• Fri, May 7 2010

How to Acknowledge Mother’s Day When Your Mother Isn’t Alive

Amidst all the commercials and gift guides and flower arrangements, there’s one thing about Mother’s Day that not everyone thinks about – what happens to people whose mothers have passed away when the holiday comes around? A close friend of mine lost her mother several years ago, and she has come up with some lovely traditions to remember her mother while not letting the holiday get her down. Katherine Rosman understands this feeling all too well. She lost her mother to cancer five years ago while pregnant with her son, so her first Mother’s Day without her mom was also her first Mother’s Day as a mom. Her memoir about her mother, If You Knew Suzy, was published last month by HarperCollins. She gave some tips to TheGloss about how to cope and how to help a friend cope.

How do you spend Mother’s Day?

I take a Pilates lesson because my mom loved Pilates. I try to find an activity to do that would please my mom, and I feel like I am doing it for her, in her stead. I am doing Pilates because she can’t. It’s a wonderful way to note the holiday and note who your mom was as a person, to find something that was her interest and that mattered to her and do it as a way of connecting with her. Carving that time out to do it is a gift to myself too.

How do you talk to your children (a four year old son and one year old daughter) about their grandmother, who they never met?

I talk about her a lot to my son. You talk to a baby and you assume they don’t absorb what you say, but that is wrong. There came a time about a year ago where my son became really concerned that his mommy was going to die. I didn’t mean to introduce anxiety into the life of my kids, so I have dialed it back a bit, but there was no unringing the bell. My son wants to talk about Grandma all the time. He doesn’t understand why you can’t have an iPhone in heaven or that my mom can’t text us from heaven. We talk about her. He wants to know “What did Grandma Suzy know about me when I was in your belly?”

I think I figure out my own spiritual feelings about the afterlife by answering his smart, simple questions. His questions are spare and stripped of artifice and mumbo-jumbo that adults put onto questions of spirituality. We talk about Grandma loving to dance, and loving Pilates, and that her matzo ball soup was really good. He knows which clothes of mine were hers. She is totally a part of our family and of his life.

Even though my own mother is still alive, I have a close friend whose mother died several years ago. How can I help her feel comfortable?

I have a friend whose father just died. I knew him, they were close. But you don’t know that much about friends’ parents, even if you have met them, so I ask her questions: “What was your dad like?” “Where did he grow up?” “What college did he go to?” It’s always good to read the cues. If someone really doesn’t want to talk about it, then you shouldn’t push. Listen to the cues. But [when you've lost someone], you don’t feel like people want to listen to you talk about your lost loved one. Having someone make that space for you and want to listen to you… that is so amazing. If you said to your friend that you want to spend an hour with them on Mother’s Day and let them talk about their mom, that is a gift they remember forever.

Does it ever get easier?

Time helps. The first Mother’s Day was brutal. In some ways, Mother’s Day is more emotional for me than the anniversary of her death because it’s a day purely about the relationship. What working on this book showed me and what I hope it shows others is that if someone is dead they’re still part of your life. I try to integrate my mom into our family even though she’s no longer here. It’s a day for me to celebrate my mom and our relationship. The first one she was gone was the first one I was a mother. I remember talking to someone whose mom had died years before and she said “I have taken back holidays, I am reclaiming them as a time to be happy with my family. I can be sad about my mom any day of the year, but holidays belong to people, not to sadness.” I liked that a lot.

It does get easier.  That was not something I wanted to hear, the whole “time heals” thing. They mean nothing because they’re platitudes, and they only mean something when you start to experience the truth for yourself.  It does get easier. I think I think about my mom as much as I always did, but I don’t think about her death as much as I think about her life. The balance used to be completely in the other direction, all thoughts of sadness. This morning I was looking for a pair of shoes, shoes that used to be hers, and I thought, “if my mom saw the way I was treating her shoes, she would be furious.” Those moments of “Oh, my mom is going to be so mad at me,” those are things to think about five years later. It’s not about her life, it’s about her Christian Dior shoes.

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  • David Tarpey

    Thank you for this. It has helped. Mother’s Day here in the UK is on Sunday and it’s only ten weeks since I lost my mum to ovarian cancer…with almost no warning. I lost my dad to lung cancer 16 yrs ago so feel the loss even more keenly. I had expected to have my parents in to proper old age. I have three children and it feels so wrong and unjust that they won’t be able to enjoy their grandparents like other children. In fact, they never got the chance to even meet my dad. He died seven months before my first was born.
    I’m having a mass dedicated to my mum on Mother’s Day and will visit her grave with flowers. I hope it will bring me some peace.