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Grieving the Relationship That Could Have Been

How to survive Mother’s Day when you barely survived your mother.

Key points

  • Mother’s Day is challenging for people who have complicated and challenging relationships with their mothers.
  • Holding out for an ideal relationship with one's mother can hinder healing.
  • Grieving what never was can move us closer to the healing and freedom we need.
Lone Teddy Bear
Source: Pexels/Pixabay

Today we celebrate moms everywhere.

Moms have a big responsibility. From the moment a child is born, moms (and their partners) are responsible for being the caretaker, the safe spot to land, the ultimate place of trust and comfort.

An Ideal World

In a perfect world, every mom would be emotionally and mentally prepared to be a source of protection that their children so desperately need. No mom will be perfect, and no mom will know how to do this immediately. It is largely on-the-job training. But if intentional parenting is attempted, it may lead to healthier responses and more loving interactions when patience and time are thin. What can follow is a compassionate and fulfilling relationship between mothers and their children throughout the lifespan.

A Hard Reality

Unfortunately, a compassionate, fulfilling relationship with a mother is not the reality for many people. For them, a day like today can be particularly challenging. As we acknowledge today’s celebrations for moms everywhere, let us acknowledge and normalize the fact that for some, their relationships with their Mom is the source of some of their most painful experiences. Moms can cut some of the deepest wounds and create enduring hurts that erode years of mental health.

If you are an individual with a complicated relationship with your Mom, I want you to know that you are not alone.

So what are you to do on a day like today where social media attempts to flood you with pictures and videos of happy mother-child duos?

My advice: Grieve.

Grieving What Never Was

It’s an odd concept to grieve something like a relationship, but until we acknowledge a loss, we will continue to feed the pain of it.

Many of our ideas of grieving in our culture consists of images of black dress, funerals, and sorting out the affairs of someone who has died. But relationships, or the dream of relationships, can die too, even while the person you desire to be in a relationship with still lives.

Grieving in this different way can be more challenging to an extent because it puts you in control of deciding and accepting the finality of things. Death has not forced acceptance of a loss on you. You have to do the work of death and move towards acceptance that what you dream of may, and likely will, never come. It is daunting. And if this is you, I am sorry.

An Abusive Parent

A client and I were recently discussing his concerning his relationship with his father. His father was abusive and denied abuse that my client endured at the hand of another family member. My client struggled to move on because he believed that he could have the relationship with his father that he wanted, that he dreamed of. This dream stunted his progress because he was waiting on an apology, an acceptance, and an acknowledgment of his pain from his father.

It ultimately would never come. It wasn’t until my client realized that he was putting conditions on his healing and that those conditions were completely in the control of his abusive father that he began to change. To do that, though, he needed to realize that the dream was dead, and had been for a long time, and that asking things of the dead was not going to produce results.

My client and I plotted out how to hold a funeral for his dream and worked toward acknowledging and processing his grief. This is a long and complex process best walked through with a professional.

As a result, my client got better. He began to move the power away from his father and onto himself. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t still pain, but there was greater understanding and freedom for him to live his life.

Today, on Mother’s Day, many of us are confronted with the same situation. As we see the posts and see the celebrations, note that there is room for grieving and mourning what could have been but was not.

With social media, it is hard not to compare when we have insights into other people's seemingly perfect relationships, so don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself experiencing envy and anger today.

But also remember that on this day when there is much celebrating and love getting shared, your experience and your value are not diminished. You are worthy, and your pain is allowed to hold space—even, especially, today.

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