Spending Mother's Day with Ghosts: Mother's Day Grief

Holidays and Special Days / Holidays and Special Days : Eleanor Haley

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According to tradition, I will spend this Mother’s Day torn between life and death.

In one hand I will feel the tangible grasp of my daughter’s soft hand; in one-half of my mind I will be smiling; and in one-half of my heart I will feel the warmth of my family’s love and appreciation. In my other hand, I will feel a pull towards the world of remembrance; one-half of my mind will be consumed with the past; and the other half of my heart will be filled with ache, longing and appreciation for the mothers I have lost.

When I envision my Mother’s Day brunch, I see my mother and grandmothers are all there. They’re sitting in chairs that others believe are empty, chatting in voices too quiet for anyone else to hear.

My grandmother Eleanor is there, although I have to imagine what she would look like because she died before I was born. Her kindness and grace, however, have been made vivid through my mother’s memories and her values are the roots upon which my family has grown.

My grandmother Flo has come and she is as self-assured and confident as ever. I wish I had learned more from her guts and gumption when I had the chance, sadly she died before I understood why these things might be useful.

And then there is Mom, who never wanted to make a fuss about Mother’s day to begin with. I never bothered to wonder why, even though she deserved so many thanks. Perhaps a quiet dinner at the Olive Garden with family truly was exactly what she wanted. Or perhaps she, in the grand tradition of motherless mothers, felt the same ambivalence towards the day that I do now.

This is not the first Mother’s Day I will spend in the in-between and I assure you I’m not alone. I’m beginning to realize gratitude mixed with heartache is the Mother’s Day formula for mothers grieving for a loved one. What I'm still wondering is if these people, like me, feel trailed by a group of affectionate but deceased loved ones. These women all remain with me wherever I go. They are a chorus, blending their harmonies into the soundtrack of my life. They are confidants, advisors, and role models only I can see. You might think this sounds crazy, but grief makes us all a little crazy.

A mother is irreplaceable, and so is the relationship between mother and child. Mother’s Day can be painful because it honors an inimitable relationship and keeps those who’ve lost a mother or a child partially focused on someone who lives only in the past. As it turns out, death doesn’t necessitate the need to let go, rather the need to learn how to love both those who are physical here and those who are not.

If you're struggling with Mother's Day grief, you're not alone. Take all the time you need to honor and remember the motherly women who you love and miss.  Then bring yourself into the present, look around, and celebrate all the nurturing, wise, funny, and awesome women who remain by your side.

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13 Comments on "Spending Mother's Day with Ghosts: Mother's Day Grief"

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  1. Rita  May 5, 2022 at 6:12 pm Reply

    I wish at least one of these articles even mentioned women like me — mourning our mothers — and not being mothers ourselves. I have no child’s hand to hold, no tie to the present, no solace there.

  2. Sheila Edwards  May 4, 2021 at 8:36 pm Reply

    My Mum passed away last year on the Thursday before Mother’s Day Sunday. I was inconsolable within my grief. My children did their best to show their love for me & I was very grateful. The Friday before this year’s Mother’s Day Sunday is, the 1st Anniversary of her leaving me.
    My Dad had passed before her & so being an only child I am an orphan. My parents were so much a part of my life & our family’s. I’ve had a year during Covid to rest, cry, & sleep & my husband has been my rock throughout all the pain. For him I am so thankful. All in all I will be sad this Mother’s Day, but I will still honour her memory with love.

  3. Judy carr  May 4, 2021 at 9:56 am Reply

    I relate with Daisy l also grew up in a dysfunctional home l also suffer PTSD When she died l felt relief and did not have to please her anymore Then l felt guilt about the way l felt l could go on and on about my childhood but l won’t l also lost my son at the age of 21 and Mother’s Day is hard for Then in Jan this year l lost my husband of 60 years and l am grieving . I am so lost

  4. Kanga  May 4, 2020 at 4:05 pm Reply

    I miss my Mum so much. She died suddenly in my care two years ago. I felt so helpless. Each day the grieving is the same, it has not eased at all like many said it will. Mother’s Day feels the same as every other day, the grief is immense. I wish I had just five minutes with her to tell her I love her so much.

  5. Anne-Claire  April 30, 2015 at 9:23 pm Reply

    Wonderful post, thank you! I have been feeling the ghosts of my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother quite a lot this week. They visited me in my dreams and they are present in my daily life as well. I appreciated what you said about a mother who is good and has a little bad – that is a perfect characterization of my mom. She was fantastic, one-of-a-kind, thoughtful, loving, and also somewhat challenging all at the same time. And I miss her so much, every day and especially Mother’s Day.

  6. Maggie  April 30, 2015 at 6:25 pm Reply

    Your piece really touched me. I had a wonderful kind loving supportive Mother and I’m sorry for those who did not. I never knew my grandmothers, but I can just picture them as you said sitting there at a brunch and me looking back in time with gratitude for helping to nurture to the wonderful parents I was fortunate enough to have in my life.

    • Viola. Wallace  May 6, 2021 at 7:01 am Reply

      5/26/16 will be 5 years since my beautiful daughter left this world. Mothers Day will never mean anything but pain and heartache. I do not celebrate any holidays birthdays as she is not here to celebrate also and without her i am not complete. She was taken suddenly and tragically. I never got to say goodbye. 5 years ago was the best Mother’s day ever and i keep that memory close to my heart. This is enough forever.. I need nothing more. I do not need a special day. My pain and sadness are with me always but so are beautiful memories and she brought me great joy the 31 years on this earth. I honor her everyday by living my best life and keeping her alive in our family with stories and pictures not just on Holidays. Those days seem so silly to me now. I wanna love everyone and honor everyone i love each day like it may be their last. Not just days on a calender that says we should. Ty

  7. Kelly  April 30, 2015 at 3:46 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for this…Some of my family members are a little worried about me because I haven’t made closure, because I hold on to memories tightly, because I keep my loved ones present. I get that they are gone, physically gone, but I don’t accept that the relationships are dead. I’ve already just completed a Mother’s Day art project and have additional plans for honoring my mom. This will be my second Mother’s Day since she died. It will be the first Father’s Day soon without my dad. It helps me so much to commune with people who don’t think that I’m not doing well just because I do things that help me continue to have my love ones present in my life. I have no desire for “closure.” I don’t want to “move on.” My life is going on with a present, which as you noted is sometimes illusive in the balance, but there is balance as hard as it is to sometimes come by. I appreciate so much your giving voice to my thoughts and feelings as Mother’s Day approaches settled in between my darling daughter and my irreplaceable mother.

    • Litsa  May 3, 2015 at 12:55 pm Reply

      Kelly, it can be so hard when people expect our grief to look a certain way. The reality is that it is not only common but can be very healthy to continue bond with our loved ones after they have died! We have many posts on ways that you can do this! It is wonderful that you are working on a project for mother’s day. You may enjoy this post on Continuing Bonds Theory, if you haven’t seen it already: https://www.whatsyourgrief.com/continuing-bonds-would-have-loved-this/

      And we have a podcast about it here: https://www.whatsyourgrief.com/sixteen/

  8. Daisy  April 30, 2015 at 3:26 pm Reply

    Yes, I’d like to echo what D. Johnson said.

    I grew up in a toxic and dysfunctional family, and thanks to my mother, I lived most of my life with PTSD. I finally got some relief from the constant anxiety when she died last year.

    This mother’s day I’ll be grieving, but it will be for what could and should have been.

  9. D. Johnson  April 30, 2015 at 2:07 pm Reply

    I take exception to something you wrote: “A mother- good, bad or indifferent- is irreplaceable…” Well, gosh, I sure hope not!

    I would certainly hope that mothers who are bad or indifferent ARE replaceable, both for my sake and my son’s! I am truly sick of society making a big deal out of what may simply be a sex act, conception and then a distaste for abortion. I wanted, desperately, to place my son in a loving home, to fling him as far away from my own abusive circumstances as I possibly could. It is unrealistic, perhaps antiquated, perhaps very modern, ways of framing Motherhood as this Sacred position that create harm for so many. The constant seeking of approval, the over reliance on Mother’s opinion, the wasting of time on a relationship that is toxic, and even the way courts return a child to a harmful environment over and over and over… until there’s a death– these things need to stop. Birthmothers deserve a nod for their contribution and even that seems unwarranted when drugs, smoking, and alcohol use are continued. But can we please stop automatically putting women who reproduce on a pedestal?

    • Eleanor  April 30, 2015 at 2:15 pm Reply

      Hmmm…D I see your point. In this sense I was more referring to whoever you identify as a mother, if there is anyone at all. I realize that many people might have had a contentious relationship with their mother or one that was up and down and might not have a more positive mother-figure who stepped in. Regardless of who that person you think of as mother is…they are often the person you think of on Mother’s Day even if it’s to mourn the fact that your mother wasn’t that great to begin with. I realize this sentiment may not capture everyone’s experience so I guess another way to say it would be that a mother is “often” irreplaceable.

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