpful will vary based on the person you’re talking to. But in my experience, most loss parents really appreciate a quick text or even a card on the birthday of the baby. Beyond that, it’s a matter of communicating with your friend and learning what is important to them. In my case, for instance, I really appreciate it when Christmas cards to the whole family include Charlie’s name too. And each family has particular dates and holidays that may mean more or less to them (Halloween, for instance: some people get really into it, and others find the theme of death too hard to bear). Find out what your friend is comfortable with, and then put that on your calendar to remember next year too!