Mother’s Day Grief and Gratitude: Notice and Remember to Make a Difference
Part of the “Strong People Grieve” Series
I recall my first Mother’s Day with tenderness. My baby boy was six weeks old, still waking to nurse throughout the night. I squealed with gratitude when my husband sent me back to bed for a nap. Later I woke to the smell of sizzling bacon, and discovered flowers next to my plate when I walked into the kitchen. My husband beamed with pride as he served breakfast with one arm and held the baby in the other.
Mother’s Day calls to mind scenes like this one. We imagine bouquets of tulips and sloppy finger-painted greeting cards; crowded brunch tables and long distance phone calls. Whether it’s a party with Grandma, Mom, and the cousins; or a quick phone call to Mama in the afternoon, Mother’s Day is festive or at the very least a quick dispatching of obligation.
Yet almost a million Americans lost mothers in the past year. Nearly as many mothers lost children. Many others live in circumstances that make being a mother or having a mother painful rather than joyful. So while most people approach Mother’s Day with mild to exuberant enthusiasm, many others grapple with grief.
Personally and professionally, I understand Mother’s Day grief:
A month before my son’s first birthday, my husband suddenly died from a random heart virus. So on my second Mother’s Day, when my son was a rambunctious, toddling 14-month-old, I dragged myself out of bed to make breakfast, alone.
After breakfast, we drew on the driveway with sidewalk chalk to pass the interminable hours of the holiday. My son hummed as he scribbled on the concrete. Next to him, I ground my chalk to a nub writing Happy Mother’s Day in huge angry letters over and over and over again, encircling myself with my scrawl.
On a Mother’s Day when I deserved a medal for continuing to parent alone in deep grief after my sudden loss, I wished myself a happy Mother’s Day. Grateful beyond words for my son, I also felt a confusing mix of despair and anger.
Five years later, to pay forward what I learned through loss and pain, I became a psychotherapist who helps others with grief and trauma.
Throughout my 20-year therapy practice, I’ve witnessed scenarios like my own and more as Mother’s Day looms:
- A woman whose only child died 15 years ago. Every Mother’s Day stabs her with a reminder that she’s a childless mother.
- A mother whose only child, now a young adult, has been struck by a major mental illness that causes her to be disoriented and explosive. She spends Mother’s Day with a daughter who’s gone but not dead.
- A woman who longs to be a mother but who is, because of cruel life circumstances, childless. Mother’s Day is a plumb line into the emptiness where she aches for a child.
- A man whose mother was and is so cruel that he would rather forget Mother’s Day. A responsible son, he spends hours trying to find a card that conveys a Mother’s Day wish that doesn’t betray his own soul with falsehoods.
- A man whose mother died in the normal course of life misses her terribly on Mother’s Day.
As a therapist and a person who’s survived terrible loss, I know that most of these people will be forgotten or abandoned on Mother’s Day. They’ll grieve either alone, or unacknowledged in the midst of friends.
Our culture celebrates joy and strength; banishes grief and vulnerability. Those of us who’ll celebrate on Mother’s Day have been socialized to ignore or gloss over the pain others might feel; or to worry that if we acknowledge their sadness, we’ll upset them.
The only way we seem to know to help is to solve problems. We’re awkward with grief because it cannot be fixed.
Yet we humans are social creatures. Science confirms that when we’re understood in the midst of horrendously painful feelings, the unbearable can soften and become bearable. But when we’re left alone—without acknowledgement or understanding—shame and isolation exponentially increase grief’s burden.
As a society, we all suffer when we abandon people who hurt. History and science show that systems that incorporate vulnerability naturally evolve; and systems that exclude vulnerability become rigid and require revolutions to move forward. When we ignore those who are grieving in our midst, we contribute to rigidity and to the divisive revolutionary times that surround us.
I’m not suggesting that those of us who feel celebratory on Mother’s Day should be ashamed of or keep quiet about our holiday plans. Neither am I promoting political correctness where we repress ourselves to avoid hurting other people’s feelings.
My suggestion is that we take time to remember those around us who might be struggling with this holiday. Tell your childless-not-by-choice friend that your heart aches for her. Invite your niece who had a miscarriage to Mother’s Day dinner, letting her know her grief is welcome and that you understand if she doesn’t want to come. Send a card to your neighbor whose mom died.
Way back on my second Mother’s Day when I was scratching Happy Mother’s Day on my driveway, one of my best friends pulled up to the house unannounced. She sat down next to me and put her arm around me. “I bet this is hard for you.” Through tears I said, “Yeah. I bet this is hard for you too.” She was also widowed young, and didn’t have a child but longed for one.
She grabbed a chunk of yellow chalk and drew a gigantic heart that covered half the driveway. My son giggled with delight as the three of us crawled around coloring the lumpy, bumpy, squiggly heart. I was so bound up in sorrow that it hadn’t occurred to me to draw. My artist friend, who loved me on a sad and lonely day, expanded my small, dark world into colors that burst into beauty, even as tears dripped onto the swirling chalk patterns. We laughed, cried, and hugged until grief and gratitude couldn’t be discerned from one another…
What I have learned is that when those of us who are doing okay turn attention toward the Mother’s Day grief of those around us, our awareness of what we do have often expands, and appreciation for our momentary good fortune emerges.
We don’t need to force gratitude by thinking I could have it so much worse; and we don’t need to practice some simplistic gratitude “exercise.”
The paradox is simply this:
When we allow the pain of others to penetrate our hearts, existential truths—of mortality, uncertainty, randomness, impermanence—burst into the foreground of our minds. This existential awareness can cause us to stop taking for granted what we do have for one simple moment, naturally unleashing gratitude.
When welcomed, grief moves and changes over time. When forgotten and shunned, grief gets stuck—in individuals and in society. Small acknowledgements make the difference between stifled grief in isolation, or shared and softened sadness that lives and breathes… and evolves.
If you’re grieving this Mother’s Day, know that that’s normal and okay, and that I understand. And if you’re doing okay this Mother’s Day, try to remember that noticing and remembering people who might be grieving or in pain can help to soothe sorrow that cannot be cured. And might help you to appreciate your mother and your kids.