Of Feelings and Flowers: Coping When Mother's Day is Difficult
Brunches, flowers and Facebook posts of families in perfection - the modern Mother's Day is often all this and more. But the truth is for most people, the day is complicated and even painful. Mother's Day was created in 1908 to honor the deceased mother of it's founder, Anna Jarvis. It was born out of love, and loss. Although the day can be happy, beautiful and full of affection, there's no shame in admitting it may have sadness and unresolved feelings as accessories. Mother's Day is complicated.
Today's blog post offers suggestions for coping with four of the most difficult scenarios people face during Mother's Day:
The death of your mother
The loss of a child
When Mom has Passed Away
The love and complexities that lace the relationship between mother and child are profound. Your relationship to your mother is all your own, even if you happen to have a twin sibling. There is no one who can match the feelings you have for your mother – nor a love that replaces her love for you. As such, on Mother’s Day (and every day) her passing will leave a space that never will be filled. That’s ok. We save a sacred space for moms.
If your mom’s physical presence has left your life, “celebrating” Mother’s Day may feel confusing, empty, or futile. This is even more complicated for women who are mothers themselves. How can you enjoy your celebration while missing your mom? And what about men trying to celebrate the day for their wives or sisters, while at the same time aching for the love of their deceased mothers?
With the space that remains, we can do many things – all of which point to lovingly honoring the woman who brought you into the world.
Give yourself permission
First, remember, you probably will always grieve the loss of your mother to some degree, and that is perfectly fine. There is no correct way to be in grieving, and there is no need to set a time limit. You can cry, or not. You can share, or not. You can go off for long rides, look at pictures, visit her burial place. You can even decide that the pain is too deep or fresh to think about at certain times. It’s all up to you. Give yourself permission to grieve in whatever way is natural and organic for you, understanding that grieving is a long-term process that helps consolidate pain over time. Eventually, you may transmute your pain into a tool for building your own strength or enhancing the lives of others.
Create a tradition
Many of my patients have benefitted from intentional grieving practices, especially around the time of holidays. This prevents holidays from sneaking up and overwhelming you with emotion. Intentional grieving sets aside time and thought to honor a loved one as is seen in various rituals around the world. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, ritual is symbolically rich. It is seen in all cultures because of the psychological power it gives a person, family or community as it solidifies understanding, strength and healing.
For Mother’s Day, many people light candles and purchase flowers in honor of their deceased mother. Others may visit the cemetery to leave gifts. Consider what tradition you can create, both as a means of remembrance and as a means of intentional grieving. You may wear your mom’s favorite color, write letters to her, prepare her favorite meal or dessert, play her favorite songs, decorate the home with the flower that she loved, tell stories about her or do community service in her honor. If you have children, engage them in the tradition. Seeing their curiosity about your mother, and eagerness to display love and respect for her, will warm your heart and breathe new life into the relationship you still hold with your mom - inside your being. If your partner’s mother is deceased, or they struggle with their living mother, you can invite them to join the tradition – but be understanding if they opt not to.
Understanding Grief vs. Depression
Oftentimes, people are unsure how long it’s “normal” to grieve the loss of their mother. Grieving is normal and can last for as long as it’s necessary. It typically comes to us in waves, especially when we think of the one we lost. But it can have bright spots. While grieving, you can still remember funny, happy memories and feel the joy they once brought. Typically grief does not make you hate yourself, or riddle you with unwarranted guilt – unless you feel you could have done more for the loved one that passed away.
In depression, there is a feeling of lost joy and self-esteem, general sadness not just related to a death, and there may even be a desire to end your life. Please seek help with a local counselor or psychiatrist if you think you may be depressed. Call 1-800-273-TALK if you think your grief has turned into depression with thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
When You’ve Lost a Child
How do you "celebrate" a day to honor your motherhood when you've lost a child? There's no easy answer, no easy way. I have seen the heartbreak of women who have lost infant, toddler, adolescent or adult children. No matter the age or stage of the child, the pain looks the same - crushing and seemingly impossible to bear. Yes, we all know our hope is for our children to outlive us. When that order is interrupted, it can literally be one of the most devastating of all human experiences.
I strongly encourage mothers that have lost children to consider counseling and possibly participation in a support group. My patients consistently state that support groups for grief were exceptionally helpful at certain points on their journeys. How you participate, how long you participate, it's all up to you.
But Mother's Day under these circumstances must totally be what you feel you need. Don't be afraid to tell the folks in your life how they can support you. If you don't know what they can do but just know you want them around, say that. If you need time alone, tell them. It's ok to say you don't want to celebrate Mother's Day. This is true especially if the child you lost was your only child, the death was recent, or your other children are old enough to understand that you need to minimize the pain of remembering that day. Early on in the grief process, that may just be the reality. It will change over time.
Some women enjoy changing scenery. They may go somewhere remote and focus on nature, instead of restaurant lines and commercials reminding them of the day. Others may even travel internationally if they can. Mother's Day isn't the same day around the world.
But I have known some women, after a few years have passed, to make a huge celebration of Mother's Day, fully remembering the child they lost through memorials, tree planting or garden dedication, starting foundations, having a party, etc.
Again, there is no right way to grieve and grief is not a bad word. It is an important human function and helps you to heal over time. Do not try to avoid it, it cannot be ignored. When waves of sadness, tears, even anger come, let them rise and fall within you. Honor it. Mother's Day, in whatever form it takes, is YOUR day. Do it in the way that feels right to you.
When You “Can’t” Become a Mom
When a woman has decided she'd like to have a baby, it is usually an exciting adventure - complete with talks with girlfriends, internet searches for early signs of pregnancy, prayer and fantasies of clothes, names and nursery designs.
But when the early weeks of excitement turn into months of "trying" to get pregnant, a woman begins to experience feelings of panic - worried that she will never conceive. Such is the story for over 6 million women in America struggling with fertility issues. They face frustration, shame and unwarranted feelings of inadequacy. The list of worries and negative thoughts can go on and on. And then on top of it, comes Mother's Day.
Obstacles to pregnancy and changes in your plans for conception don't need to be an embarrassment. If you're awaiting pregnancy with your first child or even if you've been on the journey to motherhood for months or years, be compassionate to yourself during Mother's Day. You may also consider these other tips:
Prior to the day, decide how you'd like to spend it. Is there something that you've really been wanting to do? Plan it for Mother's Day. It can be a trip, a self-care day, a movie to see.
Take a break from social media for a few days.
Confide your feelings to friends who can understand - either because they've been there, are going through the same thing, or just happen to be very supportive people.
Focus on celebrating others, or even volunteering. Service to others can be uplifting and help put your struggles into perspective. Just as there are women without children, there are children without moms or those who love them. If you could give them a little love on Mother's Day, it would go a long way for you both.
Think of a canned response when strangers say, "Happy Mother's Day". It will help you avoid the tendency to explain or overshare.
And if you have a loved one that is struggling to become pregnant, be cautious of the words you use to comfort them - at Mother's Day and any time. The following statements are usually not helpful:
"Everything happens for a reason."
"You're young, just keep trying."
"You can always adopt."
"Motherhood isn't for everyone."
"You can help with your nieces and nephews, or help with your friends' kids."
It's usually better to show support instead. It's always helpful to say, "I'm here if you need me. I'm here if you want to talk."
When There's Estrangement
Prior to becoming a psychiatrist, I really had no idea that voluntary estrangement from a mother, father, or child was so common. My clinical experience, though, has shown me that it is. While choosing to suspend or end a relationship with a parent or child may be due to history of abuse or conflict in the family, poor relationships between in-laws, lifestyle differences or substance abuse, it may also happen with no clear explanation or cause. Regardless of the reason, having to live as if your loved one is deceased when they are alive and well can be brutally painful. In clinical practice, this experience has caused 100% of my affected patients to question themselves - their merit as parents, or their worth as children. And while Mother's Day is not the day to try and figure out what has gone wrong in the relationship, it is a great time to affirm yourself - even in the face of what feels like the world's worst rejection.
Below, I've listed some do's and don'ts for coping with Mother's Day blues born out of separation from the ones who mean most to you.
Allow yourself to celebrate, especially if you have other children with whom you are still in contact.
Be honest with yourself. Estrangement hurts, and it's ok to say so.
Celebrate your successes as a parent. Your estranged child may have no idea of the love and sacrifice it took to raise them. You know what it took, and you can be proud.
Honor your mother, living or deceased, if you hold positive memories and love for her.
Spend the day self-isolating.
Contact your estranged child. It will make the pain worse should they ignore you, or get into an argument with you.
Blame yourself - even if you think your actions or shortcomings are the cause for the estrangement. Self-blame won't change the reality of the fragmented relationship.
Discount your positives as a parent or consider yourself a failure.
Enjoy your own children, if you have any. Try to stay fully in the moment with them.
Make the day fun by pursuing an interest, visiting friends or finding another positive distraction.
Tell yourself that you are lovable and worthy.
Spend the day self-isolating, in negative thoughts, or asking others why your parent has ended your relationship.
Take your hurt feelings out on others.
Contact your estranged parent, for the same reasons listed above.
Participate in self-destructive behaviors to try and numb the pain.
No matter the challenge you face during the observance of Mother's Day, I want you to know that you are NOT alone. Please visit some of the resources listed below to find a community of others living through similar experiences.
Grief Share - a community to share your experiences and gain strength through your loss.
Spark of Life Foundation - hosts free retreat weekends to help those grieving the loss of a loved one.
Healing Hearts Baby Loss Comfort - for suggestions on remembrance, coping, and knowing what to say to a loved one who has lost an infant.
The Friendship Bench - read the attached letter for coping with the suicide of a child.
American Society of Reproductive Medicine - helpful resources for women struggling to become or remain pregnant.