From Both Sides of the Couch

A therapist reflects on her time with patients, and her time as a patient.

Mother's Day: Not Always a Celebration

This holiday can be a painful recollection for some of us.

This coming Sunday, May 13th, some of us will celebrate Mother’s Day. Only for many of us, me and some of my patients included, it won’t be a celebration, it will be a painful reminder that we have lost our mother. We may have lost our mother to death or to estrangement or in any number of ways but the fact remains that she is no longer a part of our lives.

The mother-child bond is something special; I don’t believe anything like it exists. When that bond is broken, in whatever way, it is nothing short of a tragedy. Children without mothers, even adult children, hurt, the ache, the yearning never quite dissipates completely.

This past March was the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death. A milestone of sorts, I suppose. The years have vanished into a calendar marked up with appointments and obligations.

This year alone has come roaring back and I am hurting. I cried for a colleague at work who lost her mother. I wrote an essay about trying to posthumously repair my relationship with my mother in therapy. I was extremely narcissistic when I was at my sickest, not realizing the effect my illness had on my mother. It has only been since she passed away, that I have come realize how much she suffered each time I went into the hospital, each time she hugged me and felt my protruding spine as a result of the anorexia.

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Longing for the chance to apologize to her, to make this right, I cry myself to sleep begging for one last opportunity to talk to her, to say I am sorry. But I know that is not going to happen. This acceptance hits me hard, in the gut.

Additional crises our family has endured over the past year has made me yearn for her to step in and take charge as she always did. Never have I had to stand so strong and lean on myself. So many friends, acquaintances have said to me, "If only your mother could see you now…"

And I have to believe, a fervent wish to myself, that she is looking down on me, happily, because there were so many moments where we never knew if we would ever laugh or even smile again.

I don’t tell my patients that I have lost my mother when they tell me they have lost theirs. Instead I inquire about their relationship with their mother and try get an idea of the framework that formed their bond. There are so many possible permutations that initially I just listen to him or her, letting them go off on tangents because those digressions may provide valuable revelations.

Each patient’s relationship with their mother is so different; some patients, even though they may have been physically, verbally or emotionally abused by her, they still long for her acceptance. Some patients, well into their forties and fifties, continue to live with their mothers, and I wonder what’s going to happen when their elderly mother passes away?

Other patients just don’t want to deal with their mothers regardless of whether they are dead or alive; having contact with their mother is a trigger and sets them off on a sequence of negative behaviors. Other patients insist they have or had a terrific mother, all their needs as a child were fulfilled, but then they are unable to sustain a healthy relationship as an adult. I have to wonder,

My job is to help the patient gently and slowly dismantle and explore from different angles their relationship with their mother, and put it back together again more realistically. I want to help the client to see her as a unique person, complete with amazing traits, but also with some faults. "She’s your mother, but no one, not even mothers are perfect,” I remind them.  If there is resistance, he or she may not be ready which is okay. I don’t push it — the consequences aren’t worth it.

Each time my psychiatrist, Dr. Adena* and I brought up the possibility of taking my mother off the pedestal on which I had put her before I was ready, I would relapse into my anorexia. It took several years of approaching it, before I could finally conceive of this and could broach the issue safely. This journey is a treacherous one and needs to be undertaken with care and concern.

Regardless of how the bond between a mother and child of any age has been shattered, regardless of how many years have passed, the hurt remains as do the effects of this incalculable loss. Mourning takes time; the seasons of grieving pass seamlessly into each other as the years go by. We may remain numb; we may remain overcome with grief, we may believe we've come to terms with her death, but at some point, five, ten, twenty years later, the thought, the feeling will come as if we’d been shot by an arrow, surprising all of us; “I want my mother.”

* Names have been changed

Gerri Luce is a licensed clinical social worker who publishes under a pseudonym.

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