If a Birthday Happens and No One Is There to Blow Out the Candles, Do You Still Celebrate?

So this is the question I ask myself every July.  And I’m not the only grieving parent that struggles with this question.  Many of us do.  July 20 is a hard day for me and my family.  I know this because as it gets closer I am prone to tears that come and go like an unexpected summer storm.

Grief sucks and it sucks the most for me on July 20 and October 19 — my daughter’s birthday and death anniversary, respectively.  An analogy I use often is that the volume is turned up on life during those days leading up to and following.  I am more raw, more emotional, more sensitive, more aware, more open, more closed, more everything.

The first year, MAN, it packed a punch.  I didn’t realize how hard it would be. Since then, I have learned to make room for it.  Feel the feelings, just like Donna did.  She was a master of feeling her feelings without letting those feelings overtake her.  I have learned much from her.  As a family, we’ve also learned that it helps to pull close during Donna’s birthday.  Don’t commit to anything, as we won’t want to be there.  Maybe that will change, but for now it is what it is.

That first birthday without Donna was the acorn revelation birthday.  In a nutshell, pun absolutely intended, two of Donna’s closest playmates offered us envelopes of acorns on her birthday.  What are the chances of that happening?  And what did the acorns mean?  Well, Mr. Google gave me all the information I needed to know, know, that those acorns might have been collected by her playmates, but Donna sent them.

Acorns are the symbol of strength, power, potential, protection, immortality, and difficult labors being rewarded.  I was completely certain, in the moments after opening those two envelopes of acorns, that Donna was reaching out to us on such a difficult day.  She was reminding us of her presence, her continued presence in our lives.  “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow,” is a hard to attribute, but ancient quote that has become very important and comforting to me in the years since.


So much of the work our charity, Donna’s Good Things, does is to help other little kids in need.  I see it as a mission to help fulfill Donna’s potential that she will never fulfill herself.  Donna was our acorn and it is our honor and reward and task to nurture that acorn into a mighty oak.  That is why so much of what we do is help other charities, like St. Baldrick’s (just shy of $170K! raised in Donna’s name) and Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago at their annual Run for Gus, raising funds for the pediatric brain tumor program.

Helping others helps us.

Tomorrow, Donna’s would be/should be 8th birthday, we will be together as a family.  We try to do things that Donna enjoyed.  The zoo, a bookstore or library, Noodles & Co. for macaroni-and-cheese.  Ha!  As wise and amazing as Donna was, she was still four when she died.  Her joys and pleasures were simple ones.

Another thing that has helped us has been to ask our online friends and family members to post photos of themselves wearing black, Donna’s favorite color.  It is hard to understand or describe why seeing dozens and dozens and dozens of photos of folks we know and folks we don’t know honoring and remembering our girl is so helpful.  Such a simple gesture, really, but damn does it give us what we need on such a difficult day.  You can post them here.

It reminds us that yes, Donna was here, she made an impact, she continues to make an impact, she lived before she died, she loved noodles and cheddarwurst and the color black and dancing and reading and her baby brother.  Donna lived.

Finally, if you are so inclined, we invite you to support our Team Dancing Donna in next week’s Run for Gus, a 5K run or 1 mile walk where all donations go to Donna’s hospital to support the care and research of pediatric brain tumor patients.  We wear tutus as we run or walk along Chicago’s beautiful lakefront.  Please consider an $8 donation in honor of Donna’s 8th birthday.  Or, better yet, consider joining our team.  We have lots and lots of tutus to pass around!  You can donate your $8 tribute donation here.  

So back to the question in the title of this post, “If a birthday happens and no one is there to blow out the candles, do you still celebrate?”  Well, I am still working on that one.  I know there will be cake, a little one just for the three of us.  And if we won’t be celebrating, per se, we will certainly be remembering, honoring, and marveling at the beautiful Donna, and how lucky we were and are to have her in our family.

And if you don’t know Donna, well, you should!  Here is Donna in a nutshell:

Hug your kids, folks, and treat them extra special today, and give them a kiss from Donna just because.  She would like that.  Thank you.  



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