Coping With Mother's Day Grief

Many of us wish others a happy Mother’s Day every May, but for a lot of people, Mother's Day is filled with grief and sadness. This is especially true for those who have lost a child or pregnancy or who have experienced the loss of a mother or mother figure.

This article discusses grief, why Mother's Day can be so difficult for some people, and ways to celebrate and honor the loss of a mother or child.

Bereavement vs. Grief and Mourning

Though related, grief, mourning, and bereavement are not the same. Grief is the natural emotional response that occurs after loss, while bereavement is the period following the loss, when grief and mourning are present. Mourning is an active response to coping with grief, such as participating in religious ceremonies, being with friends and family, and taking actions to honor and remember loved ones.

Close up of loving daughter comfort depressed mom

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Grieving the Loss of a Mother on Mother's Day

For many, Mother's Day represents a day of honoring and celebrating the moms and mother figures in their lives. But when grieving the loss of a mother, Mother's Day can magnify the painful feelings that come with grieving.

Coping with the loss of a mother or mother figure is not always straightforward, and on meaningful days like Mother's Day, feelings like sadness, anger, loneliness, and longing can become intense.

Grief is more like an ongoing process than a series of steps or stages to work through. Even when it feels like the worst parts of grieving are over, it's normal to reexperience difficult emotions on significant days like birthdays and holidays, including Mother's Day.

About 10%–20% of people who are grieving have ongoing difficulties related to processing a loved one's death. Talking to a grief counselor may help if you are having trouble coping with the loss.

Finding Meaning on Mother's Day After a Death

Grief is hard work. It requires navigating ongoing feelings, reconciling unresolved aspects of relationships, and finding personal growth while keeping the deceased person alive in memory. While it can be difficult to get through Mother's Day or other days of celebration, there are ways to celebrate and honor the person who died.

Here are some ways to bring meaning to significant days:

  • Plan ahead: Anticipating that Mother's Day will be difficult allows you to plan how you want to spend that time. Plan to be gentle with yourself and spend time with people who understand how you feel. Decide how you want to celebrate your mother, and plan one or two ways to make it meaningful to you.
  • Take action: Do something to honor your mother and her memory. This could be volunteering at a place that meant something to her, making a donation in her name, or organizing a community event around a cause that was important to her.
  • Reflect: Don't avoid painful feelings. Take time to intentionally look at photographs, watch your mom's favorite movies or TV shows, cook her favorite foods, or sort through items that belonged to her. Go easy on yourself, taking breaks when needed. Remember that allowing yourself to feel the difficult emotions that arise is part of the grieving process.
  • Practice self-care: Bereavement increases cortisol, which is a stress hormone. Personal reminders and triggering events that come up, especially on days like Mother's Day, can cause higher levels of cortisol, which can be present in the body for a long time. Make the day one of self-care by using relaxation techniques that help you stay grounded when you become overwhelmed.
  • Face your grief: Take some time to intentionally face your grief. If there are things you were never able to say, try writing them in a letter or speaking them out loud. Create something meaningful like artwork, or just take some time to sit with your feelings for a little while.

Impact of Grief on Health

Unresolved grief is associated with increased health risks like cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer. Working through painful feelings and finding new meaning connected to the loss of a loved one can be hard but is healthy and important.

Grieving the Loss of a Child or Pregnancy on Mother's Day

Losing a child is an unnatural loss. We expect to outlive our parents and older loved ones, but losing a child makes grieving more complicated and can cause intense, prolonged grieving periods. Parents, and especially mothers, who are grieving the death of a child often experience immense guilt, difficulty getting through the day, and a sense that there is no reason to go on living. Prolonged grief disorder is common among grieving parents and can occur even on regular days.

On a day like Mother's Day that is often filled with celebration and joy, the dissonance between a parent's grief and a day that honors mothers can intensify already painful feelings. Parents who are struggling to find identity, meaning, and purpose will likely feel worse on a day that asks them to focus on and celebrate their relationship with their child or children.

Finding Identity as a Parent

It's common to experience confusion about identity after losing a child. The title "parent," "mother," "father," or something similar is given only after a child is born. Once a child dies, it's normal to wonder whether you're still a parent or what the word "parent" means. For parents who lost their only child, this can be even more complicated, as others may not know how to refer to the person and the person may not know how to identify themselves.

Part of healthy mourning means doing the painful work that comes with grieving. This may mean thinking and talking about what identity looks like after the loss of a child. Talking about the child who died, keeping their memory alive is a powerful way to hold onto the parent-child bond and the identity that comes with being a grieving parent.

Social Expectations and Awkward Encounters

Society, acquaintances, and even close loved ones often expect a grieving parent to be through the worst parts of their grief after about a year. In reality, grief after the death of a child can go on for a very long time. Grief usually occurs in waves, while feelings come and go and can be accompanied by intrusive images surrounding the circumstances of the death.

When grief is most intense, it can be difficult for a grieving parent to ask for support, especially as society expects the worst aspects of mourning to be over. Others may even feel uncomfortable listening to continued stories about the deceased child, the parent's pain, and the difficulty of grieving.

Honesty and good communication can help ease awkward encounters with those who don't fully understand the intensity of parental grief. Simple phrases can help direct well-intentioned people toward helpful ways to engage. For example, try, "Thank you for your thoughtfulness and kind intentions. It's more helpful for me to have someone just to listen than to provide advice."

Helping Someone Grieve

If someone you know is grieving, avoid giving unsolicited advice and offering unhelpful opinions like, "They are in a better place," or, "It was just meant to be."

Coping Strategies for Mother's Day Grief

Treat Yourself with Kindness

Grieving is hard and ongoing. Things will not get better overnight, and parents will often grieve in some way for the rest of their lives. When navigating the most difficult parts of grief, including on days like Mother's Day, take care of your basic needs, including:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating healthy foods and drinking enough water
  • Spending time outside and in nature
  • Moving your body and getting some exercise
  • Limiting alcohol

Give Kindness to Others

When we're hurting, we can forget the powerful impact that helping others can have. Doing something meaningful for others, like helping or uplifting the women in your life on Mother's Day can bring calmness and peace to an otherwise very difficult day. Even small acts like writing a letter of gratitude can help.

Plan the Day Intentionally

Mother's Day is going to be difficult for grieving mothers, but it doesn't have to be all bad. Plan how you want to spend the day, and do things that will bring joy. Here are some things to try:

  • Focus on your loved ones: Spend time with the people in your life and celebrate who they are and your relationship with them.
  • Don't plan too many distractions: Instead, plan one or two things that bring you happiness. Know that you will likely experience many feelings and that each one is OK. Try to experience and process them.
  • Honor yourself as a mother: Do something to celebrate yourself and all you have endured. This could be something small, like a relaxing bath.
  • Reflect on your experiences from becoming a mother through losing a child: Try to think about happy moments with your child, taking some time to honor your child's memory.
  • Ask for help if you need it: If you are worried about being alone on Mother's Day, ask someone you trust to spend time with you.

Summary

For many people, Mother's Day is a day of celebration, warmth, and happiness. Yet, for those who are grieving the death of their mother, mother figure, or child, Mother's Day can be a painful and difficult holiday to navigate. By allowing yourself to feel and process emotions, intentionally planning meaningful ways to spend the day and honor lost loved ones, and being kind and gentle to yourself and others, you can begin to heal and find new ways toward meaning and growth that incorporates lost loved ones into your life.

A Word From Verywell

Working through the complicated feelings of loss, love, pain, and grief that arise after a death can feel impossible. Whether you've lost a mother, a child, or someone else close to you, days like Mother's Day are going to bring up difficult and possibly conflicting emotions. Go easy on yourself. Sometimes, the time leading up to significant days are even harder than the day itself. Knowing this, being with people who care about you, and planning how you will spend the day in a meaningful, gentle way can bring comfort and healing.

If you feel that you cannot get through the day alone or are worried that you will never get past the worst parts of your grief, talk to a mental health professional. Remember that grieving means you had an important relationship with someone. Though it can be messy and very hard, you can eventually find a way to celebrate that relationship even among the pain.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I deal with grief on Mother's Day?

    The most important effort you can make is to be gentle with yourself. Don't plan too much, and make sure the plans you make are intentional and allow you to work toward finding meaning rather than being mere distractions. Don't let the day surprise you. Think carefully about how you want to spend the day and with whom you want to spend it.

  • What do you say to someone who is grieving on Mother's Day?

    Lead with kindness and compassion. Try asking meaningful questions like, "I know this is a difficult day for you, how can I help you through it?" or simply offer to do something supportive, like dropping off a meal or walking the dog. If the person doesn't want anything, respect that. You can send a kind note or a card, just be careful not to offer unsolicited advice about what to do or how to handle the death.


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