Your parents were there for your first words, your first steps, and major milestones in your life. But now you’re spending your first birthday without them.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How to Get Through the First Birthday Without Your Mom or Dad
- Ways You Can Remember Mom or Dad on Your First Birthday Without Them
It can be hard to answer the question of how long does grief last after a parent dies. It may linger in some ways for the rest of your life, but with all losses, it can get easier in time. And it’s OK for this first birthday without them to be different.
First, take a few tips from the list below to help you get through the day in your own way. Then consider a few other ideas for honoring and remembering your mom or dad.
Tip: No matter how long ago your mother or father passed away, you might still be sorting through the life they left behind. Our post-loss checklist can help you work through all of your post-loss responsibilities.
How to Get Through the First Birthday Without Your Mom or Dad
Grief can make even special moments like birthdays more difficult. Learn a few ways to get through your emotional day.
1. Expect your feelings to go up and down
Your birthday won't be the only special day you go through in your grief, and each one could look a little different. The morning may even feel different than your afternoon. You might find something that sparks a happy memory after feeling down for most of the day. Maybe you share a laugh with your sibling moments before you feel a strong pang of loss.
All these ups and downs are normal with grief. You may always sense your loss more strongly on special days like birthdays. For now, try to be present with the emotions you have today. Honor them and give them some space.
2. It’s OK if you don’t feel like celebrating
When you're going through a major period of grief, everything feels a little different. It's not right or wrong to have a certain emotion or viewpoint. People may tell you to cheer up or celebrate because you should, or say that "your mom/dad would want you to be happy on your birthday."
It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about your birthday, only you. Your grief is a reflection of how much your parent means to you, even after they're gone. So if your emotions feel a little cloudy on your birthday, that's your reality and it's OK.
3. Plan a few self-care activities
If you aren't in a celebratory mood, you can still benefit from some tried-and-true activities to lift your mood. Even if you don't become overly emotional, you may feel kind of blah.
You don't have to think of it as your celebration. Instead, consider it a day involving self-care. You are free to think of your birthday however you need to in light of your grief. Consider these ideas and any more that tend to work for you.
- Take a walk or do a fun workout
- Choose a favorite food
- Take a long bath or pull out some favorite music
- Time with your hobby
- Do something special with your pet
- Spend time in a park or wherever you have natural beauty near you
4. Focus on gratitude
It's easy for your mind to drift towards a feeling of emptiness, focusing on what's missing instead of what you have. And that doesn't mean you should dismiss or minimize your grief. It's all valid and important to recognize.
The grief process is about more than just sad feelings. It's about recognizing what this loss means to you and the adjustments you make. Unless you are intentional about your mood, your emotional gravity can tilt toward sadness.
For a few moments, invite your mind to focus on some things you are grateful for. Maybe your last birthday with your parents was a special gathering in some way. Or you are in good health right now. Think about happy moments or positive events that have happened since your last birthday.
5. Make plans to distract and occupy yourself
If you have nothing planned, your emotions may have an easier time taking over your entire day. There's no right or wrong way to get through a challenging day like this. If cleaning off a shelf in your garage or reorganizing your closet gets you through the day, that's OK.
When you give yourself an activity to focus on, your mind has a track to run on for a while. Your emotions will come and go, even with a planned distraction. If you become emotional, don't fight your feelings or pretend they don't exist. Ride them out and see how you feel. You may get worn out and want to rest. Or you may need to get busy again.
6. Consider celebrating your life on a different day
If the idea of celebrating a traditional birthday without your parent bothers you, celebrate something else. Choose to put a different focus on the day or share a friend's birthday so you can celebrate together.
A woman named Nama learned of her father's death on her 36th birthday in 2017. Because of the trauma from that day, she ignored her birthday for two years. Three years after her father's death, her son offered to swap birthdays. They both celebrated, but the pressure was off that day being about her. The next year it was easier to face the date with celebration. It was enough of a distraction for her that she was able to feel joy again. Here are some similar ideas to think about:
- Trade birthdays with a close friend or share one
- Celebrate a family day or a friendship day
- Choose a silly holiday or a famous person's birthday as your celebration day
Ways You Can Remember Mom or Dad on Your First Birthday Without Them
There are many creative ways to honor a deceased parent on your birthday. These ideas can help you cope with your loss while feeling connected with them.
7. Write your parent a letter
If you've never written a letter to someone who has passed away before, keep it simple. Writing words to someone who won't read them can be an emotional experience.
You may feel regret for things you never said or recall meaningful moments as you retell a favorite story. Writing a letter can also be a cathartic experience for you.
The physical act of writing words with your hand helps your brain process thoughts and emotions in a unique way. Should you keep your letters or get rid of them? That's up to you and how the letters work with your grief.
8. Gather favorite pictures
With the transition from film cameras to mostly digital cameras, you may have family pictures scattered in different places and formats. Your birthday is a good excuse to pull a few of your favorites together.
Find a mix of recent and old ones, or maybe some of the birthdays you spent together. Create a digital collage to share with family or get printed versions to put up on a wall.
Gathering pictures can be a bittersweet activity. There won't be any more new ones coming, and you won't see them in person anymore. But putting them together can be an enjoyable and creative experience.
You may come across pictures you haven't in a long time or maybe ever. Let this be an opportunity to see the many different facets of your beloved parent, creating a loving reminder to look at every day.
9. Gather or speak with a family member
This birthday, consider getting together with or calling a family member you're close to. Even if that isn't your normal birthday activity, spending time with someone who cared about your parents may soften the sting of missing them.
Getting support from friends and coworkers can mean a lot. But another family member understands your loss in the personal kind of way you may need right now.
10. Enjoy entertainment or a restaurant they liked
Sometimes doing things your parent liked can make you feel closer to them. At their favorite restaurant, you may feel their spirit enjoying the experience with you. Or you may connect by enjoying the same kind of entertainment they always liked.
Think of concerts, a local annual event they never missed, or their favorite sporting team. Enjoying those experiences can help you feel like you're sharing the moment with them.
11. Create a memorial
A living memorial like a tree or garden can be a wonderful way to celebrate life. As a tree or garden matures over time, you can care for it and watch it grow. Caring for plants may be especially meaningful if your parent loved the outdoors or had a gardening hobby.
Consider something in a public space like dedicating a park bench, an engraved brick, or a nameplate. If you want to have something that you can carry with you all the time, consider some memorial jewelry options. Think about ways to do this in your parent's hometown or where they lived most recently.
12. Give or raise money in their name for a charity
Instead of putting the focus on you, you might prefer to think of others. Consider a charity that your parent supported or connects with a cause they would have liked. Or, if they had a health condition related to their death, think about getting involved in some of their events or fundraisers.
You may find that looking into these charitable activities now inspires you to do more at other times of the year. Your birthday gift honors your parent's life by celebrating generosity.
Getting Through Your Birthday While Grieving Your Parents
Your first birthday without your mom or dad will be unique. It may be a tough day, or you may find joy in the unexpected moments. Don’t expect your birthday to be like previous ones in your life and try not to compare it to what others are doing. With some guidance and support, you can get through it.
- “Helping Others Cope With Grief.” Federal Occupational Health, foh.psc.gov/nycu/copingtips.pdf
- “When a Parent Dies.” GriefWork Newsletter, University of Kentucky, Family and Consumer Science Extension, fcs-hes.ca.uky.edu/sites/fcs-hes.ca.uky.edu/files/fam-gw.116.pdf
- Winston, Nama. “Nama Winston: 'After my dad died, my son saved me from the worst day of my life.'” Mamamia.com, September 18, 2017, www.mamamia.com.au/grief-around-birthdays-nama-winston/