This story was originally published on May 10, 2019. It has been republished for Mother’s Day 2020.
Mother’s Day, depending on the status of your relationship with either your mom or your kids, can be anything from fun to annoying to no big deal.
But for bereaved mothers, the day can be among the most agonizing on the calendar. And that’s something to be cognizant of as the day approaches, for the sake of anyone you know who has lost a child.
“I think the key to remember is that grieving mothers are mothers — just like every other mother,” psychologist and grief counselor Joanne Cacciatore tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Even if your only child died, you're still a mother — just like you're still a daughter if your mother dies. Because those relationships and those bonds continue beyond death.”
Cacciatore founded the MISS Foundation, a national support organization for bereaved parents, after the stillbirth of her own daughter, and more recently started the Selah Carefarm in Sedona, Ariz., for grieving family members.
Many bereaved mothers “get overlooked on Mother’s Day,” she says, which can really hurt.
“Even if they have surviving children, people tend to see them as mothers only of the children they can see,” she says. “And there are few things more painful than that, because bereaved mothers want to be recognized as the mother of all of their children.”
Maya Thompson, whose son Ronan died nine years ago, at age 3, of the pediatric cancer neuroblastoma, agrees with that passionately.
“In my experience, the thing that has helped most is when people simply acknowledge the fact that not all of my kids are here to celebrate the day with me,” Thompson, founder of the Ronan Thompson Foundation, which raises awareness for pediatric cancer and funding for cutting-edge research, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Thompson has three other children, but that doesn’t lessen the pain of having lost Ronan, she explains.
“A loving text message from a friend, a card with all four of my kids’ names on it, or even hearing someone say Ronan’s name on [Mother’s Day] means so much,” she says.
Here are four more pieces of advice on how to best be a supportive and comforting presence to moms who mourn on Mother’s Day:
Acknowledge the loss. If you're close to the bereaved mother and she trusts you, Cacciatore suggests, “Ask her, ‘How do you feel? How is it for you this Mother's Day?’ Or try saying something like, “I know that you have two living children. And I also want to acknowledge that I know that you have a child who died, and I can only imagine how painful it must be not to have all your children here for this day.” If you sense the person would not welcome such a conversation, she adds, consider sending a sensitive greeting card, noting something like, ‘Thinking of you and hoping for a gentle Mother's Day,’” she says. “I just think that most bereaved mothers appreciate when people honor and remember them as a bereaved mother.”
Don’t say, “At least you have other children.” This is actually “the worst thing” to utter, according to Thompson, who has three surviving children, adding that she has had it said to her “so many times.” But just because someone has other kids does not mean their pain is less, she says. “It does not replace the huge, gaping hole in my heart that is reserved for Ronan and only Ronan,” she says. “My other kids will never take the place of him, and Mother’s Day will never be the same. And not everyone has other children to be with on this day, but they still deserve to be recognized and celebrated.”
Avoid platitudes. “Anything that comes from a place of your own discomfort and fear is probably not going to be a good idea to say,” Cacciatore advises, whether it’s, “She’s in a better place,” “At least you have other children,” or “Heaven needed an angel.” When we say things out of fear, she says, “we're saying things that don't make any sense and that aren’t helpful.”
Be brave. The reason it’s such a rarity for a bereaved mother to have her dead child acknowledged by others, Cacciatore says, is that “people are afraid.” Recently, for example, she spoke with someone whose friend had just lost a baby, and she asked how the friend was doing with the approach of Mother’s Day. “She said, ‘Oh, I don't know. I can't talk to her about that. I don't want to bring it up because it makes her sad.’ And I gently said, ‘You aren't going to make her sad. She's already sad. It's not like she's forgotten her baby died.’” So sometimes people just need permission, Cacciatore says, because they're afraid — “and understandably, because we're a culture that doesn't talk about grief.” But she firmly believes that it needs to change. “Nothing is lonelier on Mother's Day for a bereaved mother,” she says, “than for other people to pretend like her child never existed.”
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