I am a grieving mother. That’s the one thing I want to hear most on Mother’s Day.
“On Mother’s Day, I can’t think of a mother who deserved it more than a mother who needed to give back.”
Erma Bombeck said, that. I like Erma – I like that there is one writing retreat in her honor, where a writer gets two weeks free at a Marriott in Dayton, Ohio. I like that she hasn’t budged an inch on writing and motherhood. I also like that she paid attention to us grieving mothers and didn’t get angry about it.
Six years ago my second son was stillborn. There is no sentence that could sum up something like this, so just believe me, it was unimaginable. His passing rearranged most things in my life, and I say with more than a little pride that it is truly special to be a functioning human being again, to be the parent of my living children, and to survive the great bolt of grief have, it came for us and it’s still rushing through me with little current. But every year Mother’s Day comes and is ready to wrestle with me.
My first mother’s days as a new mom were happy and hilarious—pancakes and flowers and finger-drawn cards. It felt like a beautiful (albeit very brief) day of honor for the insane effort that parenthood required. I slept late, I got a necklace with my kid’s name on it, I was a mom doing mom stuff.
And then our second son died and Mother’s Day turned into this big bruise. In the first year of grief, I was afraid of the day. I wanted to hide to avoid the sight of smiling women being decorated with flowers or fleeing to a hotel room for the night to escape their children. I was bitter, angry, and offended by a world that was so happily disinterested in my loss. And I really wanted to be known not just as a mother, but as his mother. I wanted to hear his name. I wanted people to step up and realize that among the many tough days of the year, this day could also be a sucker. Nobody did.
In the half decade that I’ve spent this holiday with the harsh and unwelcome title of “surviving parent,” I’ve grown less bitter. I know people don’t keep catalogs of all our personal tragedies, and I know that while others remember it, they choose not to say it because it would sadden us even more. But here’s the thing: most of us grieving parents don’t want that kind of protection. We think about our children all the time. We would like to know that you are thinking of them too.
Not hearing all of your children’s names on Mother’s Day can feel like a major erasure. I have living children, and if people don’t mention my deceased child, I assume they don’t consider it part of my mothering experience. When I’m really down, I can quickly conclude that no one remembers him but me, or that my community doesn’t care about one of the most defining moments of my life.
What I wish for every year is little nods. A text that reads, “Hey, I know this day might be rough for you.” A note wishing me a nice day and including my son’s name. Every recognition that I am a mother who has been a mother in the toughest of ways, that I am and have been a good mother to all my children. It would be a miracle to know that my friends still see the love I have for my son and love me for it. I don’t need awards. What I really want is to know that my community sees me and the full package of what motherhood means in my life.
I will continue to honor this request for the grieving parents who have no surviving children. For such a mother, Mother’s Day could become one huge question that she cannot ask out loud – she wants to know if the world can reflect her own identity as a mother. The worst thing you can do for such a person is not to say or do anything unless specifically requested to do so.
Here is my Erma Bombeck-inspired appeal on behalf of all the people you know who may be grieving for their child this Mother’s Day, even if that child died decades ago. be nice to us Recognize us. Say something. Whether it’s your sister, girlfriend, cousin: get in touch. Send this SMS saying your child’s name when talking about their family. Be brave! I volunteer at a support group for grieving parents and I have never met a parent who didn’t want to hear their child’s name or have someone join them for the love they have for their child.
The best Mother’s Day gift you can give is a nod that you see us as mothers and not just some version of a mother you’re comfortable with. The smallest gestures can be profound and joyful, an act of true connection.
Years ago, a woman I once met and befriended on Facebook was enjoying her first Mother’s Day as a mom. She was a poet and posted 300 times a day, exuberantly denouncing all variations of mothers in our culture. To single mothers! To those without mothers! To her mother! To those who mother the neighbor’s children! It was an endless, glowing list of respect for the many versions of mothers out there. The recognition was breathtaking and life-giving.
I think of her joy now as I head towards next Mother’s Day. I want to escape from their persistent exuberance. This year I will wish other grieving mothers a very simple wish: May you hear the name of your child today.
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