This will be my third Mother’s Day since losing my daughter.
My third Mother’s Day since a piece of me went to heaven, where it will stay until I go myself and get it back.
My third Mother’s Day I am both dreading and looking forward to at the same time.
I am often asked how to best support grieving parents. These are some of the conversations for which I’m most grateful because they show the desire people have to care for some of the most emotionally vulnerable people in the world–grieving moms and dads.
Holidays and important dates are particularly difficult. You want to show support, but you don’t want to intrude. You want to offer help but not offend. You want to say something but not the wrong thing. You think maybe silence is better than the risk of insensitivity.
It’s understandable. We do not live in a society which handles grief well and a lot of it is our own fault. We don’t talk about grief enough. We don’t educate ourselves. We don’t even provide the education to talk about grief in the first place.
But I want to change that. The moment Sylvia stopped breathing in my arms, I became a grieving mother and my eyes have been forced open to a world which is isolating and not well understood. So part of my mission now is to start these conversations and give the education.
And Mother’s Day presents an excellent opportunity for that. It is a day that provokes a lot of feelings and feels so tender, both for grieving moms and those who love them. I wanted to share some tangible ways to show support for grieving mamas on this special/difficult/wonderful/horrible day:
1. Speak the name of her child.
So many people are scared to bring up the name of a passed child around the mom. I get it. Yes, she will probably cry. But those tears you see are not unique to her experience with you. She will cry those tears eventually, and she usually cries them alone, behind closed doors. But when someone speaks the name of her child, it gives her much needed permission to grieve her child out loud, with company, and she needs to do that from time to time. She is lonely. My goodness, she is so lonely. Her mind and her heart say the name of her child all of the time. Remind her you remember; you remember her child and you remember her.
2. Don’t leave her passed child out of the gift-giving.
If you are participating in gift-giving for a grieving mom, this is a perfect opportunity to acknowledge the life of her passed child and celebrate her motherhood. A small gift to represent the one she misses most is a beautiful idea. Some of my favorite gifts I’ve received to represent Sylvia have been purple (her special color💜) wooden flowers, a lilac tree, a garden angel, a necklace engraved with her name, donations to Congenital Heart Disease causes, a purple cross bookmark for my Bible, a handmade memory box, and countless cards filled with kind and supportive words, just to name a few. The monetary value means nothing; acknowledging her child means everything. If you are purchasing gifts on behalf of living children, also sign the name of the one(s) who passed. The day is about celebrating her as a mom, and she will always be the mom of that child, even if time and space separate them for now.
3. Understand time is irrelevant.
Time is a grieving mother’s worst enemy. The day her child breathed for the last time, her world stopped, shifted, and changed. Irrevocably. If she’s blessed, she is surrounded by people who also loved and loss her child, people who will always mourn with her. As time goes on, those people will continue to miss the child, will still feel the sting of absence, but they will also be able to heal. Their worlds, which also changed that day, will slowly start to shift back to their original state. But a mother’s heart mourns differently. Her world’s shift is permanent. Therefore, the amount of time that has passed is irrelevant. The amount of days between her present state and the last time she saw her child will not and can not make the pain go away. The unnatural, unexpected, and traumatic experience of burying a child means her grief process will probably look completely different from the others you’ve witnessed. While everyone handles grief differently and there are always exceptions, most moms who have lost a child will tell you that even though they learn how to better live with the pain, it doesn’t go away. It doesn’t get better. The hole doesn’t close. Time does not heal all wounds. Therefore, holidays do not get easier. Please understand that if you mourn her child with her, you may very well find that time makes it less painful for you. That’s okay. As moms, we don’t expect you to suffer exactly as we do; we know you can’t. We just need you to understand that we still ache, still hurt, still suffer just as much as the day we said goodbye.
4. Respect how she wants to spend the day.
Because of the pain this day can bring, it is a good idea to adjust your expectations regarding details like traditions, “fair” time spent between different sides of the family, and even the attendance of a grieving mom altogether. As beautiful as family customs and wanting to spend time together might be, a mom who is grieving is thinking more about how she is going to survive a day like this than she is enjoying it. Knowing she is not expected to please anyone for the sake of tradition or meeting a time standard will alleviate extra stress. If you’re willing to ask her how she’d like to spend the day and accommodate accordingly, that’s great. Maybe she wants to go to brunch. Maybe she wants to go throw axes. Maybe she wants to wear pajamas and watch Netflix. It might not be conventional, but time spent with her will be meaningful. It can also be as simple as telling her your plans, inviting her, making it clear she is wanted, loved, and welcomed, but that it is completely understandable if she’d like to spend the day in her own way. Just avoid putting her in a position which makes her feel like she’s “doing it wrong.” There is no such thing.
5. Ask her significant other how you’d be most helpful.
Chances are Mother’s Day is a difficult time for significant others as well. They desire to make the day both lovely and respectful for the one they love. However, they are most often grieving themselves. The emotional energy it takes to plan a day like this can be stressful. Asking them how you can help will not only give you valuable insight into the heart of the mamas, but it will also give you a chance to check in on their partners and give them a sense of much-needed support. Even if they don’t have something for you to do, the effort will mean a great deal.
6. If she does not have a living child…
Celebrate her. Get her that gift. Write her that card. Send her that text. She IS a mom. Mother’s Day is her day. She deserves to be, she needs to be, reminded of that. And that reminder is a gift. Don’t miss the opportunity to give her something so significant on a day she is constantly reminded of what has been taken away.
7. If she has living children…
She knows. Trust me. She is fully aware and wholly grateful for her living children. In fact, those very humans are what gives this woman the will to get out of bed most mornings. There have been many occasions, including Mother’s Day, I’ve been told different variations of “focus on the kids who are here” and “at least you have two other kids.” As best intentioned as those directives might be, they are devastating to a grieving parent. What we hear instead of your best intentions are accusations we aren’t thankful for and attentive to our kids. We hear you urging us to repress our pain. Moms in general are predisposed to guilt. We feel such a responsibility to make our children feel loved, adored, and seen. Every day I struggle to give the best of myself to my living children while actively grieving the one I lost. Comments like those above only add to our guilt.
8. Visit her child’s memorial.
If there is a public memorial dedicated to her child, whether it is a place ashes were spread or a cemetery, go visit the spot. If this is something that has been on your heart to do, don’t wait for an invitation. It is not easy to ask someone to do something so uncomfortable, so painful. My faith means I believe my Sylvia is in heaven and I will see her again and most people in my circle have the same belief. Regardless of that belief, and knowing in my heart she really isn’t there, visits to her spot are important to me. It is one of the only tangible things I have left. With that said, visiting her spot wrecks me every single time. Two and a half years later, I still have the same exact response both emotionally and physically every time I go. It takes a lot out of me and days of recovery, so my visits are far apart. When I know someone is going to visit to check that everything is okay, to lay flowers, to bring a pumpkin at Halloween or a wreath at Christmas, it is such a statement of love and support for both Sylvia and for myself. I have asked anyone who goes to tell me, not because they need my permission, but because I need the reminder that even though grieving can feel like such an isolating experience, there are moments I am not alone, and it gets me through to the next reminder.
9. Let her be.
I don’t mean this as “leave her alone” (unless, that is what she asked for, then absolutely leave her alone). I mean just let her be. Be what? Whatever it is she is. Sad, happy, angry, depressed, joyful, excited, in despair. Allow it. Expect it. And expect she will be more than one of those things, most likely conflicting, all in the same day and often at the same time. Again, you don’t have to go and stay exactly where she is, but you can make it less difficult for her to be there. If you can’t go with her, stand next to her. She will notice. She will be thankful.
10. Know you aren’t overlooked.
I know supporting a grieving mom is difficult. We aren’t an easy breed. Offering support can feel precarious. If you are a fellow mom in the life of a grieving mom, please know that we don’t overlook how special this day is for you. We love you. We celebrate you. We pray you never have to experience anything other than a purely joyful and celebratory Mother’s Day. We don’t want our pain to decrease your joy just as you don’t want your joy to increase our pain. We may not be the easiest people to celebrate with, but know that we are acutely aware what a blessing motherhood is, how precious it is, how all-consuming it is, and we, just like you, are thankful for it.
On behalf of grieving mamas everywhere, thank you for seeing us and for loving us. This walk is not easy. We are trying, and we know you are, too. Thank you.