How to get through Mother's Day without a mom

The author, left, and her daughter, many years ago. (Photo: Courtesy Barbara Greenberg)
The author, left, and her daughter, many years ago. (Photo: Courtesy Barbara Greenberg)

My mother died when I was 10 years old. With that loss — sudden, traumatic, way too soon — came a lifetime of realizations that have shaped my life both as an adolescent psychologist and as a motherless daughter.

The latter is something I will always be. And, as Mother’s Day rolls around yet again, I am struck, not for the first time, by the idea that losing one’s mom early in life is not a one-time loss, but one that will follow you through all of your days and your years and, especially, those special Sundays each May.

It’s not a particularly shocking realization, as any other person who has lost their mother knows. But it’s a vital one to keep aware of, as it can help arm you with insight for getting through your most difficult days.

Losing a mother to premature death is certainly not a single or simple event that one “gets over.” Instead, it becomes a marker in disrupted lives. Everything is pre-mom’s death and post-mom’s death. Photos reflect this. Memories reflect this. Lives take on a whole new quality.

In sessions with motherless children, I have learned that many create new narratives of their lives: They invent stories of their moms being on trips or being away temporarily. In this world of fantasy, dead mothers are still alive, and for a single moment the surviving kids can fit in and be just like everyone else.

And this sort of behavior is certainly not limited to children; I’ve known motherless adults who have admitted to creating alive-and-well moms when they’re in the company of those who don’t know their circumstances. One woman who I know even tells strangers on airplanes that she is on her way to visit her mother — four decades after her untimely death. This woman is not “crazy” in any way, by the way. She appears to live a very decent and meaningful life. She’s simply still yearning for a mother who fits neatly into her well-planned and organized life.

Motherless children describe reliving the pain of childhood that has been with them for years — from seeing their mothers being buried at the cemetery, and from not knowing how to explain to classmates why their mothers were never around. Outwardly, they may have appeared to be fine, but inwardly they describe having felt a deep and sinking morass of loneliness, envy, and confusion that was too hard to name.

After all, if a mom died during one’s childhood, that child was likely left alone, in large part, with their feelings, as it’s a topic typically avoided by the adults around. The motherless agree that people prefer to talk about pretty much anything, even wars or similarly horrible events, rather than check in about their overwhelming grief. As a result, the motherless develop a sense of shame and deep embarrassment about their situation. After all, if it were an acceptable topic then there would be some discussion. Right?

In my work with patients who have lost mothers, I hear what they talk about, and I see what they feel; all have led me to craft some suggestions about self-care on this always difficult day:

1. Identify the women and the men in your lives who have “mothered” you, and celebrate them. I have a motherless friend who buys three cards every year and sends them to the three women who have, for 40 years, continually invited him over for holiday dinners. I admire his efforts, and they seem to get him through this weekend well.

2. Consider letting the nurturing individuals in your life know how much they mean to you. Perhaps you might visit them on this day or even write them a note about the role that they play in your life. It’s unlikely that they know how much of an impact they’ve had. Trust me here. We assume that others are certainly aware, but they more often are not. It will feel good to tell them.

3. Consider making Mother’s Day a day that’s simply about connections. Reach out to friends who have also lost mothers. You will feel less lonely. I have a friend who also lost his mother at a young age, and we speak frequently on and around this day, and feel connected. We even laugh over private jokes, such as when we hear our friends talking about their mothers and look at each other, saying, often simultaneously, “We wouldn’t know about that!” In these moments, our pain diminishes just a bit, because we feel understood.

4. Think about doing something special on this potentially blistering day so that you feel cared for. Go for a hike, to a park or the beach or to whatever happens to be your own happy place. Most importantly, think about your plan ahead of time, and try not to let Mother’s Day sneak up on you.

Mother’s Day, on a very personal note, will certainly always be painful for me, even decades after the loss, and I don’t expect that will ever change. Still, there is now something else in the mix: significant joy, as I am privileged enough to be a mother myself. It’s a role that I love. And I try, to the best of my ability, to be the best mother that I can be, because I know precisely the importance of the role.

Even in our short time together, I learned a lot from my mother — particularly how to respect and honor the feelings of those around me — and in turn, I’ve always focused on teaching my own daughter the importance of empathy and kindness. Perhaps you too, then, might find a bit of light by relying on and sharing the gift of your own mother’s lessons — to your own children, to nieces or nephews, to friends, or to just about anyone.

Barbara Greenberg PhD, is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Connecticut, and the co-author of Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual.

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