For many people, Mother’s Day is a chance to celebrate a special relationship over brunch or through a public display of social media affection. But for many others – including those who are grieving the death of their mother or child, those struggling to become mothers or those with strained familial relationships – it can be a source of pain or prompt for grief.
“It highlights the presence of absence,” says Louise Friend, a Sydney-based certified bereavement practitioner and specialist in grief and loss who has first-hand experience after losing her own mother 13 years ago. “Mother's Day may bring up a variety of feelings such as longing, sadness, love, yearning, anger or resentment.”
Sadly, some losses or deaths – like estrangement with a family member or experiencing infertility, stillbirth or pregnancy loss – can be regarded as insignificant by society. “In his book Disenfranchised Grief: Recognising Hidden Sorrow, Dr Kenneth Doka says when a loss or death is not openly acknowledged or socially mourned by others, it can lead to feelings of disenfranchisement,” says Louise.
Rest assured, your feelings are valid. “It’s imperative not to dismiss our own feelings, to acknowledge the loss and what it means to you, and to connect with people who are supportive.”
If Mother’s Day is bringing up strong emotions, it’s important to do what’s best for you, whether that’s spending time alone to reflect or sharing the day with loved ones. “Although grief is a universal experience, a person's grief is unique and individual,” says Louise.
Louise’s tips for coping if Mother’s Day is hard:
Give yourself permission to grieve and to acknowledge that this may be a difficult day.
Try to put yourself first and plan some self-care moments.
Spend some time reminiscing or talking about your favourite memories with other family and friends.
Create a meaningful ritual to spend time with the loved one you’re grieving. For example, you could visit somewhere that helps you feel close to them (like their graveside or their favourite beach or park) or light a candle in their honour.
Write a letter or card to your loved one to maintain your connection with them. You could express how you feel and write what you remember or miss about them.
Interact with social media in a way that feels right for you. If social media is compounding your loss or causing distress, limit the amount of time you spend on it that day. Alternatively, you can share a tribute to the person you’ve lost or connect with grief support groups on Facebook to help reduce feelings of isolation.
Give yourself permission not to celebrate Mother's Day. If your grief is too raw and painful, or you have complex family dynamics and your relationship is estranged, you may want to do something different on the day.
While some less healthy coping strategies might be a way to get through the day (including avoidance, procrastination, repetitive maladaptive rumination or relying on drugs or alcohol), they could be detrimental to your wellbeing if you use them in the long run. If this sounds like your situation, it may be useful to seek professional help.
Louise has created her own ritual to honour her mum. “When my mother died, I planted a frangipani tree in the garden in her memory,” she says. “Every Mother's Day, I sit by the tree and have a cup of tea, wish her happy Mother's Day and spend time connecting to memories we shared.”
If someone you know may be having a hard time on Mother’s Day, there are ways to demonstrate your care.
Louise’s tips for supporting someone struggling on Mother’s Day:
Reach out to acknowledge that the day may be a painful reminder for the person.
Ask them what they need.
Send them a handwritten card with a personalised message and words of comfort.
Listen, observe, and respond empathically with compassion.
If someone is alone, invite them to spend time with you. Don’t be offended if they decline your offer – they may choose to be alone.
Most of all, remember to be kind to yourself and others who may be having a tough time. “There is no right or wrong way to grieve on Mother's Day,” Louise says.
Reference: Doka, K. J. (1989) Disenfranchised grief: Recognizing hidden sorrow. Lexington books