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News / Health

When Mother’s Day is difficult, these strategies might help

By Sarah-Mae McCullough, The Seattle Times
Published: May 12, 2024, 6:00am

Around this time last year — as Mother’s Day messages filled grocery store displays and social media feeds — Seattle resident Emily Kelly-Peterson was in the middle of “the first round” of holidays and family birthdays without her mom, who had recently died.

Some were easier than others. “I don’t think anyone can know how those are going to land,” said Kelly-Peterson, who’s a grief coach. But as Mother’s Day approached last year, she recalls, she was apprehensive about spending it without her mom — no picnic at Green Lake or brunch at Cafe Flora together.

Mother’s Day arrives May 12 this year, and 84% of U.S. adults are expected to celebrate the holiday, according to a National Retail Federation report. They’ll spend an estimated $33.5 billion on flowers, cards, special outings and more. But despite the shopping sprees and cute cards, it’s a complicated time of year for many.

For some people, it’s a reminder of a parent or child who’s died, difficult or estranged family relationships or that they haven’t fulfilled their hopes for parenthood.

People can experience grief — “any type of natural response to any type of loss” — around Mother’s Day for many different reasons and in many different ways, said Derek Dizon, the organizer of the local grief and loss cultural resource center A Resting Place.

It’s “really complicated in that way,” Dizon said. “Everyone has a different relationship to their mothers, whether their mother is alive or dead.”

People also have their own ways to navigate this time of year.

In Kelly-Peterson’s case, a Mother’s Day weekend getaway with friends was a welcome distraction. The group didn’t talk much about the holiday, but being surrounded by people who knew her mom, she “somehow felt less lonely,” she said.

While there’s no one right approach, Dizon, other mental health professionals and those who’ve made it through their own daunting Mother’s Days share some perspectives that may help.

There’s no timeline for grief

In a “grief illiterate” society, there are a lot of common misconceptions about loss, said Stephanie Weil, a clinical social worker who has worked with parents who have lost children.

One of them is the idea that someone should be “over it by now” some months or years after their loved one has died. In reality, “it’s a lifelong process,” she said.

Weil compares grief to lugging a ginormous boulder up a hill. “The first Mother’s Day, that grief boulder feels very heavy, like you’re going up the hill and you can’t lift it.” Over time, the boulder won’t necessarily get smaller, but you get stronger at carrying it, she said.

Deanne Ederer Emmons of Seattle, whose mother died over 30 years ago, still splits this time of year between celebrating with her kids and talking with her husband and friends about her sadness over what her mom is missing out on. The holiday has gotten easier as her kids have grown older and started cooking her delicious Mother’s Day meals and she found she could “celebrate that and not want to cry so much.”

But Emmons still makes room for the grief with activities like running, which gives her time to think. It’s “a year-round thing,” she said. “It never really goes away.”

A bittersweet balance: Time to grieve and celebrate

Last year, on the first Mother’s Day since his wife’s death, Bruce Kaufman planned a busy day of activities for himself and his then-6-year-old son: A baseball game, meeting up with friends, getting pizza.

“[We] had a great time, ignoring what day it was,” he said. “Until we got home … By the time we acknowledged how terrible it was not to have a mom on Mother’s Day, it was past bedtime, and we were both exhausted.”

Since then, he’s realized he needs time to reflect on his grief, which he’s done by scheduling regular “nothing breaks” for himself, journaling and going to therapy. His Mother’s Day plan for this year is less scheduled, Kaufman said. He hopes to begin with a big breakfast — how his family would celebrate when his wife was alive — talk to his son about happy memories and living with grief, and maybe look through old photos together.

“It’s just different ways to kind of celebrate and process it at the same time,” he said.

Some people may prefer to get through the holiday by distracting themselves (that’s totally OK too, Dizon said), but others find it healing to both process difficult emotions and celebrate the good on Mother’s Day.

Seattleite JenRenee Fairlane and her husband, who underwent two years of fertility treatments, “are still grieving what could have been,” Fairlane said. Simultaneously, she’s grateful for some parts of life without kids, like having more disposable income and time together as a couple. “Mother’s Day is a good time to reflect on that,” she said.

Weil, the social worker, said that celebrating a deceased loved one by doing activities that brought that person joy — did they love eating a certain meal, or taking a walk by the lake? — can be a healthy way to handle the holiday.

“The goal of grief, really, is to eventually remember the person who’s gone with more love than pain,” Weil said.

Getting through the holiday with self-care (or by ignoring it altogether)

There’s no rule that you have to celebrate Mother’s Day.

If you know the day or week may be difficult, “plan something that nurtures you,” suggested mental health professional Gail McCormick, whether that’s getting a manicure, having coffee with a friend or giving yourself time to sit with your feelings.

It’s OK to just stay home, re-watching a silly TV show and “ordering three of your most favorite takeout dishes in the city, allowing yourself just to be shut out from the mess of Mother’s Day,” Dizon said. “It’s really important for all of us to be able to give ourselves what we need in our grief.”

Christina Hayes, 31, whose mom died during her senior year of college, prefers to not engage with the holiday. When brands give the option, she’ll opt out of their Mother’s Day email promo. She tends to avoid planning anything, and it’s hard to predict exactly how she’ll feel on the holiday.

“I take it as it comes, like some years it just hits me harder than others,” she said.

Reaching out for support and connection

Grief can feel very isolating, Dizon said, as if no one else could ever understand what you’re going through.

“In a way, that’s true; no one will ever understand fully the grief that any single person experiences,” he said. “But it is important, I think, to reach out to your people, to reach out to your community … even if it’s just one friend.”

Having some support on hand — whether a friend or family member, support group or mental health professional — can make a big difference in getting through a difficult time of year, Weil said. Friends who’ve had similar experiences can be comforting people to lean on.

“When I learn of someone else who has a distant, cutoff or estranged relationship with their mom, it creates an instant common ground that cannot be explained to others who cannot relate,” said Tacoma resident Elena Moreno, who’s no longer in contact with her mom. “We support each other.”

Mental health counselors (Weil recommends finding a professional through psychologytoday.com/us ) and support groups are also good places to turn.

Supporting those around you

When supporting a friend or family member who struggles with Mother’s Day, a simple acknowledgment — “I know this is a hard holiday for you” — can go a long way, Weil said.

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Despite the common fear that bringing up a loved one’s grief will upset them, acknowledging their pain is almost always an important part of supporting someone, she said. For example, a friend could say to a grieving parent: “I’m thinking of Susan today. She would have been 27. I’m wondering how Mother’s Day is gonna be for you since you don’t have her here anymore.”

From there, let them take the lead on what they need, Weil said. What would they like to do this year? Do they want to be alone or with other people?

If they want to spend the holiday with you, suggest some specific activities. Perhaps offer to bring them a meal, go for a walk or look at pictures of their loved one together.

“It really helps for a support person to have something concrete they can offer up,” Weil said.

As you look out for someone you care about, don’t forget about your own needs either, whether that’s time with other friends and family or information about grief, such as the resources available at grief.com.

“People who support also need support,” Dizon said.

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