Its March and that means that Mother’s Day is nearly upon us. If you have a friend or family member who is a bereaved mum, I hope you find this helpful. The information is based on my own experience as a bereaved mum of two little boys and that of many bereaved mothers who I know.
Key things to know:
- The lead up – we commonly hear bereaved parents saying the lead up to special date is often more challenging than the day itself (this applies to birthdays, death anniversaries, Christmas).
- It feels intense – it is impossible to escape with the level of marketing nowadays, emails start weeks in advance, supermarkets are full of signs,
- Time is not a healer – whether this is their 1st or 30th Mother’s Day without their child/children it will be painful. Time changes grief, and over the years people will learn how to carry their grief and deal with days like this better but time doesn’t heal it.
- It feels personal – even though this is far from the reality it can feel like you are on the ‘Truman Show’ and everyone else on the planet is having a perfect day;
- You’re not reminding them – they haven’t forgotten their loss and if they have managed to avoid all the Mother’s day intense marketing please contact me and tell me how!
A few tips on things to avoid:
- ‘You’re STILL a mum’ – this is meant to be reassuring and supportive but it can sound like a bereaved mother’s motherhood is questionable or that it is less than that of mothers with living children. It is better to acknowledge that their motherhood is unquestionable;
Try instead: “you are a great mum to xxx” or “Your babies/children are so proud of you”
- Avoid assumptions – people may not respond or feel how you would expect them to. For example, if Lenny and Bhai were here, I am confident that we wouldn’t really notice or acknowledge Mother’s Day. As they are not here, it is a day that deeply hurts me and hurts their dad. Check in with people and their partners;
- Minimising – this comes from a place of kindness, to make someone feel better, the reality is when a child dies, the pain cannot be fixed. Example of minimising are: ‘it’s just a day,’ ‘don’t feel like that,’ – ‘it will be better next year’ – ‘at least….’ Very sadly, you don’t have the power to take your loved ones pain away because you can’t bring their child back. It is much better to validate their feelings and see them as an expert in their own situation. Their grief is not a problem to be solved, it is a natural human experience and their child/children deserves to be missed.
Try instead: “I hear you, it must be so painful”
- Insensitivity surrounding living children – Nobody is asking or expecting you not to celebrate Mother’s Day – in fact bereaved parents really want people with living children to appreciate them. But it is good to avoid, ‘I will hold my children closer today,’ or ‘you can have my kids,’ or ‘at least you won’t be woken up by a crying baby.’ Bereaved parents understand that having living children is something to be celebrated, they also understand that parenting can be very challenging but please be mindful about your communication around this either on social media or directly with bereaved parents.
An alternative: It is ok to acknowledge that your reality is very different from a bereaved mum and the unfairness of this, a mum of two living boys did this well over Christmas, “I know my Christmas looks a lot different to yours because of a cruel trick of life, I’m so sorry”
- HAPPY MOTHERS DAY! – ignoring the reality that their baby/babies/child/children have died and assuming it is a simply joyful day can feel like toxic positivity – regardless of the time that has passed and whether the person has other living children – this day is unlikely to be straightforwardly happy. Of course, it is ok to acknowledge the beauty in their child’s existence and of any living children they may have but treating this day as a purely happy day ignores their reality.
What is helpful to say/do?
- Acknowledge – bereaved mums often tell me they really want to feel seen, heard and acknowledged both as mothers and within their grief. Compassion, understanding and a listening ear really does go a long way. This doesn’t have to just be on the day but can be in the lead up, they might want to talk to you about making a plan for the day. Examples: “I know Mother’s Day is coming up, I’m here if you want to talk.” It takes great strength for bereaved mums to get up every day and face the world, they shouldn’t have to be so resilient- but they are – they don’t need or want pity, they want acknowledgement. The impact is people feel thought about, more understood and less isolated – and worst case scenario they may tell you that they feel ok about the day but appreciate you asking;
- Use their baby/child’s name – this is always a good choice! They lovingly chose this name/names because it is their favourite, so hearing or seeing it is special. Consider that bereaved parents will never hear their child’s name in casual conversation so when people do mention their names it is incredibly special. Examples “Thinking of you, Lenny and Bhai today,”
- Mirror their language – there is no one size fits all because grief is unique and people are unique. So it is a good idea to listen to the language or ideas that parents use and reflect this back as this is likely to resonate with them the most. For instance, people tell me about taking Lenny and Bhai on adventures, a friend of mine likes references to elephants. Whereas references to angels for me doesn’t resonate but may for others;
- Buying gifts/cards- there is no obligation to do so but if you wish to a personal gift is always a good choice. Special gifts I have received include candles, blankets and jewellery with the boys’ names or initials on them and paintings of places that remind us of the boys. If choosing generic Mother’s Day cards doesn’t feel right, buy a plain one or make your own.
Example: We received two handmade cards – one for Lenny’s birthday and one for Bhai’s due date. They were lovingly written and addressed to the boys. We carried these to New Zealand and back and will keep them forever – these relatively inexpensive but thoughtful cards mean the world to us.
- Ask – think it through yourself first so as not to put more on a grieving mother. But if you are stuck ask! It avoids a situation where both parties feel unheard and misunderstood – it may be that the simple act of asking this question just shows you are thinking of someone which is powerful.
Analogy: spending your time overthinking how to support a bereaved mum is a little like a non-cyclist trying to pack for our New Zealand trip – try as they might, they would struggle to get it right because they just don’t know. We would arrive feeling frustrated with the inappropriate kit – items that feel obvious to us might be missing and it would feel thoughtless when in fact it is the exact opposite! This is nobody’s fault – but can be frustrating and hurtful for both parties. Losing a child is a life changing, catastrophic experience that no one expects or wants you to understand but it is helpful to ask the person and respect their view as the one living it.
Finally, please check in with your friends whose Mother’s or mother figures have died, it doesn’t matter how long ago or even whether they celebrated the day when their mum was alive – this doesn’t get easier it gets different.
Take home message: The simple act of reading this and trying to understand a little more is a supportive act. I speak to bereaved mums on a daily basis and I’m not always sure I get it ‘right’ for each individual, but I am always open to being told if I don’t. There is no simple ‘right’ thing to do but in my experience with compassionate, authentic, and loving communication – you can’t go far wrong. Saying something is better than saying nothing.