Mother's Day -- a day to honor and celebrate mothers of all kinds. But for some this day can be challenging to face. In our two-part blog series, we share how to help and address such challenges. Today's blog focuses on helping mothers who are grieving the loss of a child. Tomorrow's post will discuss grieving the loss of a mother.
How to help parents who are grieving on Mother’s Day
When someone loses a child, their world changes forever. Mother’s Day is just one of many days that make that loss feel even more profound. Bereaved parents may feel angry, cheated, heartbroken, or all of these at once—and they may worry they can’t be there fully for surviving children the way they want to be. Whether it’s the first or the fiftieth Mother’s Day after a child dies, part of a parent’s heart always belongs to their lost child. As Darcy Krause of the Center for Grieving Children puts it, “A child is a child no matter how old they are. In a mother’s or father’s heart, it’s their child.”
Parents who have living children in addition to the one who passed can find Mother’s Day bittersweet. One child doesn’t replace another or soften the blow of that loss. Sue Lloyd of Kara, an organization that provides grief support to families, tells us, “It’s like having a separate bank account for each child. Parents want to have pure joy and celebration for their living child but also need to set time aside to mourn the loss of the child who is gone.”
Miscarriage is another loss that can ache on Mother’s Day. In this case, even though parents and family didn’t get to know their child, they might grieve for the life that child won’t have. And if it was a loss early in pregnancy, friends and family might not even know that it happened. That can be isolating as well.
As a friend to a grieving parent, you can never take away that pain. But there are things you can do to help support bereaved parents—especially if they’re not looking forward to Mother’s Day. Experts suggest that you:
1. Meet them where they are in their grief
Psychotherapist and grief specialist Fran Dorf cautions friends not to say or do things that could make a parent’s grief seem like it’s out of proportion or taking too long to resolve. Listen to your friend without judgment or advice. There is no right way to grieve. We need to let others work through their pain instead of trying to force them through it.
2. Let your friend know you’re thinking of them
You could say something like, “You’re on my mind today. I miss Michael, too.” If they have a living child, try, “This day must be filled with mixed feelings for you. I love seeing the relationship you have with Cora and remember your love for Jessie.” If you don’t know what to say, that’s okay. Just acknowledging that it can be a hard day can help your friend feel supported.
3. Say their child’s name
Often when someone dies, people stop saying their name around the grieving family. Experts agree that many families want to hear the child’s name out loud. Grief-support expert Shelly Gillan of Kara says that “it reminds them that their child is still loved and missed by many. A parent’s worst fear is that their child will be forgotten.”
4. Share memories or do something to honor the child—if your friend is ready
Darcy Krause advises that while some grieving parents won’t want to talk about their child, “others will leap at the chance. Follow social cues. If they change the topic, follow their lead.” Let your friend know that you’re available to talk or share stories of their child. If you want to give a thoughtful gift, write a card that they can read when they’re ready. Bake the child’s favorite cookies and leave them at the door with a note. Take a photo of something that reminds you of the child’s favorite color, movie, or holiday and send a text that lets your friend know you’re thinking of them.
5. Support surviving siblings
Darcy Krause reminds us that, even in families, grief can be lonely. Bereaved siblings can feel left out or experience survivor’s guilt that they’re still alive while their sibling isn’t. They sometimes feel pressure to take on the deceased sibling’s role in the family. Pay extra attention to siblings and help them feel nurtured and loved. Plan a special outing with them after Mother’s Day: a trip to the aquarium, an afternoon of arcade games—anything that makes them feel cherished.
6. Encourage self-care
Take your friend for a walk or drop by with a healthy meal. Offer to spend Mother’s Day together doing something relaxing like yoga or catching up on a favorite show.
7. Stay in the picture
Mother’s Day doesn’t necessarily become easier over time for a parent who lost a child. But friends and family can get caught up with their own lives and forget to check in as time passes. Commit to being there in the years to come on Mother’s Day, and to helping your friend keep their child’s memory alive.