Mother’s Day Can Be Painful if You’re Grieving—but It Can Still Be Valuable

From being estranged from a maternal figure to losing a child, there are countless forms of tragedy that may rob this day of joy, but all doesn't have to be lost.

Young woman holding a baby in the park

Jelena Markovic/Stocksy

For many, Mother's Day is a time for joy. It conjures up images of flowers and sunshine, breakfast in bed, and messy but adorable handprint art for the beloved matriarch of the family. But for those who are grieving, Mother’s Day (and other holidays like it) can be especially triggering, even as they bring so much happiness to others.

There are countless forms of loss that may rob this day of joy: whether someone has recently lost their mother, is estranged from a maternal figure in their life, has lost a child themselves, or is still waiting to welcome a baby of their own. And when grieving people feel unseen and alone in their grief, or feel their loss goes unacknowledged by loved ones, the relentless calls to happiness and joy that surround celebrations like Mother’s Day can leave them feeling even more isolated than before. 

Though painful emotions like grief and sadness can often feel taboo to discuss, conversations that deal with these feelings and the space they occupy in our lives are vitally important to creating a kinder, more compassionate world for both ourselves and the ones we love. Creating space for grief around celebrations like Mother’s Day can allow those who are grieving to find moments of peace and even reclaim this time for themselves if they wish to. 

Holding Space For Grief

Megan Devine is a psychotherapist, grief advocate, and author of the bestselling book It’s OK that you’re not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand. She knows all too well that many lack meaningful support throughout their experiences with grief. She notes that discomfort with grief and loss isn’t limited to celebrations and holidays but is often a pervasive approach to navigating, and avoiding, many painful experiences in life.

“Humans have been trying to avoid pain for thousands of years,” Devine says. “We work hard to pretend that what hurts doesn’t hurt. We prioritize resilience instead of changing the systems or circumstances that require people to be resilient. We prize a positive attitude, rather than feel pain or witness pain in others.”

As many of us are socialized to avoid expressing feelings of grief, loss, or sadness, this lack of support can further exacerbate the complicated feelings some may feel around celebrations and holidays. Individuals may refrain from sharing openly with loved ones about feelings out of concern that there isn’t space for the “negative” emotions that accompany grief.

Dr. Shallimar Jones, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with Momwell, has nearly two decades of experience working with families and organizations regarding issues of emotional intelligence. She notes that many people lack the basic vocabulary to even begin discussing the healing process of their loved ones. 

“They’re kind of at a loss for words,” she says of people witnessing grief. “We are not taught how to handle, how to label those feelings and what to actually do with them.”

“[...] Society doesn’t know what to do when you don’t feel happy on this particular holiday. They have no idea in many ways what that process [of grieving] is because in many ways they don’t even have words to describe it.” 

Jones says that without these tools and vocabulary, it can be hard for people to make space for grief during holidays and celebrations, which can be especially difficult for those individuals who might be most in need of support at that time. 

“It’s important, especially if it’s someone you love and care about, to create a space to talk about those difficult things,” Jones says. “That’s how you have depth within your relationships. That’s how you can have healing not just for that person but also for yourself. Whether or not they take you up on it, that’s their journey. But knowing that you’re there, it’s a huge deal for people.” 

Advocating for Yourself and What You Need

While we’re often brought up to see holidays as happy occasions, Jones points out that as individuals who experience a range of feelings, it makes sense that the same spectrum of emotions would present itself throughout celebratory events, as well.

“As people we’re complicated, and no one is happy all the time,” she says. “There is a range of emotions, but in many cases, we’re told that you can’t show those emotions, or it’s not ok to have those emotions.” 

“Holidays are not always happy for everyone and even when you are happy, there might be a part of you that’s still sad. You may have lost a pregnancy, you may have a complicated relationship with [your] family member [on] that particular holiday.”

Jones and Devine both agree that embracing a range of emotions within celebrations is important and that ultimately whether or not we choose to mark the occasion is up to the individual. 

“[...]Remember that whatever you feel about Mother’s Day is completely valid,” Devine says. “Love it, hate it, prefer to ignore it - there’s no one “correct” way to feel. You get to decide how you want to acknowledge (or avoid) the day.”

One of the most powerful ways grieving individuals can ease these holiday experiences is to vocally advocate for themselves, especially if loved ones seem unsure about what would actually be helpful. Devine notes that friends and family often want to reach out and offer support, but because grief and grieving aren’t one-size-fits-all experiences, they might need guidance when it comes to what will feel right for you.

According to Devine, self-advocacy can take many forms, including t discussing and setting boundaries around what they do or don’t want from loved ones. These conversations can be as simple as requesting “no surprises” or that you do something specific together. You can even share that you don’t actually know how you’ll feel when the day comes, and ask for the space to make a decision about plans later. 

And if your feelings change around a plan or commitment, Devine encourages individuals to make space for themselves by stepping away, saying that for some, this simple reminder might be enough to give them some peace as they join a celebration.

“If you make plans, remember that you can change or cancel them,” she says. “Knowing you have some power over the situation can make it easier.”

Embrace the Celebration on Your Terms

Celebrations like Mother’s Day can be fraught even for those who are not grieving, and Devine reminds us that if following a certain formula for marking the day no longer feels right, we should feel empowered to leave traditions behind or even ignore the day altogether. 

“For many people, for many reasons, Mother's Day feels obligatory, stressful, and performative,” she says. “It's an obligation they were brought up with––you have to do it or there will be repercussions. But just because that's been the case doesn't mean it has to stay that way. You can simply ignore it. Or, you can create celebrations that have personal meaning. There’s no one right answer.” 

If the “script” for Mother’s Day celebrations doesn’t feel right this year, Devine encourages those who might like to reimagine Mother’s Day to think about what “mothering” actually means to them as they make the holiday their own.

“Maybe you’re a supportive, nurturing presence for your friends. Maybe you tend plants or animals in a loving and maternal way,” she shares. “If we remove “mothering” from one single, fallible human being, we can find evidence of mothering everywhere.”

Ultimately, making space for all emotions, regardless of the day, is an important part of normalizing grief and the role it plays in our lives––even as we mark special occasions with loved ones.

“It's OK for a person to be sad, even on a holiday,” Devine says. “It's hard to celebrate when your heart is broken. And sadness is healthy. It’s ok to feel anything––sad, happy, confused, angry––no matter what the calendar says.”

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