Yesterday, after posting about International Bereaved Mother's Day on Facebook, a friend came back with a really excellent question.
She asked, "I'm just wondering what to SAY to a Bereaved Mother on her day? Happy Mother's Day clearly doesn't apply. Do I say I'm sorry or I'm thinking about you? Can I ask how she's feeling? Does she want to talk about it?"
Great question, right? It really made me think.
Then I realized that there are probably a lot of friends and family of bereaved parents out there wondering the same thing. And so this blog post was born.
Obviously I cannot speak for all bereaved mothers and how they would like to be approached on difficult days like Mother's Day. But given my daughter's stillbirth and the fact that I have come to know many women in the babyloss community, I like to think that my insight on this matter is fairly keen. So here are my do's and don't's on how to relate to your bereaved friend on Mother's Day or International Bereaved Mother's Day (which falls on May 6 this year).
- Recognize that your friend is a mother. Just because her child is dead doesn't make her any less of a mother, nor does it erase her child's life. Recognition of that is life-giving.
- Acknowledge that Mother's Day is probably a strange or difficult day for her. It is an especially upsetting day if she has no living children.
- Say her child's name. Every bereaved mother wants you to talk about her child. Remembering her child in a loving and honoring way is an immense gift. You cannot hurt a bereaved mother by bringing up her child in this manner. It's not like she has forgotten her child. Don't be afraid of reopening a wound, because the wound left by her child's death will never close.
- Say, "I'm so sorry that your child isn't here with you today." When in doubt of what to say to a bereaved mother, this always works. It doesn't dismiss her pain or trivialize the loss, and it does give her and her grief that all-important recognition.
- Give her a big hug, and don't be alarmed if she cries. Personally, I love hugs from my loved ones, especially when I'm hurting. But often hugs can trigger tears. Don't be afraid of those tears, though. It is a gift to be a able to mourn your child with your loved ones.
- Give her a card or a gift if you feel so inclined. That would be very honoring of her motherhood and her child's life -- both of which are priceless gifts to the bereaved mother.
- Respect that she might not want to go out on Mother's Day. Being out and about on Mother's Day, seeing other mothers celebrating with their living children, is likely to be intensely painful. I know that for myself, I have not yet decided if I will attend church on Mother's Day. Respect her wishes, and support her by dropping a note or card into her mailbox.
- Ask her how she's doing -- but only if you're prepared for an honest answer. Our culture is afraid of pain. When people say, "How are you?" they usually don't want to hear anything else but "good" or "okay." But a bereaved mother is anything but "okay," especially on difficult days like Mother's Day. So be sure that you want an honest reply when you ask -- otherwise, it's probably best to leave this one alone, so that the mother doesn't feel like she has to lie.
- Ignore her on Mother's Day. If she is anything like me, she is grappling with intense identity issues. To ignore her (and her motherhood) on this painful day is likely to be immensely hurtful.
- Dismiss her loss or her grief. If a bereaved mother chooses to say things like, "God needed my baby in Heaven," "Everything happens for a reason," or "It's God's will," that's up to her. But it is not okay to say things like that to her. These are flimsy explanations of her child's death -- and the harsh reality is that there is no explanation that will make her child's death okay. Don't try to explain her pain away. It won't work, because there is nothing logical about death and grief, and any such attempts are likely to be very hurtful.
- Tell her that she'll be "over it" by next year's Mother's Day. The sad truth about child loss, whether that loss occurred before or after birth or well into adulthood, is that the mother will never "get over it." A significant part of her died along with her child, and grief has changed her forever.
- Assume that because she has living children, Mother's Day is not difficult. As every parent knows, every child is unique and special in his or her own way. As a result, no amount of living children can ever "make up" for a deceased child -- nor should they be expected to.
- Place blame. It is NEVER okay to tell a bereaved mother that it is her fault her child died. That is up to the mother's doctors, who will tell her the truth. To try to blame a bereaved mother for her child's death is inappropriate all of the time, especially on difficult days. (And yes, incredibly, I have had someone blame me for Eve's death, although it was not on Mother's Day.)
Don't be afraid to talk about your bereaved friend's dead child or grief -- ever. I know that many people are afraid of making an already difficult situation worse. But if you honor her motherhood and grief, and remember and mention her child, there is no hurt being done -- quite the opposite in fact! Even if she cries, this honoring and remembering are gifts that are more precious to your bereaved friend than you can fathom.
For the bereaved mothers -- what else would you like to hear/not hear on Mother's Day?
For the loved ones of bereaved parents -- what other questions about relating to your bereaved friends would you like answered?