On my birthday I received a greeting from a good friend. It went something like this:
Now straight up, I want to say that this person is a wonderful and supportive friend and I sincerely appreciate that they went to the effort of sending me a birthday greeting. However, this awkward message — one among many I received — got me thinking. How do you say, “Happy Birthday,” to someone who is going through a difficult time in life?
Face it. There are many reasons why a birthday might not be a happy day. Those who are experiencing grief, loss, illness or depression might find it hard to laugh, play and celebrate their special day. What about the unfortunate soul whose birthday happens to be the anniversary of some kind of traumatic event? (I have a friend whose Mother also passed away on their birthday) How about the elderly, the divorcee, the widow, the unemployed? What about someone who feels incredibly anxious or fearful about the coming year — maybe even that their best years are all behind them? God forbid… how do you say, “Happy Birthday” to someone who might be celebrating their birthday for the very last time?
Coming up with the right words to say can feel like a hopeless task, and we may be tempted to simply say nothing. But, of course, this is the wrong approach. So, I hope that this article gives you the confidence to send your birthday greetings to your hurting friends and family without the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. From my experience, here is what really helps:
Affirm the Person
Instead of offering a generic, “Happy Birthday! I hope you have a great day,” spend some time writing down the things that you like about the person and then share them. Start your birthday greeting like this: “On your birthday, I am reminded of all the things that I love about you.” Then list them. Try finishing your greeting off by saying, “My life is better because you are in it!” By doing this you will not only affirm your hurting friend, you will also communicate that the person matters enough for you to put some thought and effort in. This won’t go unnoticed.
Share the Memories
If your friend is anxious or fearful about the future, then offer a message that directs them, for a few moments, back to a better time in life. While it’s important that we don’t live in the past, it’s a perfectly good place to visit.
While it’s important that we don’t live in the past, it’s a perfectly good place to visit.
So, try sending a birthday greeting sharing some of your favorite memories of times spent with your friend. Start your birthday greeting like this: “On your birthday I was thinking of all the good times we have spent together.” Then share some. After that, why not add, “I am looking forward to making more memories with you in the future.”
For a person who is experiencing a temporary difficult season in life, like unemployment or a period of grief, offer a message of hope — a message that points to a better future, but always acknowledge the person’s pain first. I received a wonderful message from a friend that highlights this well… here is what it said:
“I am sorry that you have been going through such a hard time, but there is a great future in store for you. God hasn’t forgotten you. He knows you have special gifts and is multiplying them incredibly through this hell you are going through. Do you think Joseph was ready to run Pharaoh’s empire when he was pissing around with his fancy jacket? No. He had to learn things to be that great. And so do you but I know you will rise above one day.”
Notice the message honors the pain, highlights its purpose and points to the future. This message was amazing to me! But… ONLY approach your birthday greeting this way, IF there is a reason to hope. This leads to the next point…
For a person who is facing permanently difficult circumstances (E.G.: chronic, incurable illness), skip the message of hope, and offer a message of support instead. The reality is not everyone has a better future to look forward to here on earth. So, send a message that indicates your ongoing presence in their life. You might start your birthday greeting like this: “On your birthday, I wanted to remind you again that I will always be here for you. If there is anything I can do to help and support you, just call me.” When you make a statement like this, you are reminding your friend that you want to be part of their support network — that you will walk with them through the valley.
If you admire the way your friend is coping, then say so
Share Your Admiration
People have an amazing ability to endure pain and heartache in ways that are inspirational to others. If you admire the way your friend is coping, then say so. You might include in your birthday greeting something like this: “Although you are going through such a hard time, the way carry yourself, in spite of your difficulties, is an inspiration to me.” Don’t just make a generic statement though. Actually list the attitudes and behaviors that your are finding most inspiring.
Say it With Actions
You wouldn’t be the first person who was lost for words when talking to a hurting friend. So, let your words be few and say it with actions instead. Give your friend a gift that communicates to them that you have been paying attention to them all along. Buy their favorite confectionery or ice-cream or a book from their favorite author. Don’t underestimate the gift of time. Take them out for an activity you know that they’ll love. A well-considered action can speak much louder than your words. Better yet, offer words and actions together!
The Final Word
In a way, Facebook has reduced birthday greetings to a mechanic and obligatory task, robbing it of its impact. Sure, it helps us remember birthdays but what we do with that reminder is up to us. When the birthday of a friend who is doing it tough rolls around again, go the extra mile. To the person who is enduring a season of suffering, your kindness could be the very thing that keeps them going.
A version of this post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.
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