Mother’s Day is a day to celebrate mothers, and for most mothers it is a day of great joy and satisfaction. But for mothers whose children have died, Mother’s Day may be painful beyond imagining for anyone who has not been through the wrenching experience of losing a child.
Family members and friends often care deeply and want, somehow, to help but don’t know how. They fear that talking about the child who died will evoke tears in grieving mothers. And it might. Yet, most mothers say that is exactly what they want on Mother’s Day: someone to listen, to care, to remember their child who died, and to acknowledge both their grief and their motherhood.
With Mother’s Day approaching it occurred to me that Dr. Joanne Cacciatore would be the perfect person to provide guidance on how to help grieving mothers on this understandably painful day. She is an Associate Professor at Arizona State University; directs its Graduate Certificate in Trauma and Bereavement program; and is the author of the new book, Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief (https://www.amazon.com/Bearing-Unbearable-Love-Heartbreaking-Grief/dp/16...).
Joanne knows whereof she speaks- from painful personal loss, from scholarly research, and from selflessly helping thousands of grieving parents.
In 1994, her fourth child died during birth at full term. That experience catapulted her into the deepest throes of sorrow she’d ever known. Two years after Cheyenne’s death, Joanne found that one of the best means of coping with her own traumatic grief was by reaching out and helping other parents whose children had died or were dying.
Dr. Cacciatore founded the MISS Foundation, an international nonprofit that provides services (CARES- counseling, advocacy, research, education, and support) to families suffering life’s most painful experience. Grieving parents come to the foundation for life-changing support services and, eventually, when they are ready, learn how to give back to help another. Giving support to another is one of the best ways of getting support for oneself.
Since its inception in 1996, MISS has grown exponentially, showing that it fills a desperate need for families who are otherwise neglected in our grief-avoidant culture. With more than 70 chapters and volunteers in 13 countries, MISS provides aid to tens of thousands of grieving parents, grandparents, and siblings every year. (If you are interested in joining or starting a chapter or volunteering, information is available at www.MISSFoundation.org).
Soon, MISS will be launching its latest project: the Selah House Carefarm and Respite Center (SHCRC)- the first therapeutic carefarm in the world for traumatic grief (for more information see this video https://missfoundation.org/help-build-the-selah-house).
Here are some of Dr. Cacciatore’s thoughts on this Mother’s Day, but most can also be very useful in helping families connect with one another every holiday and, even more importantly, every day:
“Holidays are meant to be celebratory. Yet, it’s hard to feel celebratory when someone is missing. Should we pretend nothing happened? Do we dare talk about it? How do we talk about it? What if we make her cry?
On nearly every holiday, I hear stories from grieving families about the awkwardness of others around their grief. The death of a child is the elephant in the room. Friends and family, often not knowing what to say or do, sometimes say and do nothing.
This can be particularly painful for grieving mothers on Mother’s Day, and holidays can become disastrous until people learn to break the ice, open up and share together, approach grief with compassion, and remember the child who died.
There is no one-size-fits-all way to help all grieving mothers, and some of the things that help the most may seem counterintuitive. Buy her flowers or a tender Mother’s Day card. Make her a special dinner or ask if she wants to travel somewhere new. It is imperative to recognize her as a mother, even if a grieving mother. Say her child’s name and acknowledge her as a mother to that child, the one who died. And if she does not have living children, it is absolutely important to still see her as a mother, because she is – and will always be – a mother. Listen deeply and nonjudgmentally, even if it evokes deep sadness and fear for you as a listener.
I wrote this manifesto early in my own personal grief to help me understand myself and to help others understand me more intimately. Perhaps not all grieving mothers feel as I did, but many I’ve helped directly have expressed a connection with these words:
I am a mother. I am a bereaved mother. My child died, and this is my reluctant path. It is not a path of my choice, but it is a path I must walk mindfully and with intention. It is a journey through the darkest night of my soul and it will take time to wind through the places that scare me.
Every cell in my body aches and longs to be with my beloved child. On days when grief is loud, I may be impatient, distracted, frustrated, and unfocused. I may get angry more easily, or I may seem hopeless. I will shed many tears. I won’t smile as often as my old self. Smiling hurts now. Most everything hurts some days, even breathing.
But please, just sit beside me.
Do not offer a cure.
Or a pill, or a word, or a potion.
Witness my suffering, and don't turn away from me.
Please be gentle with me.
And I will try to be gentle with me too.
I will not ever "get over" my child's death so please don’t urge me down that path.
Even on days when grief is quiescent, when it isn't standing loudly in the foreground, even on days when I am able to smile again, missing her is just beneath the surface.
There are days when I still feel paralyzed. My chest feels the sinking weight of my child’s absence and, sometimes, I feel as if I will explode from the grief.
There are days when I barely recognize myself in the mirror anymore.
Grief is as personal to me as my fingerprint. Don't tell me how I should or shouldn’t be grieving or that I should or shouldn’t “feel better by now.” Don't tell me what's right or wrong. I'm doing it my way, in my time. If I am to survive this, I must do what is best for me.
My understanding of life will change and a different meaning of life will slowly evolve. What I knew to be true or absolute about the world has been challenged so I'm finding my way, moment-to-moment in this new place. Things that once seemed important to me are barely thoughts any longer.
I notice suffering more- hungry children, the homeless and the destitute, a mother’s harsh voice toward her young child- or an elderly person struggling with the door. There are so many things about the world which I now struggle to understand: Why do children die? Answerless questions do exist.
So please don’t tell me that “God has a plan” for me. This, my friend, is between me and my God. Those platitudes slip far too easily from the mouths of those who tuck their own child into a safe, warm bed at night.
As time passes, I may gain insights or even gifts; but anything gained was far too high a cost when compared to what was lost. Perhaps, one day, when I am very, very old, I will say that time has truly helped to heal my broken heart. But always remember that not a second of any minute of any hour of any day passes when I am not aware of the presence of my child's absence, no matter how many years lurk over my shoulder.
Don’t forget to say, “How are you really feeling this Mother’s Day?” Don’t forget that even if I have living children, my heart still aches for the one who is not here —for I am never quite complete without my child.
My child may have died; but my love - and my motherhood - never will.”
Thanks so much Dr. Cacciatore for your brave heart and deep wisdom.
For those who have lost loved ones, holidays are not so much a cause for celebration as a time for remembering, commiseration, and shared intimacy. This too often gets lost in the cheapening that comes with the Hallmark card commercialization of what should be deep human emotions. Nothing illustrates this better than the strange and tangled history of Mother’s Day.
One hundred and fifty years ago, Ann Jarvis was the initial driving force behind the push for a Mother’s Day. She had worked during the Civil War to improve sanitation and health for soldiers on both sides and wanted an annual memorial to recognize the pain of the grieving mothers of those who had died. It took 50 years, but the first Mother’s Day was memorialized in 1907 in just one small church. The tradition spread remarkably quickly all across the country, and by May 8, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson had made it an official national holiday.
Within just a few years, the deep emotions meant to be conveyed by Mother’s Day were submerged by superficial commercial interests. It became one of the most popular days for dining out, buying flowers, giving jewelry, and sending greeting cards. This meant big profits for business, but ignored the feelings of grieving mothers.
Ann’s daughter, Anna Jarvis, began a lifelong fight against what she saw as a violation of her mother’s intention for the Mother’s Day holiday. She recognized the deep irony. A day initially intended to recognize the pain of grieving mothers had been hijacked to sell products.
And now, it is precisely those bereaved mothers, most deserving of a day of recognition, who are most likely to be cast aside by our superficial version of the holiday. It is time to get back to the original intent: a loving tribute to all mothers, but especially an opportunity to help those suffering a grievous loss of a precious loved one.