Birthdays, Legacies and Life

Past traditions form present attitudes

I’m writing this on my late husband’s birthday. My thoughts and my emotions are bouncing around like a little silver ball in a pinball machine. It’s now been 8 years since Chris was killed and I still struggle with how to cope with certain things. Things like his birthday.

Chris never was one to complain about getting older. Ironically, he always seemed to have a good grasp on the fact that life is fleeting, and that hard work should be balanced by savoring the good times.

He and I always celebrated the heck out of birthdays. There were romantic gifts, silly gifs, handmade gifts. Some gifts were practical and some of them were decadent, Our tradition was to celebrate a birthday week, not a single day, because how could you cram enough exuberance into 24 hours?  When we had children, we celebrated their birthdays with equal excitement, joy and boundless enthusiasm. I continue to make a big deal out of their birthdays, because each and every year is something to celebrate.

When Chris died, our kids were young. How do you try to recognize or celebrate the birthday of someone who’s died, and explain to a little kid that daddy’s in heaven but we’re celebrating his birthday? The first year I tried that, it definitely wasn’t easy.

To celebrate or to commemorate?

I’ve read that some people celebrate the anniversary of a death as a birthday into a hereafter. I couldn’t manage to do that. I recognize and commemorate the day of his death, but I don’t celebrate it. Maybe if it had been a natural, peaceful passing I might think otherwise. I don’t know. It just doesn’t work for me. There are people who celebrate funerals as a “going home” celebration. I sort of envy people who can do that, but I was definitely in no frame of mind to be able to do so.

There are people say you really shouldn’t recognize the birthday of a person who’s deceased because of the fact that they’ve ceased to live. I can understand that some people feel that way and have that attitude, although I don’t agree with it.  Celebrating a birthday is literally celebrating the day somebody was born. I don’t think it has anything to do with that person’s status at the time.

It’s not unusual, I think  to commemorate the birthday of someone who’s passed away with the lighting of a simple lit candle or something like that. The entryway to our church has dance of candles that can be lit for any prayer reason. It’s common to say a prayer in late one on somebody’s birthday. I remember my Jewish grandmother lighting a memorial candle at home on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, although I don’t recall anything similar on his birthday. She certainly may have done so and I just don’t recall it.

Like with pretty much everything else to do with grief or death, there is no rule book about acknowledging the birthday of the deceased. You don’t have to do what somebody else tells you to do, or not do what somebody else tells you not to do.

This March 17th I’m trying to focus intentionally on my appreciation for my husband’s life, cut short though it was.  Because he lived, I loved him and he loved me. Because he lived, our three children exist. Because he lived, many people knew him as a friend, a colleague, a benefactor, an enthusiastic supporter of people and things he believed in.

Leave a legacy of love and compassion

Each of us, throughout our lives, encounters a lot of people. Think for a minute about the ones that you remember.  You might recall a childhood or high school friend, a teacher, a neighbor, a colleague, a business person in your area, a local leader, or a stranger who made a lasting impression on you.  After my husband’s death, I received a bunch of communications from people who were total strangers to me but who knew Chris from his train or ferry commute. A couple of other people who knew him from soccer field or softball diamonds, from the dance school waiting room or the martial arts Dojo.  Each of them had seen the news report about his death and recognized him immediately, and were impacted enough to find me on social media find my address and reach out to me to share a memory of Chris, or how they would miss seeing him. He had an impact on the world through the people whose lives in some way intersected with his.

The people who make a lasting impression on you share time and space with you in some way. It could be at school, at work, in a house of worship, in a store, somewhere along your commute, in your neighborhood, at a coffee shop, at some event that mark a shared interest, and so forth.  They might cross your path in a minor way or a major way, very briefly or for a long time, in a casual way or in some very meaningful way.  All of those moments of interaction create a legacy. Your legacy is defined by your actions. Those actions have an impact on other people.  A legacy is something bigger than who you are today, this week, this month, this year  … You get the picture. It has nothing to do with money or status, with location or education. It has everything to do with how you treat the people and experiences you encounter in your daily life.

This year

We marked Chris’ birthday this year by putting white roses in the vase we have in our house that is imprinted with his image, having a dinner of couple of his favorite foods, and sharing an ice cream birthday cake.  (No candles on the cake though, because there are no more years to count.)  The kids plan to go to the cemetery this weekend – it’s an hour from our house and not logistically possible on a school day.  Each of us know the legacy of embracing life, love, and laughter that he left for us.

He had a positive impact on us and on so many people that we’ll never even know. Isn’t that all any of us could wish for  –  to have a positive impact on someone else in this world?

Your Legacy is a gift that you leave to the ones you love, and it’s a much bigger gift than any birthday present ever could be.

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