Deborah Carr Ph.D.

Bouncing Back

How to Survive Mother’s Day When Your Mother Is Gone

How Mother's Day can help us to find happiness

Posted May 05, 2016

This Sunday, millions of Americans will show gratitude for their mothers -- with fragrant bouquets, Hallmark cards (because an e-card just won’t do), and lavish breakfasts. Mother’s Day, proclaimed a holiday by President Woodrow Wilson on May 9, 1914, is the day when we honor and celebrate the women who have supported, scolded, nurtured, and loved us. But for those whose mothers have died, the holiday is bittersweet, marked by fading memories, or musings about what “could have been…” if our mothers were still alive today.

For young and middle-aged adults, losing a mother is an exception rather than the rule. We’re roughly twice as likely to have lost a father as a mother. While motherless adults are relatively few, their experiences vary dramatically. Some lost their mothers unexpectedly, to a brain aneurysm or stroke, car accident, or even more tragically, to suicide or murder. For most, though, the death came at the end of a long chronic illness. Some watched their mothers valiantly struggle with the painful side effects of chemotherapy before succumbing to cancer. Some lost their “real” mothers months if not years prior to her death, as they watched their mom’s wit, intelligence or eloquence fade with the onset of Alzheimer’s. Others, still, watched their mother fight for every breath, as she staggered through the final stages of lung disease. Whether a mother’s death came suddenly or slowly, it’s never easy, although with time the sadness fades. Still, on Mother’s Day, pangs of bittersweet nostalgia can re-emerge, especially when TV commercials giddily remind you to buy your mother a new purse and your Facebook feed is filled with photos of friends’ Mother’s Day brunches.

So, how do you survive Mother’s Day, when your mom is no longer around?

Appreciate those things that would make your mom happy (and fix those things that wouldn’t). Parents want their children to be happy and safe, even if they’re no longer around to check up on us. Mother’s Day can be a time to take stock of all the things in your life that would make your mom happy – your loving marriage, satisfying career, or healthy children. Knowing that mom would be happy with our choices can be a source of solace and affirmation. At the same time, recognizing what’s going poorly might trigger productive changes. How would your mom react if she knew that you tolerated an unkind romantic partner or a miserable boss? Or if she worried aloud that you looked frail and anxious, due to your hectic work schedule? Feeling that your mom still has your back and “hearing” her words of wisdom may trigger healthy and necessary changes.

Enjoy time with your siblings: your mom would be pleased. One thing I’ve learned as both a bereavement researcher and as an adult whose parents died before their time is this: parents want to know that when they leave this planet, their children will still be close. Pick up a phone and call your siblings. If you live near each other, have dinner at your mom’s favorite restaurant and celebrate as if she were still with you. Or, use Mother’s Day as a time to plan a summer outing where all the siblings get together. Life gets busy and it’s hard to squeeze in time for siblings, but you’ll be glad you did. And your mom would be, too.

Celebrate the other moms in your life. Most of us have ‘mother-like’ figures in our life whom we cherish. Take the opportunity to extend gratitude and appreciation to the aunt, mother-in-law, older sister, or even a workplace mentor who helped you to become who you are today.

Remember that Mother’s Day is just a day, but your mom stays with you for life. Mother’s Day comes just once a year, but memories of our mothers are with us all the time. For most of us, a day doesn’t go by when we don’t think of our late mothers, if even for a moment. Remembering to text a loved one when our airplane lands safely, just to let them know we “made it home alive.” A fondness for Jeopardy.  The deeply-held belief that a chicken dinner can cure all ills. That’s not just us – that’s our moms. We’re not clinging to the past when we think or talk about a parent who has passed. Bereavement researchers emphasize the importance of “continuing bonds” with our deceased loved ones. Thinking about how they might advise us when we’re faced with a challenge, or musing over how proud they would have been of our latest accomplishment are mental exercises that can make us feel better and connect us to the past in healthy ways year-round.

And how can you support friends, for whom holiday mimosas with mom are a thing of the past?

Ask questions about her. We’re often hesitant to ask our friends and family members about loved ones who have died. We worry that we’ll upset them. But nothing could be further from the truth. Bereaved people are eager to talk about their deceased relatives, and genuinely appreciate the opportunity to swap stories. They want to share their memories, their funny anecdotes, or even recount the details of her death – trying to make sense of what happened on that fateful day. Providing an opportunity to talk about the moms who are no longer with us can be cathartic for the survivor.

Share your own stories and memories. Children love hearing stories and discovering what their parents were like when they were young. We pore over old family photos and chuckle at the hairdos in old high school yearbook portraits, because we want to know “who was Mom before she was my Mom?” If you have stories or memories of your friend’s late mom, share them! An amusing new tidbit or never before-seen-photo may be the best gift you can give your friend - -a new glimpse into the woman who made them who they are today.