The last few weeks have been one big milestone after another for my high school senior — and me. His last high school exam, his final thesis presentation, his last day of high school followed by the graduation ceremony, senior banquet and graduation Sunday at church.
Watching my children flourish after loss fills me to the full. Yet I’ve come to see that each major life event holds both celebration and sorrow for us. The end of school is filled with these milestone moments — sports banquets, dance recitals, school plays, church musicals, band concerts and more.
Our family will celebrate not only lasts but firsts this summer as another son and his wife are eagerly anticipating the birth of their first child.
Celebrating major milestones hits different when you dearly miss someone you’d love to celebrate them with.
I want to share seven ways I’ve learned to navigate the milestone days and the grief they hold.
7 ways to manage grief at milestones of life
1. Be aware grief is part of the celebration.
Anticipating that grief may be with us as we celebrate means we won’t get caught off guard. And understanding grief can be part of milestone moments reassures us it’s normal.
No matter how long it’s been, we will miss our spouse or child, our parent or sibling, our grandparent or friend even in the best celebrations of life. We especially miss our loved one in the best moments of life because they made life’s moments so special. It’s okay to both celebrate with joy and grieve with sorrow at these big milestone moments.
2. Ask a friend to pray specifically for this.
Our friends want to help but they often don’t know how. Ask a friend to pray for you and your child as you walk through this milestone. Scripture promises the “earnest prayer of a righteous man has great power and wonderful results.” (James 5:16, NLT)
Knowing we’re held in prayer as we celebrate and grieve is a comfort. I’m certain the prayers of my friends have given me strength in single parenting, wisdom to know what to say to my children, courage to do hard things, and provision at each step. Only heaven will reveal how God uses the prayers of others to help us navigate loss that would otherwise crush us.
3. Give your child words their loved one would have given them.
Our family is far enough into our grief journey that we no longer talk about missing Dan every day like we did in our early grief. But I assure you, grief is always right below the surface. And on the big days, it fully surfaces.
Grief unspoken is grief untended. So putting words around what we’re all feeling allows us to collectively exhale.
On the big milestone days, I tell my children what their dad would have told them. I say things like, “Your dad would be so proud of you, Son. I know you miss him,” or “I love watching you dance! Your dad would have the biggest smile in the room watching you.”
Speaking words of affirmation on behalf of our loved one blesses our children and honors our loved one. They “fall like rain and … descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants.” (Deut. 32:2)
4. Make space for your child’s grief.
Giving our child the words their loved one would have given them also opens the door for our kids to talk about their grief. They may simply need permission to feel loss on a celebration day. But they may also want to unbottle what they’ve been thinking and feeling.
These conversations are important windows into how our children are processing loss. We don’t have to force a conversation and we may only need to listen and offer a big hug. But making space for grief lets our children know it’s okay to hold both joy and sorrow at the same time.
5. Fully embrace the celebration.
In early grief, it’s tough to celebrate when your heart’s broken. Two weeks after Dan went to heaven, my daughter turned 18 and, devastated as we were, she wanted to celebrate her milestone day. As I watched her with her friends that night, I caught myself smiling. It felt like the first little deposit on the joy ahead for us if we’d do the hard work of grief.
Even in grief, we’re putting down memories we’ll look back on one day. We’re helping to create the childhood for our children. We’ll want to remember how we cherished their awards banquet, their dance recital or their graduation. These celebrations are pockets of joy that give us hope that life can be good again.
6. Give a sentimental gift.
Milestones are a great time to give our child a special keepsake to honor their loved one. It may be something our loved one owned like a piece of jewelry or pocketknife. It might be a new framed photo of our child with their loved one or something made from their clothing. It could also be a keepsake made with a scripture verse, their initials or their signature like a locket, bracelet or dog tag chain.
We’ve done this a few ways. For graduation, my senior wore his dad’s dress watch. I’ve also had each of our sons choose one pair of Dan’s cufflinks when they get engaged to wear for their wedding. This year, I’m putting together several photos of my daughter and her dad to give her after her dance recital.
7. Watch for the day-afters.
Sometimes, I’ve sailed through big milestone days only to have big emotions hit hard the day after. We steel ourselves for the big day and our adrenaline carries us through. Or the busyness of the celebration, being with people and the happiness of the event distract from a full hit of grief.
But the day after? I can get sideswiped by a full-on emotional hangover. I wake exhausted, depleted and emotionally tanked. Our children may experience it as well. This happens often enough that I’ve learned to set aside time after a big milestone day or season to process, rest and refill.
The good news is loss doesn’t consign us to a world of linear sadness. But the reality is that grieving someone who is part of us never goes away. While grief softens and lessens, the happiest moments are laced with life and loss.
Instead of either/or, two things are true at once. Milestone moments remind us we live in the both/and — where we can mine all the joy of life’s beautiful celebrations while also grieving the one we so love who’s not celebrating here with us.