My preemie recently celebrated his third birthday. Every year, it is a mixed bag of emotions. Thankfully, there is more joy than sadness, more happiness than anxiety. While the details of my son’s birth will never leave my head, my heart has learned to celebrate his life.
For my son’s first birthday, we chose to include family and friends and begin with a Mass, followed by lunch at our home. The week leading up to the party I found myself experiencing emotions I thought I had long since dealt with and put aside. I was wrong. However, each year a little more healing takes place and I trust that one day soon I will look back on the craziness of the early days and it will be full of gratitude.
While some of us experienced traumatic births and subsequent NICU stays, there are other families who left the NICU with empty arms. It’s my hope the suggestions below include every family, whether there is reason to celebrate or an opportunity to remember.
10 Ways to Celebrate
1. Throw a party. I admit, I love a good party. While the first birthday brought many emotions to the forefront, I wanted to shout from the mountaintops that my sweet preemie baby was having a birthday. We had worked so darn hard to get there, I wanted to experience some happiness. Special friends and family were invited to help us celebrate his life. The party was full of laughter, tears, hugs and some “super” birthday cake. Luke, of course, wouldn’t touch the cake because of his sensory challenges, but he sure looked cute next to it.
2. Write letters of thanks to the doctors, NICUs and therapists. Part of my healing that first year was to recognize the tremendous blessing of Luke’s life. There were so many close calls and much heartache, but there were also amazing doctors, nurses and therapists to lift us up when we needed it most. Just before he turned one, I grabbed a pen and paper and wrote every specialist, every NICU (we were at two) and his many therapists notes of gratitude. Some of them saved his life and some of them saved mine. I wanted them to know that their gift of medicine and compassion made a difference in our lives. That act alone was extraordinarily cathartic and healing. I’ve done something similar for his two subsequent birthdays. And, for goodness sakes, include a picture for them to see!
3. Plant a tree or donate to a favorite charity. Perhaps you want a living memorial for your child or maybe you want to honor their life. Planting a tree or donating to a worthy cause may just be the way to celebrate your child’s birthday. Select one that made a difference and consider giving a gift in your child’s honor.
4. Plan a family outing. It could be a picnic lunch, a visit to the local park or botanical garden, an afternoon at the children’s museum or a trip to the cemetery. Family time has a way of healing hearts and making us appreciate our blessings.
5. Take goodies to the NICU. Your doctors and nurses travelled a difficult road with you. Baking them some goodies and then delivering them to the NICU might not only make their day, but yours as well. There is something very healing about reconnecting with people that were an integral part of your life.
6. Plan a religious event, like a prayer service, Mass or gathering of friends. For me, my faith carried me through the dark days. It only seemed appropriate that we begin Luke’s birthday celebration with a Mass, celebrated by his Godfather. We invited anyone who had a hand in Luke’s first year. It really touched my heart to see that outpouring of love.
7. Take family photos. Upon our NICU discharge, I was desperate to get a family photo. For my friends who lost a child, several of them framed the photo they did have and included it in their family photo shoot.
8. Collect toys, books, clothes and donate them to a local children’s hospital or charity. Throughout our NICU stay, we received so many gifts from complete strangers – a handknit blanket, an adorable onesie, wonderful books. Consider paying it forward and doing the same.
9. Put together a slideshow of photos or create a scrapbook of memories. For some, I think this can be healing and for others, they need more time. Looking back through the pictures may be just the way to celebrate your child’s life.
10. Spend some quiet time with family or by yourself. Never underestimate the importance of reflection and remembrance. On your child’s birthday, you may simply want to have a quiet afternoon together or a stroll by yourself.
I’d love to hear how you celebrated your preemie’s birthday. Whatever way you choose to celebrate, I pray it brings you peace and joy. Happy birthday!