Social media taught me how to grieve on Mother’s Day

Most days, I wake up, reach for my phone, and scroll through Instagram (it’s a habit I’m trying to break). But on Mother’s Day, I mostly try to stay clear of the app—something I highly recommend if you’re grieving a loss on a loaded day. My feed—typically full of beachy-haired fashionistas and people who seem to have way more energy in the morning than I do—will be full of smiling photos of families alongside lengthy captions thanking mom for home-cooked meals, countless loads of laundry, and sage advice over long-distance phone calls. It’s P.D.A. for the modern age, and for those of us who have lost our mothers (or mother figures), or have strained or estranged relationships with them, it’s a punch to the gut.

My mom was killed in a car accident when I was in middle school. Even though 18 years (wow, that is a crazy number to write) have passed since her death, there is no feeling quite like seeing a literal feed of people sharing their love and gratitude for someone you can no longer celebrate with.

I’ve certainly learned over the years that grief doesn’t have an expiration date.

There are months when I only think fleeting thoughts about this very big missing piece of my life. I’ll be happy doing my job, and hanging out with friends or my husband. Then there are other moments so inconsequential and seemingly harmless—a coworker asks what my parents do for a living and I can’t quite seem to answer, for instance—that send me into a spiral of “what ifs” I never could have seen coming. And, of course, there are the big, hard, very bad moments: the solo wedding dress fitting, the birthdays that should have marked another year together.

It’s taken me years to understand grief as the long-distance personal evolution that it is. As time passes, I just keep running into new walls and trying my best to break through them with grace and self-compassion.

So, with all of these moments and milestones, I never expected something like the proliferation of social media to so significantly affect my private relationship with grief.

Pre-Instagram era, Mother’s Day was just a day in May in which I would shut my door to the world, indulge in my saddest music and memories, and give myself a break for eating cookie dough directly from the roll. The next day was business as usual. But thanks to Instagram and Facebook, I’m now highly aware of how friends, colleagues—even influencers I’ve never met—are embracing the day.

Never one to be left out, I’ve devised a strategy of sorts over the years. (Is it any wonder I became an editor?) I started by sharing photos and sentiments for the women I did have in my life who uplift and support me. There was my sister, eight years older than me, who drove four hours home from college most weekends to be my face in the crowd at dance recitals. There were my friends, extended family, sorority sisters. It felt good to share everything these women had done for me and to shine a light on less traditional relationships, but I still felt alienated. Instead of grieving for my mother privately, I wanted to scream to the world, “Today sucks! I need your help,” and “My mom was awesome, too. She’s just not here anymore.”

And Mother’s Day was just the start of it. I soon realized that on my mom’s birthday, on the anniversary of her accident, even in my own happiest moments—I was yearning to share stories about my mom. Everyone in my life knew that I had lost her, but they didn’t know how much she enjoyed popcorn and Pepsi and dissecting bad reality TV on the phone with my dad. They didn’t know she wore leather jackets and Levi’s and drove stick shift and spoke so fast she could have drawn comparisons to Lorelai Gilmore had she been on TV at the time.

I’d post photos and videos of how I made my morning coffee, of whose Oscars gown I liked best, of the most mundane details of everyday life. But I wasn’t sharing what I actually felt and remembered day in and day out. The only thing that kept me from opening up online was a quiet voice in my head saying, “You don’t want to make anyone sad. Don’t bring them down.” It wasn’t until I voiced this to my sister that I realized how silly that idea was. “You’re the one who had to live it,” she said. Not the old coworker or the random person from my third grade class who follow me on social media. I wrote for a living, yet here I was passing up an opportunity to actually say what was on my mind and in my heart.

I started posting old photos of my mom every once in a while with short, mostly vague captions—pictures of her holding me as a baby or newer photos I’d unearth when moving from apartment to apartment. I was surprised when people I hadn’t thought of in ages commented things like, “I miss her too,” or “You look so much like her.” These were people who I had forgotten had also lost someone.

I began to post more often, sometimes addressing my mom directly, sometimes just sharing facts about her that I wanted to remember. The more I opened up, the more others did to me in turn. With each post, acquaintances who had also lost parents at a young age would message me, or distant relatives would send additional photos they had of her. I felt like I was part of a club, no longer ostracized and alone. I started having conversations that I otherwise would have never gotten myself into. Although I realize that publicly sharing your feelings is not everyone’s cup of tea, for me, a writer and editor, I felt freer than I had in a long while.

This year on Mother’s Day, I may post a photo of my mom and a memory I have of her, or I may be too busy with my weekend to even touch my phone. But I won’t worry about being considered weird or sad for “over-sharing.” Because I know now that I’m not the only person having these internal debates. And if you’re having one yourself, I’m just a DM away.