By Karla Helbert, MS, LPC
Mother’s Day is observed by many as a joyful day of celebration, a time when hardworking mothers can have a chance to put our feet up, relax, be treated to breakfasts in bed, special lunches or dinners and given special consideration. We might receive gifts lovingly chosen or perhaps handmade by our children and partners. The day may hold special times set aside for visiting with or talking to our mothers, perhaps making up for time we have been apart, busy with our lives. The idea of Mother’s Day in our culture is painted as brightly and sentimentally as any Hallmark commercial.
The truth is though, for many, Mother’s Day can be a painful and difficult day. Women whose children have died at any age, women experiencing infertility, women who have had miscarriages, men, women and children whose mothers have died—for these and others, Mother’s Day can be a day of sadness and loss. In grief, many days typically perceived as happy or joyful times are experienced by the grieving and bereaved as sad and isolating. Bereaved mothers are faced with the experience of seeing other mothers interact with their children and watching seemingly happy, intact families go about the daily ordinary business of life.
People whose mothers have died hear other people speak casually about day-to-day interactions with their mothers, or watch mothers and daughters shopping or lunching happily. We are faced with the barrage of Mother’s Day commercials created to tug at our heart strings (and of course, urge us to open our wallets); and in all those things, so much of the grief we experience is the grief for that which can never be our reality. Each person’s grief, and his or her response to the pain of grief is always highly individual, but no matter what, if you are a mother whose child has died, or, if you are a child whose mother has died, Mother’s Day is a sad time.
For women whose children have died, it can almost go without saying that Mother’s Day is deeply painful, and because of that, it should never go without saying. If you know a mother whose child has died, at any age, please acknowledge her motherhood as well as her pain. The greatest gift for a bereaved mother on Mother’s Day can be the simple, but hugely powerful, recognition of her motherhood. Even though our children have died, we are still mothers–to all of our children. The simple act of recognition allows a bereaved mother the validation she so often seeks and sadly, so often finds missing. A hug and a “Happy Mother’s Day,” even if that seems improbable, could mean more than one could imagine. There are many things supportive friends and family members can do to help ease the pain of this difficult day for a grieving mother. Visit her child’s grave, leave a pretty stone, a seashell or other small trinket, and let her know. Talk about her child.
Use her child’s name in conversation, no matter how brief. All bereaved parents long to hear other people speak their child’s name after he or she has died. Many non-bereaved people think (wrongly) that if they mention the child, this will somehow “open the wound,” or “remind” us of the loss. You can trust that we are already thinking about our children and that wound is ever-present. Our children are never, ever far from our hearts and minds. One of the greatest fears for a bereaved parent is that no one, except for us, will remember our children. If you have a special memory of her child, send a card with a story of that memory enclosed. It will be a cherished treasure. Even a card simply wishing her a happy and peaceful day is a gesture that is greatly appreciated.
When we are bereaved mothers who are also fortunate enough to have other children who are alive, we continue to miss and to mourn the ones who are not here for our arms to physically enfold. For these mothers, acknowledging their child who has died can be an incredibly meaningful gift. One child does not replace another. We celebrate in the joyful presence of our living children and deeply mourn the absence of the ones who are not here sharing our daily lives. Remembering that we are mothers to all our children is such a special act for women who have suffered early miscarriage, women experiencing infertility problems, or for birth mothers whose birth children have been placed in adoptive homes, Mother’s Day can bring a silent and isolating grief. Much of society does not recognize the loss that can be inherent in these women’s circumstances. Simply letting her know that you are thinking of her on this day can be welcome gesture. A phone call to check in and a simple, “I was thinking of you today and wondering if you were doing ok.” This can allow her to talk about her feelings if she chooses to do so.
In our society where mourning is no longer a widespread or open practice (though I am working hard, along with likeminded friends and colleagues to change that), other community members may not always feel they can openly discuss “the departed.” If you know someone whose mother has died, or if you knew his or her mother, perhaps sending a white flower in memory of their mother may be a lovely gesture. You might also consider sending a card or letter, or making a phone call specifically to share memories of that person’s mother. Taking a moment to let her child know how much she meant to you, can be very comforting. If you know a young child whose mother has died, acknowledge that child’s pain and let that child know that you are a safe person to talk to. Again, sharing memories of the child’s mother can let that child know how much his or her mom meant to others.
For all of us, childless mothers and motherless children alike, planning a way to remember our deeply cherished loved ones is very important. Make a plan that will honor your mother’s life or your child’s life. Acknowledge their presence in your life, your heart and your mind. Honor your love for them, as well as the pain you feel due to their absence. Create new traditions for this day, such as lighting a candle or saying a prayer, or wearing a flower. You might wish to donate to a charity in your child’s or your mother’s name, plan a visit to the burial site, plant a tree, create a work of art or start a scrapbook. Read your mom’s favorite book, watch her favorite movies, listen to songs she loved. Name a star after your child, make his or her favorite food, plan a balloon release with notes to him or her written on the balloons. No matter what, you are always a mother. And no matter what, your mother is always your mother. We can remember them with love.
I vividly recall the first Mother’s Day after my son died. It was a very sad, painful day. The beauty of spring itself seemed to exist solely to mock my childless arms. On that day, my husband and I planted a tree in our backyard. I had originally planned to plant a tree for our son so that he could watch the tree grow as he grew. Instead, we planted the tree in his memory.
The choosing of the tree, bringing it home, digging the hole, and the placement of the tree itself, were all acts that meant more than the simple planting of a tree. The act was elevated to ritual status and was very healing and comforting. I placed special stones around the tree, hung wind chimes and placed special ornaments in and around the tree.
Caring for the tree has become a way of
demonstrating our on-going love for him. Weeding,
decorating the area, watering and fertilizing the tree
have allowed for that loving memorial to continue. The
tree is visible in our backyard from every window that
looks out of the back of our house; kitchen, living
room, bathroom, hallway, office.
While nothing takes away the pain of missing my
child, the ritual we created together to honor his memory
made that first Mother’s Day more bearable, and is
a constant reminder of our love for him. Seeing the tree
bloom each spring and watching it grow a little taller
and stronger with each passing year underscore the
tree’s symbolic representation of our ever-present love
for him and his presence in our family.
If you anticipate that Mother’s Day will be
difficult for you, whatever your personal circumstances,
spend some time making a plan for honoring,
remembering and memorializing. Think about doing
something to care for yourself as well. Self-care gifts
such as massage, manicure, pedicure, can all help to
alleviate stress. Ask for what you need. Taking time to
be alone, to journal, to take a walk, spend time in
nature, or simply to rest can be very helpful. If you
need support, ask for it. If you worry that no one will
do anything for you on Mother’s Day, be pro-active
and tell your loved ones what you would like to do to
observe the day. Plan a lunch or dinner with supportive
friends or family. Give yourself permission to do what
you need to do to take care of yourself.