Grieving on “Happy Mother’s Day” (Updated)
Written by Sofia Mendoza, LCSW
In the United States we’ve been celebrating Mother’s Day since 1908 when Anna Jarvis, a peace activist, held a memorial for her deceased mother and then annually celebrated mothers because she believed that a mother is the “person who has done more for you than anyone in the world.” As the day approaches, we get several reminders to, “call mom,” “buy a gift mom will love,” “show the special woman in your life how much you appreciate her” and of course, how “diamonds are forever.” But this article is not about the commercialization of the holiday (wikipedia does a nice job of covering that). This article is more about educating loved ones on how for many, this day can trigger grief responses and how they can understand or help them cope. This article is also about providing validation and support to those who might need it on this day.
I’ve been talking to a lot of people about what grieving on ‘Happy Mother’s Day” is like for them and these are the different reasons that were highlighted. Some have very graciously shared their stories with me and given me permission to quote them here. This is not an exhaustive list, as I’m positive other situations also trigger these feelings. In fact, I invite anyone whose reason I did not list, to contact me to share what their feelings on this day are. I hope to keep adding to this article as the years go by, so please reach out if you’d like.
The conversations I had led me to identify one underlying theme regardless of the exact reason they hurt on this day: not having the mother-child bond they yearn to have. Some of the reasons discovered were:
1) Not having their physically or in close proximity to their mothers, or mother figures to celebrate (either due to death, personal choice, illness, or circumstance),
2) Experiencing a child’s death or miscarriage, thereby altering the idea they might have of themselves as a mother,
3) Not having the relationship/bond that they yearn to have with their mothers or children,
Alternatively, some people get dealt a combination of those (or more) mentioned above, and the complexity of the grief is compounded. The immense toll of experiencing these types of losses on a day where the world is celebrating and posting about honoring this person who ‘has done more for you than anyone in the world” leaves these grievers isolated and alone in their grief.
The Grief Recovery Institute defines grief as: 1) the normal and natural reaction to significant emotional loss of any kind; 2) the conflicting feelings caused by the end of, or change in, a familiar pattern of behavior; 3) the feeling of reaching out for someone who has always been there, only to find when you need them again, they are no longer there. I really like this definition because it is all encompassing of what it means to lose a significant relationship or pattern, along with the normative and complicated feelings that arise from that loss. For this article, I would also add to the grief definition, 4) the feeling of losing or experiencing a void due to not having the relationship we want with a person who we feel we’re supposed to have. I’ll describe in detail what these grief patterns look like for many below:
“My mom died and I miss her so much”
For those who are grieving their mother’s death, this day is extremely difficult due to missing her and being able to have her near. A lot of these individuals are struggling with feelings of loss, regret for things they never got to say or do with their mothers. CS Lewis describes it as “Grief feels so like fear.” For many, they grieve and fear for the future without their mothers. Rubina Jetley’s mother died a little over two years ago. She describes her present and future grief as, “This holiday brings about feelings of loss in terms of things that never got to happen. It’s a really hard holiday because you see everyone around you celebrating something that you’ll never be able to celebrate with your mother again. Also, this holiday brings about feelings of loss in terms of things that never got to happen. For example, I will never get an opportunity to be a mother along with my mother. I won’t have her wisdom, guidance and experience; my child will not have a grandmother. There are so many things I wish I could have shared with my mother, but motherhood is the one I think of most often. I have no idea how I’ll do it without her.”
Another woman grieving her mother’s death for the last 6 years describes, “I feel cheated of this day..sure I’m a mother and I am celebrated, but I have no one to celebrate. I love reading all my friend’s posts to their mothers thanking them for being so great and telling them they love them…but of course I also feel slightly envious that they can still celebrate their moms. I will never be able to explain the pain and emptiness I felt when my mom passed. I seriously felt as if a chunk of my heart/soul was torn out. Even after 6 yrs although it normally no longer physically hurts I am no longer the person I was prior to her death. I began to have panic attacks and few months after it all happened. This was especially disappointing for me since I always felt as if I had a good grip on my emotional state. This reminded me of a prayer Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook wrote in her book Option B where she delineated her grief, “Let me not die while I am still alive.” For many, the pain is so great that they feel as though they are dying.
When the grief is due to death, milestones are also what they grieve. Victoria Pennock describes wondering what her mom would look like today if she was still alive, “what would your face look like with wrinkles, what would your be like, completely white? I wonder, why you left so soon and I can’t even imagine how you would have been as an “old lady.”
Great books on the grief of losing your mother:
“My child is dead.”
The organization, “Remembering our Babies, www.october15th.com is focused on creating awareness around the topic of pregnancy and infant loss. They beautifully describe this type of loss as, “You have to deal with the loss of your hopes and dreams, and the loss of your child. This is no easy task. Your child has died. That is the most devastating loss to any parent. You have also lost your dreams for that child.” For many, they struggle with the loss of their own identity and dreams of being a mother to their child. For these mothers, intense feelings of guilt, overwhelming sadness and loss can cloud this day, even if they have other surviving children.
Some books on this grief include:
“I’ve miscarried or aborted. I want/miss my baby. I long to be a mother.”
Although social media has made it possible to disseminate a wealth of information regarding miscarriages, many women still suffer in silence about miscarriages to begin with. Mother’s day is hard for a lot of women in this group as they describe their longing to be a mother, have children, and fundamentally, a mother-child bond. Along with suffering in silence, many of these women, continue and cope by celebrating their mothers or mothers in their circles. During these celebrations, they ask for sensitivity and refrain from asking, “when will you be a mother? When will you have kids?” They also want people to understand that they can’t ‘just get over it.’
The idea of Milestones come up for people in the loss of a child category as well. Like many holidays, Mother’s day is not just about celebrations. It’s also considered a milestone for many. People who are grieving the mother-child bond on this day wonder what their child(ren) would have been like today, or how their child(ren) would have been expressing their love on this day given what age they might have been? Would they be getting the macaroni necklace made in preschool?
“I struggle with infertility or haven’t had the chance to mother. I plead and pray, “Will I ever be a mother?”
Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos wrote a great article focused on experiencing infertility on Mother’s Day https://www.seleni.org/advice-support/article/what-mothers-day-feels-like-during-infertility. She describes grieving not being able to “experience life inside of her [or] create a family with my husband” and being triggered even after accepting her situation.
“My mother is alive and I have a difficult relationship with her.”
This is a big one. People also hurt when they have complicated relationship with their mothers due to either experiencing childhood neglect, abuse or any other the barrier that impeded the mother-child bond. This is where that addition to the grief definition comes in: the feeling of losing or experiencing a void due to not having the relationship we want with a person who we feel we’re supposed to have. A key feature and characteristic of humans is our ability to connect and bond. Newborns rely on those bonds as they ensure survival by way of feeding, being cared for and ultimately, being protected on all grounds. Studies on attachment in humans and other mammals (such as our closest DNA cousins, monkeys) have found that attachment is incredibly important as it contributes to how we see ourselves and the world. Deep down, we all want to be loved and connected. I’ve talked to many people who hurt due to not feeling that love, support, and feeling protected by their mothers. A close friend jokes saying there should be a card that says, “I’m still mad at you, and you failed me in a million ways, but it’s Mother’s Day, so here you go.”
There are lots of reasons why there is a lack of bonding with parents and children. Some might stem from their own parenting (or lack thereof) they experienced. Untreated mental illness can be a big factor as well, as some of the chemicals essential in bonding might be depleted. Substance use, domestic violence, generational trauma and neglect are also contribute significantly. The level of understanding of these issues can be crucial, however, understanding does not mean that they don’t feel pain or grieve the circumstance. While acceptance of the circumstance is crucial in reducing suffering, it can also be a very hard, arduous and painful journey. Acceptance is much like forgiveness. It takes constant redirection acknowledging your pain, and accepting reality without judgment. Hey, I said it was hard, didn’t I? It’s the single best, yet hardest tool of all to master.
Some people have never met their mothers, have been separated from them due to prison, immigration, or other circumstances. Whiles some had had other significant female figures in their lives, some have not experienced a person who has “done more for you than anyone else in the world.”
This day can be incredibly hard for parents too. “Now that I’m a mother, I grieve even more for the mother I needed and didn’t have. I also realize how hard it is, how incredibly humbling it is, and how much I yearn for being mothered. I see my daughter, feel proud and happy that she feels loved and protected. And then I think about myself at her age and have flashbacks of not being protected, and neglected. Did she not love me how I love my daughter? And then I grieve for that little girl and feel so sad. On Mother’s Day, I go back to feeling like that little girl again.”
The feelings can also be complicated and confusing. “My mom was there for me in many was and I know she loved me – I’ll never deny that. But my mom also knew that my dad was an abuser and [she didn’t stop him when it happened to my sister and I]. She victim-blamed and made excuses [about not leaving him]. I’ve tried really hard to forgive but especially now that I have a child, I just can’t figure out how any mother could turn a blind eye when her child is being hurt. Now my mom has dementia and it’s hard to hold her responsible for things she may or may not remember. But even when she was more cognizant, she never took responsibility or asked for forgiveness. That really hurts; it wounds me in a way I can’t even express. She hurt me so much, but I still love her and still need her.”
“I’m so happy for my friends and family who are celebrating their mothers, yet at the same time, I succumb to an overwhelming wave of sadness and shame due to yearning for and missing that fundamental bond between my mother and I. My story is one of experiencing childhood neglect due to trauma, death, neglect, and unacknowledged mental illness.”
The Emotionally Absent Mother by Jasmine Lee Cori is a great resource to understand emotional neglect.
Healing from Hidden Abuse by Shannon Thomas is another amazing book that focuses on toxicity and the author’s own experience with her mother.
As mentioned above, some people get hit with a combination of the above. A great friend of mine describes her combination story and her reasons for grief and how it can be compounded and complicated. “As a child, I was impacted by a mother who wasn’t ready to mother. Because that word…mother is both a noun and a verb. My mother had her own trauma history and difficult relationship with my father and so she gave me to my paternal grandparents to raise when I was three weeks old. This was probably the best decision she could have made but it always impacted our relationship to the point that we do not have one today. My grandmother loved and adored me. I was wanted, cherished, and after my father died, a reminder of her beloved son. We talked to me, sang to me, did her best to guide me and instill religious and cultural values, and told me stories of my father so I would not forget the man I barely knew. One day my mother came and took me for a visit and never took me back. My mother took me from MY MOTHER. Thus began a difficult and abusive relationship and a complicated love with someone who was painfully learning to parent an eight year old grieving for the loss of the life she had. We never got over our late start. When I was almost eighteen, I left her home and made my own and went back to weekly visits with my grandmother and helped care for her until she died. I was 23. I didn’t have enough time with her. My children have helped heal some of the wounds I have from childhood and I have been able to redefine motherhood for myself. I have been the kind of mother I have always wanted but still I struggle during anniversaries and reminders. Wounds get opened during different life events in which most people want their mothers and grandmothers… the birth of your own children, religious sacraments, and the times where most children have grandparents present…my children didn’t have one.”
“I have a complicated relationship with my children and I am not celebrated.”
My hope in this article was not to bash the mothers whose children yearn for a stronger connection. With that being said, as discussed in the section above, there might be several reasons for the lack of relationship between mother and child. Just like parents can experience untreated mental illness, substance abuse, trauma and other life altering events, so do children, which can make a parent’s grief equally great. Mothers who I’ve talked to about this pain acknowledge that this grief is a consequence of their regrettable actions such as not receiving help for whatever was going on with them and that might have created a barrier for the attachment or relationship with their child. Almost all of the parents I’ve worked with have described immense pain when they realize the impact of their choices, consequences of generational trauma, or the effects of their own childhood experiences. A professor of mine talked about the “ghosts in the nursery” and how we always carry our ancestors with us and through our parenting. One person shares, “I didn’t know how to mother because my mom died when I was 12 years old. She wasn’t affectionate with me because she was so sick all the time. After she died, I tried searching for connections and love. All the men I was with were no good. I just wanted to be loved. They hurt me and my children. I didn’t know how to protect them or myself. No one taught me. I am suffering the consequences of my actions.” This mother is also a part of that grief and trauma cycle.
What emotions are you honoring by grieving?
Emotions are important. They are akin to an internal GPS, signaling threat, danger, justice and rewards. Thinking about emotions like this helped me see and understand challenging behaviors and emotions in myself and others. I wonder, what is the GPS honoring? Where is it trying to get to with this emotion? I usually find that there’s more than one emotion, or destination that’s being honored. In my conversations with people who grieve on this day, I found that their grief was honoring 1) the immense love and respect they had for their mothers, 2) the yearning for the mother-child connection and bond, 3) the need to feel protected and secure by their mothers, and/or the need to protect as mothers. If we think about it as a two sided coin, we see that the value and weight of the grief is measured by the value of the love or yearning. Immense love will produce immense grief when that person or connection is gone.
When you are feeling lonely, you are honoring connection and love.
When you are feeling anger, you are honoring fairness, justice, freedom
When you are feeling scared, you are honoring feeling protected and secure
When you are feeling sadness and loss, you are honoring having, a sense of happiness, connection, love.
Simple things loved ones can do or remember on this day to help with coping:
It can be hard to support someone, when you don’t know how or don’t fully understand their pain. Some of these suggestions are direct quotes from those who helped me write this article, others are recommendations based on what I’ve heard from people, validation and coping research over the years.
- The short answer, is to just ask them what they need from you. For the grievers, this means you have to do your part and let them know what you need.
- Ask, “how are you TODAY?” I recently started reading “Option B” by Sheryl Sandburg, COO of Facebook. The book is about uncovering strengths and the ability to bounce back after a loved one’s grief. She described the roller coaster of emotions that she went through and how family and friends also had difficulty in knowing how to relate to her or help her after her husband’s death. She felt that the best way of asking checking in on someone who is grieving, while honoring their roller coaster of pain is by asking, “how are you today?” She explains that this is the best way to validate that someone is doing the best they can in this moment.
- “I would love for [them] to let me have quiet time to process and not have to be “on.”
- “I want people to know and understand that the grief never goes away; there’s no “getting over it,” or “moving on” or anything of the like. I’ll experience it forever in one way or another.
- Don’t be surprised if I’m teary, angry, minimally motivated, etc. Sometimes I just need to feel the pain, and distracting myself only leads to the same feelings cropping up later. Let me grieve, and help me by reminding me that it’s ok to feel these emotions, no matter how uncomfortable they are for me or others around me. I appreciate when others do things to try and make me feel better, but sometimes I just want someone to sit with me and acknowledge that I’m in a lot of pain, rather than try to redirect me to something else.
- “Celebrate me even though I’m not a mom, and acknowledge that I’m a mother-figure to those I mother.”
- “Netflix and chill with good food. Take out is best since I don’t want to go to a crowded restaurant and witness all those mother-child bonds.”
- If you notice that I’ve deactivated my Facebook account, don’t make a big deal out of it. You can still text me and let me know you’re thinking about me.
- “Just sit with me and allow me to feel my emotions. I’m not afraid of them, I just need to feel them.”
- Just say, “I’m sorry. I know you’re in pain. I love you. I see you.”
- “Simply hug me and understand that Mother’s Day isn’t a day to provide gifts and flowers, but one to be grateful for being a mom and/or for having one.”
- “Keep inviting me to celebrations but be patient and respectful of my response. One year I might be willing to celebrate, while another year might be difficult for me.”
- “Just sit with me. You don’t have to say anything. Just being there next to me helps.”
- “Don’t tell me what I should be grateful for. I’m grateful for many things, and I can still grieve.”
- No one type of grief is more hardcore, sad, or tragic than the other. They’re just different and significant for the griever. Please don’t ever tell someone that you wish you still had your mother around to be mad at, or even to forgive. This is incredibly invalidating to the griever whose mother is not dead, but still grieving a lost relationship.
- Never tell someone who has lost their mother that it was “her time to go and in a better place.” The griever begs to differ daily and is not comforted by these words.
- You don’t need to alter your own celebrations or honoring of your mothers or important mothers in your life. Every person I spoke to talked about being able to feel so much joy and happiness for family and friends celebrating.
- Consider that they might be feeling a little envious of close and physical mother-child bonds on this day. That’s because they are honoring connection and bonding – a perfectly normal human trait.
- Give them their space if they request it. Paradoxically, it might give them the space and time to feel their feelings and realize a few minutes/hours later that they are ready to cope by seeking out that connection in you, since their GPS just informed them that it’s safe to proceed to their intended destination: comfort.
- Remember that progress and healing is not linear. There may be good days and bad days. It’s hard to know when there will be a trigger. “It feels like a chunk of my heart/soul is missing.” “I am not the same since death.” “Grief never goes away.” It transforms, but it never goes away.
- My grief might be dependent on all the others things that are happening this year. Last might have been a great year for me, but this year with added stress and circumstances it may be harder for me to cope with the grief.
- We all grieve differently.
- Even though I might be in grieving in pain, know that I’m happy for you and for loved ones who are celebrating on this day. I may also be envious, but only because I long to do the same things as you, or feel love like you do. I’m not mad at you. I’m simply grieving my loss.
- Remember that there are different types of grieving on this day.
My commitments to me, my coping and my grief.
Sometimes when people feel stuck in their grief, it’s usually due to the GPS being off balance and not knowing where it’s headed anymore. Committing to destination or a value of yours can be extremely helpful through the grief. I asked grievers what they commit to doing to continue to honor their grief and their healing process.
“Continue with my mental health treatment.
“Continue to make her proud by being a go-getter, good mom and giving person. Every time I perform an act of kindness I feel her presence and her being proud of me. I hope to raise my daughter to become a strong and independent woman, but most importantly, a happy one.”
“I’ll continue with my mental health treatment, and maintain my strong connections with my loved ones. I’ll keep working hard to achieve new goals and have new experiences, because I know that’s what mom would want. Most importantly, I will try to keep riding out the grief; I’ll allow myself to feel it and make a conscious effort not to shame myself for feeling weak sometimes.”
Victoria Pennock shares a lovely letter to her mother 4 years after her passing (translated from Spanish), “When I fall, I [will] pick myself up. I miss you, I need you, and I will continue to make an effort to learn how to live like this, healing in every possible way by way of my gains and also make an effort to be a better mom than yesterday, better person, and also a better professional [in my field].
“My commitment is to stop trying so hard to be strong and not to cry, to let myself feel my grief and not to try to hide it or suppress it. To acknowledge that what happened is not my fault, that it’s ok to still love my mom even though my anger and grief, and that I am a good mother in spite of everything. And to love those who are experiencing pain on this day, even if it’s not the same as mine.
“Mother’s Day is a day of reflection of the complicated love of being a mother, missing a mother, and being a peace for those who have mothered you in the course of your life. Some years I go to a baseball game with my comadre. Other years I have stayed in bed with my favorite movies and snacks. When my heart is good, I go out and celebrate the other mother’s in my life…but I respect whatever my heart tells me I need for that day. This year, I get to celebrate my daughter’s first mother’s day and my heart will be good.”
Ideas for coping:
Healthy Connection. “I surround myself with positive energy. Luckily I am blessed with strong women in my life that are always there when I most need them. I also spoke about the pain every chance I had.”
Therapy. “Ongoing therapy has been helpful, as well as identifying people who have experienced a similar loss. I participated in a year-long grief group, which was immensely helpful, and I was able to make some strong emotion and spiritual connections, which I’m so grateful for.”
“I’ve had years of therapy that have helped me ease the guilt I carried for not trying enough or being the ‘bigger person’ of trying to mend things, and [letting go of resentment].”
Healthy boundaries. Just because I understand the reasons for their lack of attachment or bond with me, doesn’t mean I have to enable her problematic behaviors. Implement healthy boundaries when I start to feel abused by my mother again. Healthy boundaries are a form of self-care and self-love.
Values. Act according to my values and the emotions I am trying to honor. This can mean, honoring connection and safety, therefore, engage in any activity that represents that for you. One person I spoke with decided to still give her mother a Mother’s Day card even though she was still angry with her because she said that it would allow her to honor connection and kindness — which are all important values for her. Others might choose safety and decide to stay away from their mothers. For those grieving death, they might want to honor love and connection and memorialize their deceased mothers or children — in bed alone, or with others at their graveside.
Acceptance. Focus on the present moment and accept reality the way it is right now. Acknowledge your pain. Honor the emotions. Honor wanting that love and connection. Mother yourself in a way that you loved being mothered or would have loved being mothered. Reach out to mother-figures in your life who accept you and nurture you in ways you need and want.
Meditation. Meditation is a helpful tool for understanding and managing challenging emotions associated with grief. The following grief meditation by Jack Kornfield is a great way to get started, get to know and honor your grief. https://jackkornfield.com/meditation-grief/
Gratitude. As annoying as it might be for people to mention gratitude when you’re in pain, studies actually show that engaging in gratitude exercises can be beneficial. I remember Oprah talking about how her gratitude journal was her saving grace many times. On this day, as you may be searching for answers or meaning, consider identifying things that are helpful and true reasons to be grateful for. This isn’t meant to invalidate your pain, but rather to move us away from a tunnel vision that’s only focused on the grief. Those who I spoke with about their deceased mothers expressed gratitude over having a great mother-child bond. They were able to acknowledge strengths in their mothers that they were starting to see in themselves. Others talked about the strong female figures in their lives, despite not having their mothers or relationships with their mothers. Those who were mothers were grateful for having an opportunity to mother. Those who didn’t have children talked about mothering others like pets, friends, and family members. Some were able to focus and acknowledge some form of love their mothers or children did express (even if they didn’t have the mother-child bond they yearned for). Others acknowledged their resilience throughout it all.
Self-compassion: Many people carry around shame, guilt, blame or thoughts related to being punished for something they did. It’s important to build self-compassion. We are our own worse critics. Would you be saying these things to a friend going through the same thing? Regardless of your transgressions, try saying this to your newborn self, child self, teen self, young adult self, and now: “May you be well. May you be free from suffering. May you find ways to heal. May you be happy.” All those ‘selves’ need that compassion and well intentions.
Sheryl Sandberg wrote a Facebook post about her processing her grief, 30 days after her husband died. This quote represents acknowledging your emotions and committing to the future. “I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well. But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.”
My wish for you all today reading is that you always choose life, healthy connections, meaning and healing.
*Special thank you to all the people who contributed and helped spread awareness of this difficult and complicated topic.
If you feel triggered by this article and are in need of some immediate resources, I urge you to contact:
- Call 911 or go to your nearest ER if you feel you a danger to yourself or others
- 211 – in LA County it’s the social service directory for grief groups, therapy resources, housing, and more. It’s also online, google, “211”
- Call the LA County Access hotline for a psychiatric evaluation wherever you are located. The ACCESS/HOTLINE Phone number is : 1-800-854-7771. ACCESS operates 24 hours/day, 7 days/week as the entry point for mental health services in Los Angeles County.
- Email me at email@example.com if you’d like to inquire about an appointment with me in the Long Beach area. I can also help connect you to other therapists if you live elsewhere.
- If you would like to access your insurance mental health benefits, there should be a Member Phone number on the back of your insurance card. Ask them for their list of approved therapists. They can also email it to you, making it easy to cross reference the list on www.psychologytoday.com where you can check their profiles out.
Thank you for reading. Follow me on Instagram under @mendingrootstherapy to get updates about new articles, quotes and other musings on mental health.
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*Disclosure: These recommendations are not meant to replace professional help. Please seek professional mental health services to further understand your problems, symptoms, and situation.