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Dear Care and Feeding,
My brother died unexpectedly a week before my son’s fourth birthday. We didn’t have a party for him, obviously. There were so many people around and we had cake, so he didn’t notice the difference. My concern is his next birthday. Usually we have family at his birthdays (I have a large, close extended family). I am not sure how to celebrate my son’s birthday so close to the anniversary of my brother’s death. If we postpone it, we run into my brother’s boys’ birthdays. I worry that it is a bit much to have all three boys’ birthdays together (they are all a year apart and best buddies). I thought about offering my son a fun activity instead of a party, but I am fairly certain he will pick a party. Also, I feel like my brother would be disappointed in me if I didn’t let my son have a party.
—Not Feeling Festive
I’m so sorry for your loss. I think the answer is right there in your letter. You know that your son wants a party. You know that your brother would have wanted his nephew to have a party. So the people you love, and whose wishes you want to honor here, have spoken.
And your son should have the party he wants when his birthday comes around. His cousins, with whom he is very close, are having parties, so why shouldn’t he? He did not pick the date for this tragic occurrence, and it should not be that his birthdays are forever beholden to it. I understand that not everyone in your extended family may love the idea of putting on paper hats and blowing party horns around the anniversary of such an event, but kids’ birthday parties are for the kids, not the adults.
My mother died on my wife’s birthday. And though my wife was not a child, it was—and still is—a difficult date to navigate. One of the things I realized two or three years out was that I was reluctant to fully focus on the living because I was still trying to hold onto the dead. I was afraid that by fully accepting that day as my wife’s birthday, I’d somehow be letting go of the tenuous hold I had on the memory and spirit of my mother. It was an uncomfortable and terrifying thought, and I felt caught between a rock and a very sad place. I don’t know if that is what you’re experiencing. But I can say that, in your letter, you seem to be the only person in the scenario struggling with this question.
Grief takes the time it takes. But I want to give you permission to celebrate your son’s birthday and give your brother’s nephews a wonderful day, just as your brother would have wanted it.