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Reflections on Mother’s Day

“At times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”
Albert Schweitzer

There are many expressions of motherhood; likewise there are many relationships surrounding ‘motherhood’ that can complicate a seemingly benign holiday. Mother’s Day is typically about honoring and remember our mothers, but the day can bring up mixed emotions, anxieties, and a sense of isolation for those children and teens whose mother has died. For women who’ve had a child die, Mother’s Day may hold painful associations. The ‘Hallmark card’ pressure to celebrate on that day may contribute to feelings of being different from peers and friends.

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Who Am I Now? Losing and finding yourself in grief

When someone dies, we grieve not only for the person and who they were in our lives, but also for who we were before the death. People can be both surprised and disoriented by how the death changes them. No one tells us that the death of someone else can lead to grief over the loss of self. As a parent in one of our grief groups remarked, “I had no idea I’d change so much, I knew I would be devastated and miss my daughter, but I assumed I’d stay the same person I was before she died.” As Joan Didion writes in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” her memoir of the first year after her husband’s sudden death, “We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”

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Worrying about other people’s grief

“I’m really worried about him! He’s not working through his grief.” 

I recently overheard an adult make this comment about a teenage boy whose father died by suicide six months ago. What stood out to me was not the mode of death, nor that this young man “was not working through his grief,” but that judgments of this kind are made frequently. “She doesn’t seem to be grieving.” “I don’t know if he’s doing his ‘grief work’.”

While the comments may sound harmless, even genuinely caring, they can be dangerous if left unchecked. They set up the commentator as an evaluator and a judge, begging many questions. What is too emotional or not emotional enough? Can you grieve too much? Too little? What is the right amount of time? What is the wrong amount of time? What is the right way to grieve? What is the wrong way? Where and when is it appropriate to express one’s grief? With whom should one express it?

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Alternatives to “I’m sorry.”

When children and teens at The Dougy Center are asked, “What’s something you wish people would stop saying?”, they break out in a chorus of “I’m sorry!” What do you say when you find out someone died? What words do you write in a sympathy card or email? It’s a universal struggle to know what to say in an inherently emotional and potentially uncomfortable situation. Grieving people, especially children and teens, are extremely tuned into other people’s discomfort. Friends, teachers, and colleagues often don’t know what to say or how to react when it comes out in conversation that someone’s parent, sibling, friend, or other family member died. This can lead many people, including children and teens, to avoid any topic that connects to their loss. Everyday questions such as: How come your grandparents always pick you up after school? How old is your mother? How many siblings do you have? can leave grievers feeling confused about what to say and worried that answering honestly will make other people uncomfortable. Grieving people brace for the automatic, “I’m sorry,” that often follows when they disclose that someone in their life died.

When asked why they don’t like that response, children and teens had this to say:

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