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When Mother's Day brings Heartache

Eleanor Lipkin

Many of you may know, the defining event of my life has been the loss of my mother more than 20 years ago. Here she is, in happier days. Mother's Day had always been a challenge, as we did not have an easy relationship. After she died, it became even more painful, on so many levels. I wished we had had more time together - I wish she had known me better - I wish I could have understood her past more and asked more questions.... it's a neverending cascade of mysteries to which there is no answer. And on Mother's Day, the pain can rise up.

It begins not long after Easter - the avalanche of Mother's Day (a made-up marketing holiday) advertising. Happy families playing, laughing, giving Mom flowers or dinner - all is perfection. But how many people do we know like that? Not many, for sure! For SO many people, Mother's Day can bring up tension, the obligation to give a gift to someone who may not be a good parent at all, lots of expectations and hurt feelings.... Then there are those of us who have lost our mom - watching those happy families can be gut-wrenching - either because we have lost that, or because we have never had that.

My first experience with this issue happened maybe two or three years after Mom died. I had moved to New York and was buying a birthday card for a friend in early May. I took my card to the counter in the empty store and the woman at the checkout said, "Oh, don't you want to buy something for your mother for Mother's Day?" I never felt my blood pressure go up so fast.... I shot back: "Gee, I'd love to, but she's dead, and thank you SO much for reminding me!" The woman turned pale and grew quiet, as I stormed out. It was the first direct rudeness I had experienced surrounding my mother's death - and it made me a lot more aware of how we carelessly speak. This applies to Father's Day, too, of course.

So as the holiday approaches, if it is feeling painful or if you are dreading the actual day, here are some thoughts. The culture and the marketing assume that everyone's family is together, healthy and happy. Not so, of course - many of us come from painful, toxic or dangerous families. And many of us have lost parents, so of course, that is hurtful, too. I'd love to see the advertising folks take some of this into account...and where exactly do I find the Barely Adequate Parents greeting card section??!?

You cannot escape the ads or the day completely - but at least:

- if your parent is living and present and challenging, expose yourself as little as possible, and try not to say things you do not mean just for show.

- if you parent is deceased and was challenging, honor yourself that day. Connect with others in similar positions, perhaps AlAnon, if that is appropriate for your history, perhaps on Meetup or Facebook.

- if a loving parent is deceased (perhaps ON Mother's Day, as a client of mine is experiencing), don't push away the pain. Celebrate her life, tell her stories, maybe plant a tree, a flowering bush, a vegetable, something living that will thrive.

Support groups, a grief coach, a therapist, close friends - all are important to share the feelings you are having - these can all be important in finding community. Complex feelings of anger and guilt may arise, even if that have been dormant for a while.Grief Healing is a long road and these feelings and doubts and frustrations are all normal. Be gentle with yourself.

And as Mother's Day and Father's Day approach, speak wisely with folks and do not assume that they still have living parents or that they actually miss those who have passed. They honestly may not, and you may now know their whole history to speak to it. If someone is a parent themselves, focus on that. If you are not sure, perhaps leave the subject alone? One can say truly hurtful things even with the best of intentions.

This also applies to women who wanted to be mothers, but could not conceive; mothers who have tragically lost a child; and also women who have chosen not to become mothers - there is a wide range of people here who are also left out of this narrow viewpoint of Mother's Day. Again, do not assume what anyone feels, and to be sure of not offending, skip the topic altogether unless they bring it up. If you know the day will be painful for a friend or relative, perhaps take them to lunch (but not on the day itself) or offer to cook them a meal at their place, or something similar to distract them and have some fun.

What do I do now for Mother's Day? Get flowers - write to Mom in my journal - maybe light a candle. And turn off the ads when they pop up....

I feel so strongly about this subject, it may actually be the topic of my next book - what do you think?

If you have thoughts on this issue, please comment below.

You are never alone.

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