When Mother’s Day Hurts

White rose close upMother’s Day is observed by many as a joyful day of celebration, a time when we hardworking mothers can have a chance to put our feet up, relax, be treated to breakfast in bed, a special lunch or dinner, or simply be given special consideration.

We might receive gifts lovingly chosen or perhaps handmade by our children and partners. The day may hold special times set aside for visiting with or talking to our mothers, perhaps making up for time we have been apart or busy with our lives. The idea of Mother’s Day in our culture is painted as brightly and sentimentally as any Hallmark commercial.

For many, however, Mother’s Day can be a painful and difficult day. Women whose children have died at any age, women experiencing infertility, women who have had miscarriages, people whose mothers have died—for these and others, Mother’s Day can be a day of sadness and loss.

Grief Can Make Mother’s Day Painful

In grief, many days typically perceived as happy or joyful times are experienced by the grieving and bereaved as sad and isolating. Bereaved mothers may be faced with seeing other mothers interact with their children or of watching seemingly happy, intact families go about the ordinary business of life. People whose mothers have died may hear other people speak casually about day-to-day interactions with their mothers or watch mothers and daughters shopping or lunching happily.

We are faced with the barrage of Mother’s Day commercials created to tug at our heart strings (and of course, urge us to open our wallets); and in all those things, so much of the grief we experience is the grief for that which can never be our reality. Each person’s grief and his or her response to the pain of grief are highly individual. But no matter what, if you are a mother whose child has died or if you are a child whose mother has died, Mother’s Day can be a sad time.

A Mother Is Always a Mother

For women whose children have died, it can almost go without saying that Mother’s Day is deeply painful, and because of that, it should never go without saying. If you know a mother whose child has died, at any age, please acknowledge her motherhood as well as her pain. The greatest gift for a bereaved mother on Mother’s Day can be the simple, but hugely powerful, recognition of her motherhood. Even though our children have died, we are still mothers—to all of our children. The simple act of recognition allows a bereaved mother the validation she so often seeks and sadly so often finds missing. A hug and a “Happy Mother’s Day,” even if that seems improbable, could mean more than anyone could imagine.

There are many things supportive friends and family members can do to help ease the pain of this difficult day for a grieving mother. Visit her child’s grave, leave a pretty stone, a seashell, or other small trinket, and let her know. Talk about her child. Use her child’s name in conversation, no matter how brief. Many bereaved parents long to hear other people speak their child’s name after he or she has died. Many non-bereaved people assume that if they mention the child, this will somehow “open the wound” or “remind” us of the loss. You can trust that we are already thinking about our children and that the wound is ever-present. Our children are never, ever far from our hearts and minds.

One of the greatest fears for a bereaved parent is that no one, except for us, will remember our children. If you have a special memory of a child, send a card with a story of that memory enclosed. It will likely be a cherished treasure. Even a card simply wishing a mother a happy and peaceful day is a gesture that is greatly appreciated.

When we are bereaved mothers who are also fortunate enough to have other children who are alive, we continue to miss and to mourn the ones who are not here for our arms to physically enfold. For these mothers, acknowledging the child who has died can be an incredibly meaningful gift. One child does not replace another. We celebrate in the joyful presence of our living children and deeply mourn the absence of the ones who are not here to share our daily lives. Remembering that we are mothers to all our children can be such a special act.

For women who have had a miscarriage, women experiencing infertility problems, or for birth mothers whose birth children have been placed in adoptive homes, Mother’s Day can bring a silent and isolating grief. Much of society does not recognize the loss that can be inherent in these women’s circumstances. Simply letting her know that you are thinking of her on this day can be a welcome gesture. A phone call to check in and a simple “I was thinking of you today and wondering if you were doing OK” can allow her to talk about her feelings if she chooses to do so.

The Effect of Mother’s Day on Motherless Children

For any person whose mother has died, Mother’s Day can be a painful and sad time. A tradition of the not-so-long-ago past called for corsages to be worn on Mother’s Day. A red corsage meant that person’s mother was still alive. A white flower meant the person’s mother had died. Those who wore white flowers were most likely given extra hugs or an extra squeeze of the hand. The openly worn symbol allowed others to feel free to talk about the woman who had died and to feel invited to share remembrances or condolences.

In our society, where mourning is no longer a widespread or open practice (although I am working hard, along with like-minded friends and colleagues to change that), other community members may not always feel they can openly discuss “the departed.” If you know someone whose mother has died, or if you knew his or her mother, perhaps sending a white flower in memory of the person’s mother would be a nice gesture. You might also consider sending a card or letter or making a phone call specifically to share memories of that person’s mother. Taking a moment to let her child know how much she meant to you can be very comforting.

If you know a young child whose mother has died, acknowledge that child’s pain, and let that child know you are a safe person to talk to. Again, sharing memories of the child’s mother can let the child know how much his or her mother meant to others.

Remembering Mothers and Children with Love

For all of us, childless mothers and motherless children alike, planning a way to remember our deeply cherished loved ones is important. Make a plan that will honor your mother’s life or your child’s life. Acknowledge that person’s presence in your life, your heart, and your mind. Honor your love for them, as well as the pain you feel due to their absence.

Create new traditions for this day, such as lighting a candle, saying a prayer, or wearing a flower. You might wish to donate to a charity in your loved one’s name, plan a visit to the burial site, plant a tree, create a work of art, or start a scrapbook. Read your mom’s favorite book, watch her favorite movies, or listen to songs she loved. Name a star after your child, make his or her favorite food, or plan a balloon release with notes to him or her written on the balloons. No matter what, you are always a mother. And no matter what, your mother is always your mother. We can remember those we’ve lost with love.

I vividly recall the first Mother’s Day after my son died. It was a sad, painful day. The beauty of spring itself seemed to exist solely to mock my childless arms. On that day, my husband and I planted a tree in our backyard. I had originally planned to plant a tree for our son so that he could watch the tree grow as he grew. Instead, we planted the tree in his memory.

The choosing of the tree, bringing it home, digging the hole, and the placement of the tree itself were all acts that meant more than the simple planting of a tree. The act was elevated to ritual status and was healing and comforting. I placed special stones around the tree, hung wind chimes, and put special ornaments in and around the tree. Caring for the tree has become a way of demonstrating our ongoing love for him. Weeding, decorating the area, watering, and fertilizing the tree have allowed for that loving memorial to continue. The tree is visible in our backyard from every window that looks out of the back of our house; kitchen, living room, bathroom, hallway, and office.

While nothing can take away the pain of missing my child, the ritual we created together to honor his memory made that first Mother’s Day more bearable, and it is a constant reminder of our love for him. Seeing the tree bloom each spring and grow a little taller and stronger with each passing year underscores the tree’s symbolic representation of our ever-present love for him and his presence in our family.

If you anticipate that Mother’s Day will be difficult for you, whatever your personal circumstances, spend some time making a plan for honoring, remembering, and memorializing. Think about doing something to care for yourself as well. Self-care gifts such as massage, manicure, or pedicure can all help to alleviate stress. Ask for what you need.

Taking time to be alone, to journal, to take a walk, to spend time in nature, or simply to rest can be very helpful. If you need support, ask for it. If you worry that no one will do anything for you on Mother’s Day, be proactive and tell your loved ones what you would like to do to observe the day. Plan a lunch or dinner with supportive friends and family. Give yourself permission to do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

Mother’s Day may be painful, but it can also be a time for taking steps toward healing your broken heart. I wish you a peaceful Mother’s Day.

© Copyright 2011 by Karla Helbert, MS, LPC, therapist in Richmond, Virginia. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Karen soldinski

    Karen soldinski

    May 9th, 2014 at 3:38 PM

    I have just finished reading this beautiful celebration of motherhood. I want to tell my friend Kristen that as painful as Sunday is going to be take the time to grieve then call your own mother and tell her you love her. Have a good cry for there will be others crying right along with you. And most of all remember you are loved.

    To my sister who is my best friend and confidant take time to love yourself. Know that Mark is watching over you that mom is up there in heaven with him and now dad is there to. They are watching.

  • Karla


    May 10th, 2014 at 11:59 AM

    Thank you Karen– Yes, we are definitely not alone, even if it feels like we are. Reaching out can remind us of that. Wishing a beautiful and peaceful mother’s day for all mothers and their children.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.



* Indicates required field.

Therapist   Treatment Center

Advanced Search

Search Our Blog

Title   Content   Author