Birthdays and the “Could Have Beens”

Bart Sumner - birthdaysIt’s no secret that among the days of the year that hold perhaps the most dread for parents who have lost a child is the birthday. That annual marker, which in most cases, is a day to celebrate another day in the march forward to being a grown human being.

But for those of us who have lost a child, it is a day that represents all that could have been. It makes no difference how old your child was when they died; there is always, from a parent’s perspective, things that were yet to be experienced.

For me, since my boy died at the tender age of 10, the list is massive. He was still at the stage where he was pretty much ignorant of girls and the joys and heartbreak they would bring to his life. Or maybe it would have been boys. I don’t know, and neither did he yet. The whole sexual awakening thing hadn’t had a chance to happen. So his “first love” never happened. Which means no first kiss.

He never knew what it was to be a teenager. Though, like any kid we had disagreements over too much fast food or what he watched on TV, for the most part my son still saw my wife and I the way kids always see their parents, icons of all they hoped to be. He never had the chance to come to the realization that we were just people with problems and faults all our own. He never had that pull to do something he knew we would really not agree with.

His world revolved around making us happy, and doing what we thought he should. The rebellion against our parents that we all go through, that which makes us who we are going to be, never had a chance to flourish.

Ironically, because of his death, his younger sister has seen that mom and dad are not perfect. She has seen us cry, and be petty and even mean at times because of the grief we encountered. She has had conversations with us that go far beyond what she would have had with us because life was cruel to her, and took away her co-conspirator in this family dynamic.

We have shared feelings and thoughts with her, so that she knows the crazy thoughts that might be bouncing around in her head are normal. She still has lots to learn as she grows, and the questions she encounters and develops, in relationship to his death will be plentiful. Thankfully, my wife and I are aware of this, which is why our communication with her is beyond what it would have been had he still been here.

My boy will never know what it means to learn to drive and experience the freedom that first driver’s license gives you. He will never go off to college, and be on his own. He will never have the realization Mare Winningham’s character had in ST. ELMO’S FIRE about just how good a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can taste when you realize it came from your own refrigerator, in your own apartment.

He will never know true love, or marriage, or success at work. He will never know the incredible joy of holding your own child in your arms, feeling their warm breath upon your cheek, the gentle beat of their heartbeat, and the joyous music of their unbridled laugh.

Of course, for the sake of total disclosure, these are things I will never get to see him do either. I am acutely aware that wrapped in and around my sadness for him for never getting to experience these things, is the selfish losses I feel at never seeing him experience these things. As a father, I lost my only son. And though we had a chance to share many father/son moments like learning to throw a baseball, ride a bike, play poker and build an X-Wing fighter out of Lego, there are far more things we had yet to share together that will never happen. Teaching him to cut the lawn, and drive, and sharing a beer are all things we will never experience together.

I will never see him push away from us and become his own man, and will never experience the satisfaction of having him come back to us asking advice for something like helping to get his new baby to sleep. I will never know the comfort of knowing as I grow old that he is there to help us maneuver old age and rely on him to make sure the old man isn’t “losing the farm” to some conman preying on my addled senses.

Of course there are things I know of the life he did lead that bring some solace to these lost shared moments. I know that when he died my son had never truly known loneliness, or hunger or heartache. He had never had his heart broken beyond repair by the cruel actions of the world around him.

His life was one of joy and happiness, filled with wonder and unconditional love from a younger sister who he took great pride in protecting and guiding through the world he had become so learned at moving through. And he had two parents that believed he could do anything, and encouraged him in all things he wanted to try, even the one thing that beyond understanding took him from us, football.

Yes, it’s the birthdays that bring all those things back to your mind. The things that “could have been” are among the hardest of things to forget and move forward from when you lose your child, no matter at what age it happens. It makes one ponder who he might be today. How the years since his death would have shaped and changed him, and what he would have become are the questions that will haunt me every day, but especially on his birthdays.

Maybe I should try to just celebrate that 14 years ago in my history, a young man came into this world who would change who I was, what I would become. His life continues to shape me, and will for as long as I draw breath in this wonderful and horrible thing we call life. I miss you pal. Happy Birthday.

Thanks to guest author Bart Sumner for sharing his story. Bart’s daughter has attended two Comfort Zone Camps and says they “gave her some great support to see her through the nightmare of losing her brother.” You can read more from Bart on his Healing Improv blog.


  1. Sandra Rockman said on August 13, 2013 at 6:49 pm ... #

    I read this article,and started crying. Mt only son’s birthday is later this month. He died riding a motor cycle in Phuket Thailand, at 3 in the morning with a bunch of roses. This was six months ago. He to left a sister, one year and 3 weeks older than he. They were inseparable. I will send her this link. We do not mourn together as neither of us want to
    upset the other. we are having a get together with his friends on his birthday and will share cake, a couple of Canadian Clubs, (his favourite drink) and stories. I’m looking forward to it despite my family and friends telling me I’m mad to do it as it will be too upsetting, but I’m going ahead as a mark of respect and honouring my son’s dear life. I identified with this article and after the tears I felt calmer and some resolve. Thank you Sanadra

  2. Bart Sumner said on August 13, 2013 at 7:07 pm ... #

    Sandra, tears are part of the healing. I learned to “lean into them” for just the reason you said, the calm and release afterwards is healing. The pain never goes away, but you come to understand it and realize it is so very necessary. Don’t worry what others tell you you should do, do what you need to. It’s your grief, no one else’s. My wife and I grieved very much in our own ways, but always checked in to make sure we were okay, and today we are still together moving forward with love and laughter. There are other stories on my blog about what I went through. Please read and share all you want. Knowing what you are feeling and thinking is not unique, but shared by many who lose loved one’s is where the strength comes from. Be well, peace and light to you. – Bart

  3. Dee Potter said on August 22, 2013 at 12:13 pm ... #

    My son would have been 22, Tuesday Aug 27, Its a day I will never forget….I remember them saying…Its a boy!…When he was suppost to be a little girl…lol..I had no Idea what I was gonna do with a little boy.. He was the light of my life. There was a bond between us..unlike the one with my daughter..he was my baby. I still don’t think I will ever get over this emptiness, when he died apart of me died with him…my life has forever changed…and no the pain will never go away….But I am thankful for the time I had with him, he was one of the best things that ever haooen to me…

  4. Sherrie Wells said on August 22, 2013 at 1:23 pm ... #

    My precious baby boy should have celebrated his 5th birthday, instead he never quite even made it to his 2nd. Cancer sucks…

  5. Lisa Ratnavira said on September 1, 2013 at 10:29 pm ... #

    Thank you for naming this heartache of what would have been…our daughter would have been 23 on Valentine’s day…a day filled with love and gratitude is now so difficult to bear even the day with the grief in our hearts…thank you

  6. Debbie said on March 3, 2015 at 5:18 pm ... #

    Could we reprint this beautiful article in our chapter newsletter. I have to ask permission. The Compassionate Friends – you probably already know – helps parents, grandparents, and adult siblings after the death of a child. I lost my son Patrick four years ago on Thursday. I am still not able to write about it. This will be our first newsletter for our 3 year old chapter that I formed.

    Thank you,

    Debbie Rivera

  7. BRENNA said on March 19, 2015 at 11:11 am ... #


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