Mother’s Day reminders start at least a month early, showering us with pictures of beaming mother-child duos, perfect family photos, and of course, all the ads and promos for Mother’s Day sales: special flowers just for Mom, gift guides, how to plan your Mom’s perfect getaway, where to make reservations for Mother’s Day brunch. Even our smart devices ping with unsolicited suggestions for “the one who means the most.”
But, what if they don’t mean the most to you? What if the one who did mean the most has died, shunned you, abandoned you, judges you non-stop, traumatized you? Or what if you’re grieving the loss of your own child? Sometimes it feels like they forget about us, doesn’t it? This article is for you – to acknowledge your pain, join with you in the exhausting survival mode that comes along with the month of May (US Mother’s Day), and provide you with a toolbox of coping strategies and skills to make surviving as tolerable and meaningful as possible.
Choosing how and when to deal with loss
Most who struggle with Mother’s Day didn’t get an option for the pain they’ve been through, and though it’s unbelievably unfair, you do get to choose how and when to deal with the loss of the mother in your life. Please note, my use of “loss” throughout the remainder of this article can be the loss of your mother by death, choice due to necessary boundaries, an unsupportive mother when coming out as LGBTQIA+, religious or political divide, or many other reasons unique to your situation. Each loss of a mother figure in your life brings grief no matter what the etiology of the loss may be.
Give yourself space and grace
On Mother’s Day and the entirety of the month approaching the day, it’s common to feel moody and unsure of which emotions may arise. Thus, the first tip here is to give yourself a lot of space and grace in how you handle, plan, and prepare yourself for the day. Know that it is OK if you need to take the Friday before or the Monday after Mother’s Day off of work. Also know that it's normal to experience confusion, forgetfulness, or be more irritable than usual with loved ones as you approach Mother's Day. These are natural responses to the sadness, grief, resentment, anger, or confusion that your brain has repressed to try and protect you from the difficult emotions associated with this event. Don't worry if you can't explain why you're feeling this way, as this too is a common experience.
Tools for coping with Mother’s Day
For those ready to lean into the emotions that the day surfaces for you, check out some of the following tips and see which one resonates with you. Before we get to the tools that build the toolkit, I want to acknowledge that some may want to completely avoid the meaning of why the day exists, and as controversial as it may be for a therapist to say this– that is OK– as long as you are understanding the reason for avoidance and will at some point process your complex emotions when the time feels right. Each journey is unique and there is no right or wrong to take it. What’s important is that you are aware of the difficulties that the day holds and are aware of your personal needs. The effects of losing a mother never conclude, they only adapt with you as you evolve in the healing process, which is where patience and self-kindness are of the utmost importance.
The following suggestions can be added to your toolbox of coping skills to utilize as you approach the holiday. Please feel free to take or leave any of them.
- Many companies recognize this holiday is difficult, if offered, opt out of the Mother’s Day promotional texts/emails/and ads!
- Have a celebratory meal at your mother’s favorite restaurant, a restaurant that features her favorite cuisine, or a spot that was a family favorite.
- Watch your mom’s favorite TV show or movie, pop some popcorn, and cry if you need.
- Donate to your mom’s favorite cause or foundation or volunteer to help a local group supporting mothers in need
- Pay the love your mother had for you forward by offering a random act of kindness to a stranger (e.g. pay for a coffee).
- Visit her burial site with a blanket and wine, journal about what kind of mother she was to you (and still is), and have a conversation. It may seem silly or morbid but it can be a healing and wonderful experience.
- Listen to her favorite music (and cry it out).
- Write a detailed letter outlining what you are angry about, how it hurt you, and how often it affects you daily. Then, tear it up/shred it/crumble it/carefully destroy it.
- Instead of booking a brunch, book a “smash room” and go with a group of trusted friends. You may end up crying as anger often is the tip of many other emotions lingering beneath the surface.
- Acknowledge the anger may be covering up the grief and sadness you feel of not having a mother role in your life. Write a letter to your mother about what you miss about them and what they’ve missed in your life – even if you’re angry.
- Allow yourself to process this as grief, and acknowledge that the grieving process takes time. This is still a loss in your life. Be patient with yourself.
- Write a goodbye letter.
- Keep a journal specifically for your mother when you’re sad, lonely, angry, or need her. Act like you’re speaking to her as you write.
- Plan a fun day out doing your most loved things: yoga class, iced coffee, museum, etc. Take this day to treat yourself and cater to your needs.
- Take a day trip or hike, occupy your mind, and engage with the natural elements – they have a way of bringing peace.
Setting boundaries around Mother’s Day
Know your limits and when you may need to set a boundary. Don’t be afraid to leave a meal, step outside of a home, or respectfully end a conversation causing distress. Some tips for setting boundaries in difficult situations:
- Understand when you’re uncomfortable. Are you feeling tension in your body, are your shoulders tensed up towards your ears, is there warmth in your face or chest, do you feel like something is stuck in your throat? Then it may be a sign that something was said or done to cause discomfort.
- Take a breath: try square breathing (rule of 3’s: Inhale for three seconds, hold for three, exhale for three, rest for three–repeat three times. Remember to draw a side of the square for each breath).
- Practice the traditional “I feel” method. Telling your “why” can go a long way: “That comment made me feel disrespected and misunderstood and I need to take a moment for myself, I’m happy to talk about it after a few minutes.”
- If that doesn’t feel safe, remember…you can say no.
- If you feel safe and ready, approaching the thought of limiting your exposure to your mother may be beneficial, especially if being around your mother causes retraumatization and fear.
Family often ingrains an internalized belief of “we’re blood, we stick together through everything, however, you have the right to feel safer with a chosen family or group of friends and make behavioral changes based on this reality. You don’t have to do anything for anyone to love you or accept you. You are wonderful as you are, with the limitations and necessary boundaries that come with who you are. And, as the wonderful Nedra Glover Tawwab puts it:
“Setting boundaries is not a betrayal of your family, friends, partner, work, or anyone or anything else.”
Above all, be kind to yourself. A mother did indeed bring you into this world, but since that day you have become a powerful, loving, and outstanding human through the various journeys you have taken, both voluntarily and involuntarily. No matter your circumstance of loss, you have had to grieve and find how that fits into your life. That is no easy task. So, on this day, allow those who surround you as friends, chosen family, or chosen mothers to fill that space in your heart.