By Patricia Curry
My beloved husband Ray died earlier this year following a long period of ill-health from asbestosis and mild dementia. I was privileged to be able to care for him at home until he died, and I will always be grateful for what I learned from him and with him in our last months together.
Four months later it was my birthday - my first without Ray. Waves of grief seemed deeper and more intense than ever before, and I wondered why. Birthdays were not important in my home when I was a child , and Ray was often away from home on my birthday throughout my adults years, so what was my grief about for this one?
A sudden flash of insight told me that my grief was connected to something I had never had, rather than something I had lost. I realised that this was previous birthday grief I was re-experiencing - years of birthdays without cards, cakes or girfts of any kind in my home. Birthdays later became a source of shame for me when other people learned that it was my birthday, and I did not want anyone to know about it. I have never been comfortable with my birthday, although I made sure my children's birthdays were memorable.
How to deal with the grief of this birthday then, my first without the most important person in my life? Allow myself to feel the loss of him and his birthday kiss, but even more, to focus on the deep sadness of the small child who did not have birthdays. I gave that child some very warm hugs and kisses, holding her and telling her how sorry I was for her. I am sure she was pleased, but still very sad. I would look for happy birthday thoughts.
I smiled to myself as I remembered my grandmother giving me a small red purse one day, telling me it was a birthday present. I was four years old and I told her I did not know what a birthday present was. Birthday gifts were so rare in those years that I can still remember every birthday present anyone ever gave me as a child, so great was my surprise and joy at receiving them. I focussed for a while on looking after the little girl inside me, sharing her surprise and joy at being given small birthday gifts over the years.
Such strong memories available for both sides of my childhood birthdays! That day I lost myself in alternating feelings of sad and happy memories. Eventually all my birthday memories fused into one big celebration of birthday experiences, never to be forgotten, and now integrated into the wholeness of the person who I am now. If only Ray were still with me so I could share this learning with him!