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Birthdays are special days to celebrate, even in grief

Today is my sister Mary’s birthday. I had a birthday yesterday so we were almost born the same day. She’s five years younger than me. So that means that when I was a teenager, she was still in elementary school. It seemed like a big age gap when we were growing up.

But now we seem very close in age, and we are very close in spirit and friendship. She’s the one I call when I need advice.

Mom did a great job of keeping our birthday celebration separate and special, each with our own separate friends and parties. Mom was good at it, and understood that we all need our own special day.

Mom had lots of practice because my dad was born on Christmas Eve, so she had to plan and do separate birthday and Christmas celebrations! But she was an amazing hostess, so she did!

I talked to my sister as our birthdays approached this year, and asked her what she remembers from her birthday parties. She said: “I remember my mother made everything so beautiful and all my friends were invited. She set up the dining table with beautiful dishes and silver. I remember I felt like a queen, it was so special! One once she held my party right after school and all my friends followed me home. It felt like a parade just for me! ” She said that what she remembers most is the emotions.

I get it because mom also made these elegant parties for me, invited all my friends and served beautiful food; one year I even had a snooze party at 10 and a delicious breakfast in the dining room the next morning.


Well, luckily my dear Baheej also always made my birthday a special day. I have a picture from when I turned 34. It’s of the two of us with a special cake and roses from Baheej when we lived by a lovely lake in central Massachusetts. No cell phone selfies then, but we had a delayed camera to take a picture of ourselves! I look at it and remember the happy days.

Baheej grew up in a culture that did not celebrate birthdays. I think they celebrated, of course, lots of holidays – Easter, Christmas, New Year and all.

But not birthdays. But they had great respect for the elderly. Later, after coming to the United States to study and become a U.S. citizen, he learned to enjoy celebrating birthdays, especially mine. Always nice. And I’m still celebrating his birthday, which comes in July. Always with a birthday dinner at home, or dinner out. When he was here, lots of gifts and surprises and favorite dishes.

So I seem to be full of birthday thoughts today.

The point is: I personally think a birthday is a very cozy holiday. It may be low-key, but still special. It is important not to miss them, even in grief. I think it’s because these annual markers are just a loving way to recognize the special people in our lives. Or even be a little occasion to pamper ourselves. So to all these “May-basket birthdays,” congratulations on the day to you!

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow holds a Ph.D. in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College, and is a retired Motorola director. Contact her at or see her blog See previous columns at

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