When you think of Mother’s Day, you might picture pink carnations, gushing social media posts, cards signed in crayons, and breakfast in bed.
But you also might think of someone or something you’re missing. For many, Mother’s Day isn’t a happy holiday at all. It could feel more like a painful reminder of what you’ve lost, what you don’t yet have, or what's never felt quite right. If that’s the case for you, you’re not alone.
Candyce Ossefort-Russell is a licensed professional counselor who focuses on grief. And she wrote about her first Mother’s Day as a single mom after her husband died. We turned to her for advice about coping or supporting someone on Mother’s day if you or someone you know is…
If that’s you: Whether your partner has died, you’ve always been on your own, or you’ve recently become single, make sure you take the time to celebrate yourself today, because “tending to yourself with honor, love, and care enhances your self-esteem and helps you to take an inventory of all you do on your own,” Ossefort-Russell said. So, “treat yourself.” Even if that means you’re the one making the effort to be festive. That could mean buying yourself flowers, doing something special with your kid(s), and having a glass of champagne with your brunch. Or, maybe it means carving out a quiet day at home. “It depends on the person,” Ossefort-Russell added. She said that on her first solo Mother’s Day, “it was right to sit, feel, and acknowledge my grief. I needed to hunker down and take care of myself because my heart was so raw.” Since then, Ossefort-Russell’s Mother’s Days have looked different. “I have a new husband and my kid is 31,” she said. “We’ve made it through those very hard times.”
If that’s your friend: Acknowledge that it’s Mother’s Day and while she might feel lonely, she’s not actually alone, Ossefort-Russell said. Because you’re there to see her. And recognize the uniquely hard work that comes with being a single mother. Maybe send a thoughtful card that says something like: “Happy Mother’s Day to you, baby. If I could give you a medal, I would.” On her first Mother’s Day without her husband, Ossefort-Russell’s friend came over just to support her. “To me, that was the biggest balm,” she said.
If that’s you: Know that you should give yourself “permission to feel your pain,” Ossefort-Russell said. Emotions like envy are valid and important feelings that come with grieving. Because, yes, dealing with infertility or other roadblocks to parenthood can be a form of grief. When it comes to marking the day, do what feels right. That could mean celebrating your own mom. Or saying “f*** this” and ignoring the expectations of the day. Instead, go do something you’ve been looking forward to doing, like seeing a popcorn flick (we recommend the new Nicolas Cage film). When it comes to social media, think about whether looking at other people’s Mother’s Day posts serves you. And keep in mind that Instagram can put a rose-colored filter on people’s lives. “If you can remember that and stop comparing, then keep looking. But then take the time to acknowledge any pain or grief that arises as you look at others’ posts,” Ossefort-Russell said. You can also consider sharing your own “real, raw” story on Mother’s Day. Another valid option: Put your phone away for the day.
If that’s your friend: Acknowledge that the holiday might be hard today. But that doesn’t mean you should call your friend or stop by unannounced. She might not want to speak with anyone, especially a friend who’s celebrating Mother’s Day in the traditional way. Ossefort-Russell’s advice: Send a message that says something like, “I’m here if you want to talk.” And mean it.
If that’s you: Try to figure out what your body needs from you. That might mean giving yourself permission to relax at home or giving yourself a spa day, Ossefort-Russell said. If the loss is fairly recent, then playing a game you used to enjoy with them might feel like the right way to honor your child. “But that kind of thing might be extra hard as time goes on,” Ossefort-Russell said. Many years after a loss, it could make sense to have a ritual like lighting a candle with intention. Give yourself room, and permission, to mourn on this day and any other day. The grieving never ends. But it evolves as time goes on.
If that’s your friend: Send them “something physical,” said Ossefort-Russell. Like an old-fashioned greeting card or flowers. She sends flowers to her first mother-in-law every year. Maybe don’t send a cheery “Happy Mother’s Day” card but instead share a note like, “I know it must be a very hard day and I am thinking of you and remembering” and then name the person who died. Because it’s important for your friend to know that their child is being honored and remembered in a special way. And that you are creating a space to talk about them.
If that’s you: You could have any number of feelings about Mother’s Day. While some people think it’s weird to celebrate when their mom isn’t around, others find it feels right to do some sort of ritual to honor their life. Ossefort-Russell suggests lighting a candle in your mom’s honor, cooking a meal she would’ve enjoyed, or purchasing a plant that reminds you of her. Another idea: Write down the ways your mom still affects you today. “That really does help you, paradoxically, move on,” she said. “Because you realize you don’t have to leave them behind to carry them with you in your heart.”
If that’s your friend: It means a lot to acknowledge their loss. So whether it’s their first Mother’s Day without a mom or their 20th, send a message that says “I’m thinking of you.”
If that’s you: A lot of people have good reasons for ending the connection with their parents, Ossefort-Russell said, and that’s OK. Know that you’re not a bad person if you don’t want to send a card like society expects you to. In fact, you’re likely taking the harder and healthier route by separating yourself from a painful relationship. On Mother’s Day, consider reaching out to any chosen maternal figures that you have, Ossefort-Russell added. And make sure to take care of yourself and feel your feelings. Getting in touch with anger and sadness can look like moving your body (think: anything from boxing class and a run to yoga poses) or writing down your thoughts in a journal.
If that’s your friend: “Make the implicit explicit,” as Ossefort-Russell put it. In other words: If you don’t know what to say, tell your friend just that. Even if you don’t understand the history of their relationship, you can say something like, “I imagine today kind of sucks.” Give them the opportunity to open up if they want to. Be ready to listen, or not talk about it at all if your friend would rather not.
Mother’s Day isn’t a celebration for everyone. So instead of just thinking about the smiling families on Instagram with the #happymothersday and #blessed hashtags, make sure you prioritize reaching out to your loved ones who need support on the holiday. And if it’s a tough day for you, know that you’re allowed to avoid it or spend the day doing something that’s far from the typical flowers-and-brunch.
Skimm'd by Carly Mallenbaum, Eleanor Goldberg, Anthony Rivas, Jane Ackermann, and Alicia Valenski
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