Good Grief: Celebrating Mother’s Day After Mom is Gone

Individual Therapy Bethesda, MD

The month of May evokes a variety of images and meanings. For those in my profession, it holds a special significance as Mental Health Awareness Month, but it is also associated with several somatic illnesses, as well as being Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month. It has also served as an occasion to remember and celebrate subjects as diverse as guide dogs, biking, and internal auditing.

However, for many Americans—particularly those who have occasion to view or hear advertisements regularly—May is most notable for being the month in which Mother’s Day occurs. This year it occurs on May 13, and the aforementioned advertisements offer no shortage of ways to celebrate: take Mom out to brunch, take Mom for a manicure, buy Mom a necklace, buy Mom a mattress, buy Mom a car—or just buy one for yourself, no one running the sales is going to call you out on it. In media, Mother’s Day is usually depicted as a droll diversion, a begrudging obligation, or a major catastrophe, with tensions often fueled by cliched conflicts like Oh No, I Forgot to Call! or I Don’t Know What Gift She Wants!

As a person whose mother died nearly a decade ago, the feelings surrounding Mother’s Day are rarely depicted in sitcoms or advertisements. In my experience, it is a fairly easy holiday to detach from and ignore—much easier than Christmas or Valentine’s Day—so zoning out from any reminder of my loss, including my own emotional experience, is not impossible and actually works OK for the most part. But, it is far from optimal: ignoring my grief does not make it go away—and ignoring my grief to get by most of the time generally ensures that it is going to erupt disastrously or seep out insidiously in some manner that is inconvenient, devastating, and uncontainable.

And so, last year I decided to protest my voluntary disenfranchisement from Mother’s Day: I asked my husband to drive me to the cemetery where she is buried, and—along with a bottle of wine and two glasses—the two of us stood by her gravesite, toasted, and reflected. Despite living nearby I do not visit her grave often, and in the past, I had always gone with my father and several other family members—not on my own terms, and certainly not with wine or any other accouterment of celebration or enjoyment. Going this time was different, and not just for the fresh, chilled Virginia Riesling that beautifully balanced the unseasonably warm mid-morning sun: this time, though I did not fully realize it at the time, I was constructing a ritual—one with rules, forms, and rites aimed at satisfying my particular grief-related needs.

I asked my husband to come along in part because, as expected, we did not split the bottle evenly—and, more importantly, because I wanted him there to affectionately witness my grief. Grief can be a very lonely-feeling emotion, regardless of a person’s actual situation, which is part of why many people—myself included—try to avoid it. There are some simple reasons why this is so: often, people struggle with the “right way” to react to grief in others, and choose to mitigate or separate from it to avoid feeling inadequate; thus, the grief-stricken often feel dismissed or alienated from “normal” folks, and perhaps normalcy in general.

Instructing my husband about how to accompany me and witness my grief, and allowing him to perform the role of companion and witness, helped to upend and in part transform the lonely thoughts. Pain experienced alone is isolating—pain experienced together is normalizing, connecting, and healing. However, my husband has had almost a decade to perfect his game as a companion/witness to my grief, so do not expect anyone to hit it out of the park on their first try. Fun fact: I actually dumped my now-husband when my mother died because my grief was so crippling and because he seemed unwilling and unable to accompany me in the way that I needed. Two years later we reunited, seven years later we were married.

In the meantime, I have grown in self-awareness, as well as confidence in our relationship: self-awareness to identify what I need from him, and the confidence to ask for it. Grief, although painful in many ways, can also be clarifying: particularly in terms of the questions How Do I Want To Be Taken Care Of? and Who Can I Trust To Take Care Of Me? Everyone’s needs around grief are a little different, but these are the skills I find helpful in a companion/witness:

1. Patience: I am going to be a little more scattered than usual—allowing me extra time and space to gather myself logistically goes a long way towards helping me feel safe enough to unburden myself emotionally.

2. Curiosity: I am going to guide the conversation, but I enjoy others asking follow-up questions and mentioning observations they find interesting. I like the idea that others are here to help, but also here to learn: demonstrating their curiosity rescues me from getting stuck in my own head, and reminds me that they are engaged in this process with me.

3. Validation of Resilience: Grief can also be a very weak-feeling emotion. I take for granted the fact that I am walking through life wounded; I do not take the time to be impressed by the strength and courage that it takes to live and thrive with the losses I have endured. If others admire my resilience, I hope that they will please share! I may not know how to respond or believe it, but at least I will hear it.

4. Presence: Showing up is the first battle. It is not an easy thing to voluntarily sign on to watch me cry and listen to how hurt and lost and sad I feel. Grief is like a cluttered basement: we can both ignore it, I can try to deal with it myself and feel overwhelmed and resentful, or we can do it together and at least have each other. I am very aware how messy it is down here, and I am so grateful that others choose to be here with me.

So now, instead of ignoring it, I have rebranded Mother’s Day as a dedicated moment for me to revel in the tears that I typically suppress. And it is not simply a practice in masochism: the belief that Grief Is Too Hard prevents me from enjoying many happy memories and positive thoughts just because they are tinged or colored by the pain of loss. Moreover, the accompanying belief that Other People Won’t Understand creates distance between me and the people I love. In response, my small, somewhat irreverent Mother’s Day tradition helps me to present myself more authentically in my marital relationship and reminds me that my grief is worth acknowledging and even celebrating.