What to Say to a Bereaved, Infertile, or Otherwise Childless Mother on Mother's Day {2014 Edition}

image by CarlyMarie
I wrote this post in 2012, the first year I celebrated the day as a mother -- a bereaved mother.  It remains my most popular and searched-for post.  I reposted it again last year, and decided to do the same this year.  

Even though it's been two and some years since my baby girl died, and although I have reached a place of peace and beauty (for the moment, anyway), I am not looking forward to Sunday's holiday.  I'm kind of in denial about it, refusing to think about Mother's Day (aside from this post, of course).

I am thankful for my motherhood, and daily celebrate the children who made me one with exquisite, excruciating gratitude.  But -- I still miss my daughter.  I grieve the nurturing I should have received as a daughter, and the perpetuation of generational wounds.  These things make Mother's Day painful.  I wish to acknowledge and once more honor that pain on a day that tends to be white-washed by carnations and smiles and Hallmark well-wishing.

When I wrote this post, I was most addressing the pain of mothers who had lost a baby at any age or gestation.  But I think that much of the advice in this post can be applied to mothers of ill, disabled, murdered, and/or deceased children, including adult children.

It can also be applied to other, more hidden kinds of bereaved mothers -- those do not have and have never had any visible children.  These may be women who have suffered multiple miscarriages, or women struggling with infertility or similar issues, women who have been devastated by their inability to become or remain pregnant.  These may be women who desperately wish to become mothers, but have not found the right man, or who have passed out of their childbearing years, or for whom life has somehow conspired to render them painfully childless.  These may be women who have suffered one or multiple failed adoptions, perhaps at the eleventh hour.  And I am sure there are other kinds of bereaved mothers that I am not yet aware of.  

I urge you -- honor these women and their motherhood and their hurting maternal hearts, because most will not, and that almost hurts worse than the initial wounding.  And please also be sensitive of those who are the children of absent mothers or ill mothers or abusive mothers or dead mothers.  Perhaps you are one of the bereaved mothers, or the bereaved children.  I see you.  I honor your pain, and your healed and healing places. May Mother's Day be gentle on that sweet, fierce heart of yours.

* * *

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 questions, right?  They 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.

DO:
  • 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.
DON'T:
  • 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.)
In summary, on Mother's Day a bereaved mother is desperately in need of recognition.  She needs to be known as a mother.  She became pregnant, and loved and cherished and bore a child.  The child's death does not change her love for that child, nor does it negate her motherhood.  So the name of the game in interacting with your bereaved friend on Mother's Day is recognition.  Tell her that she is a mother, and that you wish her child could be here with here, and you are golden.

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.

How are you celebrating -- or not celebrating -- Mother's Day this year?  How are you feeling all this? 

* * *

Thank you so, so, so, so, so much for your congratulations on yesterday's news, and for the many ways you've been sharing The Light Between Us around.  Words cannot contain the full force of my gratitude.  If you wish to hashtag your social media shares, please use #thelightbetweenusbook.  Thank you and thank you and thank you!

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