Thursday, February 25, 2010

Honoring a Deceased Parent's Birthday

Today's topic clearly falls into the "Not That You Asked" category, but I'll bet I'm not the only one who celebrates her parents' birthdays...even though they're no longer living.
My mom would be 90 today if she were still alive, and yes, if you're doing the math, that means she had me late in life. Those seven kids she had before producing me? Clearly, just warm-ups for the main attraction. 
Anyway, where was I? Mom. Right. And her birthday. And what, if anything, I do to commemorate it.
Over the last three years, I've done a variety of things on Mom's birthday. As best I can remember, they include the following:
1. Talk to her. Yeah, I talk to my dead mom. On her birthday, it's usually along the lines of "Thanks for having one last kid, and thanks for all the hard work you put in." Other days, I might be hollering at her for some leftover childhood piece of unfinished business. But I talk to her.
2. Write to her. Same as #1, only in letter form.
3. Email my siblings, who were the backbone of my childhood and are still part of the rock I stand on. Okay, that's an awkward mental image, given that backbones don't usually turn into rocks, but you get the idea.
4. Visit the cemetery and pour a little Starbucks on her grave. Really. She and Dad loved the luxury of going to Starbucks and getting a mocha.
5. Bring flowers from my yard and leave them on the grave.
6. Call her best friend.
7. Light a candle, either in real life or at, a terrific online community based on the teachings of Brother David Steindl-Rast and his colleagues. It's a network for grateful living (ANGeL, get it?). Check out this link of Br. David reading a short Billy Collins poem. Which has nothing to do with my mother's birthday, except she LOVED Br. David and loved poetry.
8. Sing "Happy Birthday" to her.
How about you? Any dead parents out there? What, if anything, do you do to remember them on their birthdays? 
Comments, questions, conundrums...leave them in the comments box, below.
You can also contact me at
And as always, thanks for reading.


  1. It is in the remembering and little rituals that you suggest that keeps someone alive in our hearts. Perhaps on the first anniversary of my mother's death in April I will bake one of her cakes that she was so famous for.

  2. Elizabeth Steiner HaywardFebruary 25, 2010 at 5:45 PM

    In our family, we always remember the birthdays of deceased relatives by calling each other just to touch base, maybe tell a funny story about the person, or something that person did that affects us to this day (almost always positive, of course).

    Interestingly, in my faith, we observe the anniversaries of people's deaths, because the sages believe that it is only at the end of a person's life that one can fully understand the impact of that life. We light special candles that burn for 24 hours to keep their light bright in this world, we say special prayers in synagogue, and we give to charity or sponsor a meal in synagogue in their memory.

    I like doing both.

  3. When my dad died several years ago, we had unfinished business between us. Needless to say I was a teenager from hell. He was a quiet man who held everything in and I could never figure that out. In my opinion he was always muttering under his breath and I never listened. After moving away our lines of communication never improved. So after he died I started writing a journal. I simply called it "Letters Home". And over the next several years I wrote letters to him, asking questions and looking for answers. As the months turned into years, I finally started "hearing" answers in the letters I was writing at the time. This gave me pause. I had reached the end and finally came to terms with him as a man, and all the weight of the world he must have been carrying at the time, with four kids to raise in a two income household. I never really knew how special our extended family was all I knew. So when I came to the end of my writing, I took the four journals I had filled and I built a fire in the woodstove. When it was rolling, I burned each one, one at a time. Mentally it was very cathartic. We had reached an agreement, an understanding, and I finally felt loved by that quiet man who appeared to be angry at the world. And that was my "Aha" moment. He was not angry at me all the time, it was just life wearing him down. Now, I still talk to him, when I pick up his hammer in my shop, or use one of several other tools my mom was smart enough to give to me after his funeral.

    Now, I will be starting a new journal, "Letters to Mom" on her birthday this March. She has only been gone a short time, and if anything, we "over-communicated" if you can believe that. So my letters this time will be of admiration, and gratitude, and simply the fact that she left us too soon. My sisters were thoughtful enough to let me have some of her things when I was back home for her funeral. I have her Salvation Army pillow under my right elbow right now as I am typing this, and her blue polar-tec blanket is on the chair next to me. And her books, her books. I brought home about 20 off her shelves of hundreds. She was a prolific reader her whole life, and she was the smartest self-educated person I have ever known. I miss her so, so I will write, and write, until the pain starts to subside. And then I suspect my letters will take a turn. I don't know when, or in what direction. I have no idea what or when my "Aha" moment will come. But I have faith she will tell me. Mom, I miss you...and I will be calling you soon.
    Love Jeff.

    1. Incredibly moving. Thanks for sharing and sorry for the recent loss of your mother.

  4. Oh, you guys. Thanks for opening your hearts on this page. I'm wiping away tears, and I'm grateful for that.

  5. Um, I am writing a book about my dead mother who was a trial to me throughout most of my life. I get to say awful things about her because I took care of her til she died and wasn't mean even though I wanted to be.

    Is that all right?

  6. Of COURSE that's all right (which you already knew). You "get" to say awful things about her whether or not you "took care of her..." etc. etc. etc. simply because you get to say what you get to say (remember that old freedom of speech idea we hold so dear in the USA?).

    Along with that freedom, however, comes the responsibility to discern if what you GET to say is the same as what you NEED to say. If you have any other surviving family, you will at some point decide if what you NEED to say really needs to be said in a public arena. As opposed to in a journal, which is then burned (see Jeff's comment, above), or buried, or simply put in a drawer.

    Remember: you can't hurt your mom by writing the truth as you experienced it. She's beyond those sorts of concerns, she's probably rooting for you to get on with the book, and she's certainly not about to leave The Heavenly Party just to throw lightning bolts at you.

    And if you don't believe in The Heavenly Party to End All Parties, if you think Mom is just taking the old eternal dirt nap, then there's really nothing standing in your way.
    Get writing.

  7. Dear Mrs Ditter
    1) Mrs Ditter is quite a funny name.I like it very much.
    2) okay, now down to questions. So there's this girl thats really nice and we're friends, but this incident keeps happening: I'll ak her " hey, do you want to sit together on the bus?" every once in a while and she'll say "sure!" and then we'll get on the bus and she'll go and sit with someone else. It's not entirely her fault, because there are these two girls who stick to her like velcro and if she tries to sit with someone else they'll go "aw, come on! sit with us!" and she'll say she'll sit with me next time and then goes and sits with them. I don't want to appear clingy and say "You never sit with me!", but honestly, I'm starting to get pretty pissed with those other two girls. They seriuos ly wont let her sit anywhere but with them!

    -Pissed :(

    1. Check back here in a day or two, and I'll have a couple of suggestions. Hang in there! Friend stuff can be really confusing and annoying no matter how old you get. Even if you decide to move on from this friendship, it's good to know you did what you could to be clear and fair with everyone--including yourself.

  8. My dad died in 2004 when I was 13. We had a very rough relationship while I was growing up and I now know he didn't properly know how to love me. He lost my mom when I was 3 months old and he never healed from that. I have found great forgiveness for him and yet still have a LONG way to go. On the anniversary of his death or his birthday, I tend to ignore the fact of what day it is. I've tried different routes, most of which ended up being self-destructive. I was more remembering the pain he caused and inflicting it on myself in memory. Which isn't how it is supposed to be. His birthday is this Monday, July 19th and I need a positive way to remember him. I just don't know how.

  9. Dear Anonymous, above: I'm interested in your comment that remembering the pain, and then inflicting it on yourself in your memory, "isn't how it is supposed to be." This might make me sound all New Age-y and spaced out, but please consider the possibility that it is exactly how it's supposed to be. How else, at this point in your self-discovery, could you mark the anniversary of someone who caused you so much pain? You can, however, catch yourself when you go in memory to those dark places. And you can notice what happens to your body (quickened breathing, tight chest, whatever) when those memories come back. Don't try to fight, just notice, and accept.
    I have a couple of websites/practices to recommend, and if you want to email me at, I'd be happy to send you the links. The stuff is all free, nothing to buy; just different methods to use when dealing with painful pasts/traumatic events/current limiting beliefs.

    You have a huge amount of insight and compassion for your father, even if you think you still have a long way to go in forgiving him. Perhaps the best thing on Monday to do is to be compassionate with yourself, in whatever form that would take...a long run, an evening with your nose in a book, cooking a good meal, hanging with friends, pulling weeds in your garden or someone else's? Not knowing you, I don't know what would work. But whatever you decide on (even if it's to take a nice hot tub and cry your eyes out over what you can never have, i.e., the fantasy-land perfect childhood with a doting father), take a moment to think one positive thought about your dad. If you can find one positive memory, you might be able to find two. Then thank him in your mind for those moments. They're just as real as the harmful stuff, if not as prevalent in your memory. They don't take away from the very real struggles you had in your relationship with him. But they're a part of that relationship, and you might feel better if you can honor them.

  10. My friend's mother recently passed, and she is sad about her late mother's upcoming birthday. Can I send her flowers? What should the card say?

  11. Of course you can send her flowers, or take her cookies, or whatever speaks best to your relationship. Keep the card simple, something like, "I'm holding you in my thoughts on your mom's birthday" or substitute the word "prayers" if that's your inclination/belief. If you knew her mother, you might include a memory you have of her.

    I think often we get our undies in such a bundle over what to write (or say) and how to elegantly express it, that we don't do anything, which is really a shame. Many years ago, when my closest brother died after a short illness, I don't remember what my friends and colleagues said, or what they wrote, but I do remember that they contacted me. It was incredibly comforting. Your friend will be comforted, as well.

  12. We will be attending a birthday dinner for my husband's deceased mother. All of his siblings will be there and his stepfather as well. What could I bring them in honor of her Birthday?

  13. Hi--so sorry for the long delay in answering--to the person (above) who wanted to know what to bring to your husband's siblings when you attend a dinner in honor of his late mother...hmm. I assume you don't mean what food should you take? That's easy to solve; you would take something that she loved. If you mean you want each sibling (and the stepfather) to leave with something that reminds them of her, that's a little more complicated. I would start by thinking about what things or activities she enjoyed...gardening, coffee, running, working with kids...was she fluent in a foreign language? Did she have a special place she liked to visit? Would making a donation to a group she supported be reasonable? Did she love to read, and could you get each of them a copy of a book she particularly loved? There's not a one-size-fits-all answer to this one, and I realize the date has come and gone--I'm sure whatever you decided worked well. If you'd be willing to share here, please do.

  14. Today would be my fathers 57th birthday. This is the second birthday of his since he passed away. I found this blog because I'm reaching out for anything to try and understand if I am right in my feelings. I'm just so sad. I called my grandfather (his dad) and he talked about him and our feelings for a little while. I don't think I can handle talking to all of his siblings. I feel like I'm holding everyones pain inside of me because I am what is left of him. My mom is being selfish and insensitive, and I understand she is hurting too. Will this ever stop being so hard to handle? I thought this would be easier than Father's day and it is sooo much worse!

    1. First of all, yes, this will become less hard to handle. And I found the same thing, that the second year was harder than the first. Getting through those "firsts" is so hard--first birthday without the loved one, first holiday season, first whatever-the-tradition-is. We tell ourselves that it will be easier after getting through that first year--and for me, at least, it wasn't.
      Next, you're not right or wrong in your feelings. Sad isn't right or wrong. It can get tiring, though, dragging all that grief around, and if you're feeling overwhelmed, it might be time to look for outside help. It really does get easier, though, with the passage of time.
      Regarding your dad's family: Good for you for calling your grandfather. Do it next year, too. And if you can stand it, drop a little note in the mail to each of his siblings. This puts you in control of the emotional conversation, something like, "Dear Auntie Sue, I missed Dad so much on his birthday last week. I know you love him and miss him, too. Thanks for being a great sister to him. Love, (Your Name Here)" You'll find the right words.
      As for your mom, what you're experiencing as selfish and insensitive may be the only way she can cope. We're all just a little bit more screwed up and incompetent than we'd like to be around these highly emotional issues--your mom is probably doing the best she can, even if it's not nearly good enough for you.
      Mostly, be gentle with yourself. And I'm sorry your dad died at such a young age.

  15. I'm 20 years old and lost my mom unexpectedly. Her birthday is tomorrow I didn't plan on doing anything, but today I found myself buying a card for her. I wrote in it. I set an alarm to wake up early to go get a cupcake, a pink (her favorite color) balloon, and a candle. I plan on going to her grave, but I'm still unsure.

    Every year since I was about 13 I would wake up early and go get decorations and surprise her with them when she got home. There was always a theme too. I'm really sad I can't hug her or see her face light up from the decorations this year. But I still want to bring her little bits of decorations and blow out a candle and read my card to her.

    I haven't visited her grave since the funeral and I'm nervous I'll just break down and won't find words to say. Debating whether or not to go tomorrow. What do you think?

    1. GO. Take the cupcake and go. Take the decorations and go. Take the candle and the card and your grief and your love for her and all the amazing birthday memories and just go. Don't worry about the words and don't worry about breaking down.
      I'll be thinking about you. So sorry your loss was sudden--please do go tomorrow.

  16. My mother' 2nd birthday following her death is coming up shortly. I don't remember if we did anything for her 1st birthday, but if we did, it was to go to her grave, which is 4 hours away. This year we were planning to visit her brothers and sisters-in law, one of whom is dying of cancer herself, another just got out of the hospital. We also just found out one of her favorite nephews (the one who's mother is dying) is having a birthday party close to her birthday, so we are thinking about attending that as well, in her honor. This gets us all together and helps us to reconnect with her family with whom she was close. We think she would approve.

    1. Lovely! Hope the family gathering is joyous and comforting---I'm sure your mother would approve and be grateful that you found a way to celebrate her, the family, and all the love you've shared by keeping the family close.

  17. my grandfathers birthday is soon, he passed away this spring. i was going to send my grandmother a demure arrangement of green gladiolus, his favorite flower. my mother was very upset at this, she also told me not to send flowers when he died as there we so many, already. i live too far to leave them at his grave. i live too far to squeeze my grandmothers hand, to spend time in their home to show her support as an act of solidarity. i am very confused, if it were my husband i would be wounded by his death but touched that someone remembered our love on his birthday

    1. I think the most important part of this is your last sentence. Whether or not you decide to send the green glads (one of my favorites, too!), please call your grandmother or send a short note. Actually, both! That way she hears your voice AND has a little piece of paper she can re-read when she wants to. You already know what to say--"I wanted to remember his birthday by celebrating the love you had for each other" or something like that.
      About the flowers: I wonder why your mom is involving herself in something that is essentially between you and your grandmother. You might ask yourself a few questions about this, if you're interested: Does she think the flowers would upset your grandmother? Are you short on cash and your mom is trying to protect you? What else could possibly be at work here? You'll need to follow your heart on this one.
      And please remember, the most important thing of all is to get in touch with your grandmother--flowers or no flowers. She needs to know that their love lives on in their grandkids.

  18. My dad died suddenly less then a month ago (February 23, 2013), exactly 1 month from his 49th birthday (March 23rd). I moved to Toronto almost 3 years ago, so I haven't been able to do as much as I used to for his birthday - just gave him a call, me and my son would sing him happy birthday. When I was younger I'd make him a cake, card, gift, the whole 9 yards. My dad was cremated, my grandma gave me his ashes - so he's home with me now - and I'm unsure of what to do for his birthday :(. There's no grave to visit, no wife to call (mom remarried 10 years ago). I'm now a certified baker - he was so proud and excited to attend my convocation this June. he never had any of my baking.. I thought of baking a cake - but I don't know, I think my bf will thinks is weird. Also - it hurts to think that the first professional cake I make him, i won't get to see his reaction, i know how he would react to, i can hear him already... Help?

    Severely sad, wounded & broken </3

  19. Dear Anonymous, I'm so sorry for your loss. Most of us expect our parents to die before we do, and yet it can seem so very wrong and unfair when it happens. Your father was relatively young, which I'm sure makes this even harder.

    I wish I had something wise and original to say, but all the old cliches apply:

    1. Acknowledge just how bad you feel. This sounds stupid, yet many people try not to look clearly at their feelings, for fear of being swallowed up by them. BTW, acknowledging your feelings is not the same as wallowing in them. Wallowing--never helpful.
    2. Be prepared for any range of feelings, from overwhelming sorrow to anger to abandonment.
    3. Don't judge yourself! The feelings will pass more quickly if you can step outside yourself and observe, so to speak, instead of telling yourself you shouldn't feel a particular way.
    4. Be kind to yourself. You'll know best what this means for you. In other words, do something that's soothing and don't back-talk yourself.
    5. Do something that makes you think of him. For me, this would mean baking a batch of his well-loved Bayard Bread, or buying a new book that I know he would like, or re-reading something that the two of us loved, or using something from his toolbox. For you--?

    I love the idea of your baking him a cake! If he was proud and excited when you achieved your certification, he definitely expected you to move forward with your career. And if that career starts with a cake in his memory, what could be better? Bake the cake, light the candles, sing him Happy Birthday, make him a card. Don't worry about making it perfect. My own belief is that death is just a transition to the next thing, and that your dad will be with you if you ask him. And don't worry about your boyfriend...if he thinks it's weird, that's his issue, not yours. He might surprise you by being supportive.

    Best of luck. It does get easier with time. My dad's been gone for nearly a dozen years, and I still miss him. Not every day, but every so often. I think those of us who miss our parents are the lucky ones.

    1. Lovely advice and we really are lucky to have had parents that we cared for so deeply, that is a testament of their love for us.

  20. I was wondering if you have any thoughts on how I could write on my calandar the date of my moms birthay, and the date of her death. I usually put her name and a plus sign +, but it reminds me of a cross and I'm not religious. Any ideas?

  21. That is a great question. Here's what I do: on the birthday date, I write MOM! and on her death date I write Mom RIP.

    RIP seems pretty neutral to me, but given that it derives from a religious source (requiescat en pace/rest in peace), that might not work for you. However, I think it's a universal thing to want our ancestors to be at peace, whether we think they're at peace nowhere or at peace sitting on a beach and reading a book in heaven.

    Alternatively, you could jot down the year of her death along with her name. So if her birthday were March 21 and she died in 2009, you could write on March 21: Mom, 2009. I kind of like this idea, could use it for the birthday date, too.

    Let me know what you decide, if you want to. I'm interested.

  22. Oh, Mrs. Ditter. It's so late here and I can't sleep. I've been googling how to deal with a dead parent's birthday and I found this little section of hope.

    I'm 33 and this Sunday, my father would have been 75. He was in a care home with severe dementia, but the brilliant part of that was that our relationship grew to new places, the staff adored him, and I made a huge deal out of every holiday for the two years he lived there - his birthday was no exception.

    Since he passed away in October of 2012, I've had such a difficult time putting the pieces back together, especially since I took care of him for so long and cared for him so deeply. I've just started returning to a type of balance with my life, where the grief isn't every day. I'm finally able to do the things in life that make me happy and always hold him in my heart, except...well, except for the part that I actually don't *know* what makes me happy yet. Going slow and focusing on the little things that bring me joy help a lot in that department though and I have no doubt that it'll get easier.

    I plan on taking extra care of myself over the next few days, singing to him and using many of the ideas you offered as well as other contributors to commemorate the importance of my father's relationship to me. What I really wanted to say to you though is thank you. And thanks to everyone who shared their ideas. I feel held and supported by hearing others talk about how best to honor their loved ones and am extremely grateful that you have this blog!


    John Miller

  23. John, I'm sorry for your loss, and impressed with your story. You showed real love for your father--the active, consistent type. Not all of us are good at that. I have regrets about not engaging more fully with my parents at the end of their lives.

    It sounds as if you are doing everything right in terms of taking care of yourself. My experience, with both my parents, is that it takes a long time for the everyday grief to wear off. It does get easier; it does take time. Be kind to yourself.

    We have cultural expectations about grief and dying that sometimes leave me breathless. Saying, "Well, he lived a good long life" completely negates the gut-wrenching cry of "I miss my dad!" It gets more complicated when someone you love is ill for a long time. When they die, we're grateful they are no longer suffering (and sometimes we feel guilty about feeling grateful), but we'd really prefer that they were healthy and still alive.

    I'm glad this blog posting and the comments helped. Please take care of yourself and get some sleep!