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Making It Through Mother’s Day

If you're grieving a mother or child, the day can be difficult.

Key points

  • Those who have lost a mother or a child may struggle emotionally on Mother's Day.
  • Grief expert Krista St-Germain said that we fear what we may feel on Mother's Day. Feel your feelings, don't fight them.
  • St-Germain suggested that mothers honor their needs on this difficult day.
Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash
Source: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

Can you feel the dread in the air?

Mother’s Day is almost upon us, and both motherless children and childless mothers are starting to feel the strain.

I am among the motherless (and fatherless—and childless, for that matter, but that was a choice). But because my family didn’t acknowledge Mother’s or Father’s Day—my parents dismissed them as Madison Avenue gimmicks—I am immune to the anxiety of these particular holidays.

However, realizing my family is an anomaly, I talked with widow and grief expert Krista St-Germain for some thoughts about dealing with Mother’s Day; no matter which side of the mother/child relationship your grief falls on.

What are you afraid of?

Consider, first of all, what you’re afraid of, as St-Germain explained:

One of the things people don’t seem to know is that what they’re really dreading probably isn’t what they think it is. What they’re really dreading is the emotions that they don’t want to feel, which is why the buildup is often worse than the actual day. We spend so much time dreading and worrying and resisting the idea that we’re going to feel what we don’t want to feel.

But as those who grieve eventually figure out, resistance is futile; feelings must be felt, and resistance is neither effective nor helpful.

When we drop the resistance to the feeling and just feel it, it’s not really as bad as we think it’s going to be. It’s like the bogeyman under the bed that disappears when the parent shines a light under the bed.

Most of us didn’t grow up having learned the skill of how to feel an emotion. We try to resist it. We eat it, drink it, shop it, or react to it. We let it fuel our behavior. But there’s a skill to letting an emotion be present with us and allowing it to pass through us. It’s way less painful to feel it than to resist it.

Teach Your Children

In fact, if you have children, letting your grief show can help them learn about emotions. “When we hide our emotions, we’re sending the message that emotions are to be dealt with alone,” St-Germain pointed out.

Perhaps it is best not to let the day become saturated in grief—you don’t want your surviving children to feel negated—but talking about it in an age-appropriate manner and modeling for your children healthy ways of coping with feelings helps teach them a mighty skill for facing the inevitable heartbreaks of life.

Oh, and grieving mothers, please don’t for a moment think that you have somehow relinquished the role of mother if you have no surviving children. “Once a mother, always a mother,” said St-Germain. “When you identify as a mother, that’s yours, and you don’t have to give that away.”

Name It, Then Feel It

One of the skills for coping with emotions is naming exactly what we’re feeling.

It might seem that what I’m dreading is that I don’t get to be with my mother. I’m gonna see flowers and cards and everyone going out to lunch with their mother. But what I’m really dreading is what I’ll feel. And what is it? Is it sadness? Loneliness? Hopelessness? There’s so much power in naming that feeling.

And then we can get curious: If I weren’t so busy resisting this feeling, wishing it weren’t there, if I could allow myself to have it, what does it feel like in my body? Where would I feel this feeling if I let myself feel it? In my chest? My stomach? Maybe it’s a clenching in my throat, a tightness, constriction. Does it have a texture, shape, size, color? What is this thing I’m dreading?

If you simply allow the feeling to happen, she said, chances are it won’t last more than a few minutes. Granted, it may create another thought and another difficult feeling, but lather, rinse, repeat. “Once you drop the resistance, it doesn’t feel easy, but it feels pure and clean and appropriate.”

The Social Media Minefield

And how about that minefield of random bad feelings: social media? Should we avoid it on days when everyone’s stream reminds us of our loss?

It depends on how you use it. You can go on it to confirm all your saddest thoughts, or you can be honest with your feelings and connect with people. Perhaps get on your grief group and share photos and stories about your mother or child.

Or, if you want to avoid social media altogether and not put yourself through it, that’s OK too. St-Germain said:

You have to ask yourself ‘what would be useful to me, what would be loving to me? What would feel most supportive to me? Only you know if you’re doing something that’s moving towards what you want or away from what you want. It’s how you use the tool that matters.

(As a widow, when I see friends’ happy anniversary posts, I wish them well and immediately hide the post. I don’t want to be churlish, but I want to protect myself too.)

Do It Your Way

And rituals? Are those helpful? Are they necessary?

“I love rituals,” said St-Germain in the next breath acknowledging, as she did throughout our conversation, that it’s all highly personal.

Grief expert David Kessler, a bereaved father, has said that when he has an emotional day ahead, he starts it at his son’s gravesite, giving his feelings space for full expression before whatever lies ahead. Sort of clearing the pipes.

But this is not the “right” way to do it; it’s just his way. We each are entitled to manage these days however feels best to us. You are not obligated out of loyalty or respect to create a ritual. “Just because thoughts appear doesn’t mean we have to keep listening to them,” said St-Germain. “What if it is not the whole truth? What if my connection with my mother has nothing to do with whether I visit the gravesite?” Honoring our grief in whatever way feels right for us is more honest and healing than forcing ourselves into a ritual out of obligation.

Of course, this also means that other people get to make their own choices too. If your sister wants to go to the place you always took Mom for brunch, but you can’t face it, just be honest about it without feeling you must join her or trying to talk her out of it. Tell her your plans, and invite her to join you if you want. (Or don’t. Again, your choice.)

Oh, and if you want to send yourself flowers or a card, give yourself love as the mother you are, with or without a child on this earth, that’s your business too. Make this Mother’s Day about honoring yourself. Be tender, kind, and loving to yourself, like the good mother you had or are.

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