When Mother's Day hurts: Three tips for surviving the holiday

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When my middle child, Katie, died of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm at 19—just three weeks after Mother’s Day 2008—I knew my life would never be the same. One of the toughest milestones of that year was my first Katie-less Mother’s Day. While I cherished the notes and gifts from our other deeply loved kids, the one child I couldn’t see or touch or hold stirred a Mother’s Day ache too deep for words. And I am not alone.

Mother’s Day is a complex holiday for many women—a reminder of the child we lost, the mother who passed away, the estranged son or daughter, or the painful childhood. For single moms, it brings the awkward: “Will my child’s dad help our son or daughter celebrate me?” For others, it reminds them that their infertility, miscarriage, or singleness has kept them on the sidelines of this day that hallows motherhood.  

If this describes you, must you put on a happy face for the sake of others? Is hiding at home your only option? What if you could navigate the day in a way that both honors your loss and celebrates the life you now live?

Today, almost seven years since that painful first Mother’s Day without Katie, I have learned a few tricks that help me wholeheartedly enjoy this wonderful/wounded holiday. Perhaps you, too, will find these tricks helpful.


Tip 1: Pre-grieve. Give your feelings the expression they deserve.

Before Mother’s Day, set aside time to grieve whatever loss you have experienced. Journal, write a letter, visit a graveside, talk with a trusted friend, or pray.

Cry—it’s both physically and emotionally healthy.

Pre-grieving takes the edge off the actual holiday: You no longer need to suppress your emotions because you’ve already released them. The day will still be tender—but less messy.

Tip 2: Take action. If your particular loss can be lessened by actually doing something, then do it!

Reach out to the estranged child or mother, or phone your ex and ask if he could help your child make a card—or decide ahead of time how to help your child acknowledge you on this day (It’s part of training your child to be grateful. Chalk it up to good parenting!). Or look into adoption, foster parenting, or mentoring.

Let this day motivate you to action.

Tip 3: Arm yourself with gratitude. When we are hurting, it’s easy to fall into victim mode, and few things change our outlook more thoroughly than acknowledging the blessings that still infuse our lives.

Even in the worst situation, goodness peeks out at us, longing to be recognized. Begin a gratitude list and keep it handy. Add to it before Mother’s Day. Then on Mother’s Day morning, take some time alone to read through your list, giving thanks for each blessing. While you can’t undo your unique loss, arming yourself with gratitude can move you toward genuine joy for the life that is still yours to live.

Even on hard days, remember: Our circumstances cannot ruin our lives without our permission. We can fight back. We can grieve our losses wholeheartedly—and then pick up the banner of gratitude and carry on.

Happy Mother’s Day.