As we noted yesterday, Mother’s Day isn’t a universally joyous holiday. There are more than a few reasons to have mixed feelings about this weekend every May. But the day is particularly painful when t’s marked by profound loss. Even when you think you’re beyond the stages of grief, following the death of your mother or, perhaps, your child, this time of year can resurface a wave of complicated emotions and send them crashing right at your feet.

There’s no one coping mechanism that will suit everyone’s experience, and it’s likely that someone who’s lost a mom or a child has already had countless suggestions thrust upon them by well-intentioned friends and family. From support groups to solitude, they’ve likely heard it all.

This is for those of us who act in roles of support to them, for that aforementioned well-meaning friend who still has her mother or child and doesn’t know how to acknowledge the day among those who do not.

Here are few tips for navigating what is, for all involved, very difficult and sensitive terrain:

1. Ask first.
If you’re not quite sure how to make the day a little easier to survive, ask your friend or family member how she wishes to spend it. If she’s always shared an amiable relationship with your mom, might she like to be included in your festivities? Is she’s lost a child, would it be okay if yours made her a card? Does she even want Mother’s Day mentioned this Sunday? Would she like you to carve out a couple hours, pre- or post-Mother’s Day observance at your house, to take her to a movie or to dinner? If she’s visiting a space where her mother or child has been laid to rest, would she like you to go along for moral support?

The biggest thing to remember is: don’t presume. Every woman’s different, so our response to her loss should be unique.

2. Honor her wishes.
After you’ve asked if there’s anything you can do, and you’ve received your answer, respect it! This is especially important if the bereaved says that all she really wants to do is something like lock herself in her apartment, turn out the lights, and cue up some Donny Hathaway or Sade. Do not think your idea–a surprise cheer-up party, complete with Soul Train line–is better. It isn’t.

3. Be willing to remain silent. Be equally willing to talk about uncomfortable things.
If she doesn’t want to talk about her mother, her child, or Mother’s Day, try your hardest to avoid bringing them up. Conversely, if she does want to talk about anything at all, no matter how many tears it elicits or how uncomfortable a subject it is, commit to the conversation. Either way, listen twice as much as you speak.

4. Do your research.
If the loss is recent and the pain is fresh, it’s possible a grieving daughter or mom may have no idea what to do with herself on Mother’s Day. In cases like these, research can be helpful. A list of practical suggestions for how to support mothers who’ve lost their children can be found is a sound resource for daughters who’ve experienced the loss of a mother.

It’s impossible to truly comprehend the emotions your friend or family member may be feeling if you’ve never experienced the loss of a parent or child yourself. It’s always best to let her dictate the role you’ll play, and try not to deviate from the script.

If you’ve lost a mother or child and Mother’s Day is particularly difficult for you, how would you like your friends to support you this year? Is there any additional advice you’d add to this list?

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  • I love this. It’s wonderfully thoughtful.

    Since I’ve been experiencing the loss of my mom, I have learned that women’s intuition is so powerful. Even without being able to ask for what I’ve need, my friends and sisters have been able to just sit with me and hold my grief in ways that allow me to also celebrate them while honoring my feelings.

    My best advice is to not feel pressure to be happy. It’s the same in general, with everything, I think. But honor what you need. Be gentle with yourself. You can’t put a band-aid on a broken heart, and smiles when you feel devastated don’t work either. I’ve learned the hard way that suppressing your feelings only makes them rise up stronger. So, do what you can to weather the grief & come out the other side better.

    • As always, thank you so much for your honesty and insight, Joshunda.

  • Natalie B.

    I loss my mother four years ago. The first Mother’s Day without her was brutal; she passed away two weeks before her birthday in March of 2008, then I had to deal with Mother’s Day. Each year is a little bit better than the previous one, but I still get anxious and reserved the week leading up to it. Thank you for providing information to family, friends and loved ones on how to help those who are dealing with this type of loss get through such a tough day.

    • I’m very sorry for your loss, Natalie. And I hope that you’ll be surrounded by comfort and peace this Sunday.

    • Lisalove

      I lost my mother suddenly in April of 2008 and the first two mothers days were like learning to breath again. I’ve learned to cope but the quiet moments during this holiday do sneak up on me. So I understand. This year I hope to smile and I hope you do too

  • Pie

    This time of year is always difficult for me. My mother was in a hospital fighting for her life during this time of year in 1999. Unfortunately, she died in June, 3 days before her 52nd birthday. The first mother’s day after her death, I didn’t want to be around any of the festivities. It was too painful, the wound too fresh. I can’t say it has been any easier in the years since. Besides someone who has lost their mother or child, people may not think of this as a joyous holiday because they do not have a relationship with their mother or their mother was not a great role model for them if she was there. In addition, if you are of a certain age and you don’t have kids, you are viewed with pity like you are missing out the great epitome of womanhood.

    Just a few thoughts.

    • Pie-

      I’m sorry for your lost and that Mother’s Day hasn’t gotten much easier over the years. Be encouraged this Sunday.

      We did a piece yesterday on daughters with no or with bad relationships with their moms–but we didn’t get around to writing about women who are made to feel guilty because they’ve reached some magical past-childbearing-prime age and are still childless. Thanks for acknowledging them!

  • Thank you!

    My mother passed away 7 years ago, this is my 6th Mother’s Day without her. Time heals, but this day is still a bag of feelings.
    Even more so, due to the loss of my mother, I became a “mother” to my younger brother. Each year someone offers me a “Happy Mother’s Day” and though I accept it with a smile, it still tugs at the heart. I’m being honored because of her passing.
    I’m thankful for the beauty and essence that was my mother, Star. And I honor her all 365 days of the year.
    To those who parents have passed on, whether 2 days or 20 years, know that time heals. The memories will linger, but their love still stands.

    • I think your mothering role with your brother is so admirable and what a great testament to who your mother must’ve been, that you felt inclined to do that–and that your brother welcomed/accepted your efforts.

      Keep the faith. And enjoy this Sunday as best you can. :-)

  • entro

    I haven’t dealt with my mothers death which happened months after I nearly died . I’m numb Im just in survival mode so I cant think about either, its too much to happen to one person. Although at times I think I’m just going to collapse one day when the realization of what’s happened hits me but then I know that my faith has carried me through it all and maybe its Gods hand that taking the pain away. I know that she is with God and he has allowed me to be here for a purpose and its on his strength that I am able to go on everyday. I wont be going to the cemetary because I know its only a shell that’s there and not my mother plus I always lea ve there feeling empty. So on Sunday ill think about the good times with my mother and try to be present with my children and spouse and create memories for them to hold on to once I’m gone.
    Happy Mothers day to all of you that are mothers