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  • Writer's pictureAdrea Tilford

How to Hold Space for Grief on Mother's Day

My friend Rebecca likes to use the phrase #notinthebrochure to describe the unexpected. For instance, when that first long-awaited Mother’s Day arrived, and it wasn’t quite as “Happy” as I’d expected it to be. What is there to do when the entourage of “Happy Mother’s Day” rubs like salt in a wound and you in fact find yourself - well - Not Happy.

What is Grief? 

Grief is deep sorrow that stems from loss. Grief is a strong and sometimes overwhelming emotion and the losses that trigger grief are personal. Death of course is a widely accepted source of grief, but loss is found in a multitude of circumstances both concrete (like the ending of a relationship) and ambiguous (like the loss of a dream of having a biological child due to infertility.)

In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, MD created the five  stages model of grief in her book On Death and Dying. However, I like this updated model that includes seven stages: Shock & Denial, Pain & Guilt, Anger & Bargaining, Depression, Upward Turn, Reconstruction and Working Through, Acceptance and Hope

The stages of grief are NOT linear and they do not have a set timeline for any given person. A vast array of emotions can be found within the grieving process: sadness, depression, anxiety, fear, anger, rage, denial, jealousy, or more. 

Grieving is a complex, personal process that affects us each differently, and that is okay.

Why might grief show up on Mother’s Day?

There are so many reasons you might find yourself living in tension on a day that society proclaims “should” be happy, but is instead a marble jar of complex emotions experienced because it triggers grief.  

It could be the 28 negative pregnancy tests or the multiple miscarriages that in your mind reinforce the fear that you are still benched and will always be benched in the wait for motherhood. It could be the stone engraved with the most precious name of your mother or your child, two months ago or twenty years ago. It could be the cancer that you are fighting and how crappy it feels to watch other people raising your babies because you are too sick to get out of bed. And it could even be the memories of a childhood in which your relationship with your mother was toxic, abusive or absent.

Within the world of adoption, Mother’s Day is a direct reminder of the loss of a first mother and a first family, for the children (no matter how old) and also for their biological families (no matter how long it's been). And every single May, I am reminded that my journey and joy in motherhood is a result of someone else’s pain.  #notinthebrochure 

What is Holding Space?

Holding space is about presence. Giving the person in front of you your full attention. Holding space includes physical presence, emotional presence and mental presence. As we work to build a therapeutic home, holding space is one of the practices we try to incorporate in our relationships.

Ways to Hold Space for Grief on Mother’s Day

These practices can be applied personally, (you holding space for you) OR they can be offered to someone you love (you holding space for your spouse, child or friend).

  1. Name it to tame it. 

This is a strategy from Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s book The Whole Brain Child. It might be written for children, but it works for adults too! The first place you may need to start is realizing and naming that you don’t like Mother’s Day. Maybe not this year anyway, and maybe not ever. Maybe it’s naming grief: that this Mother’s Day you feel sad or angry about the losses you’ve endured related to “Mother.” Whatever feelings you hold are okay, and giving them a name might help you integrate the loss you’ve experienced into your story. When unnamed or pushed aside, grief can lead to a tornado of emotions that disrupt life in ways you don’t like. Perhaps you notice that someone you love struggles with Mother’s Day. It’s okay to ask with tenderness, I noticed this day seems hard, do you want to talk about it? If you ask, be ready to listen presently. It’s not a quick fix, but it is a start. 

Practical Tip: Light a candle and say a prayer for the loss you’ve experienced. Let the candle burn all day or blow it out in 20 minutes. 

  1. Meet Needs, Not Expectations 

When I started to understand that grief was showing up for both myself and my children on Mother’s Day, I began to make some changes. First, I had to care for my own grief. I worked on releasing expectations and remembering I don’t have to do any of this alone. 

Processing grief is not pretty. It includes physical symptoms, emotional symptoms and behavioral actions. A desire to be alone might be grief. Ignoring the importance of a holiday might stem from denial of the loss. - If I don’t think about it, it didn’t happen. Or perhaps an unexpected blow up around the gift that didn’t go right is really tied to the anger discovered while making that gift in the first place. Why did ________ have to happen in the first place - I don’t want to make a stupid card. Behavior speaks need. One way we identify underlying need is If the behavior doesn’t match the situation. There are many times you may not know or realize why a reaction is happening. It’s okay to not know. 

Practical Tip: Here’s a script I like once the behavior has calmed enough to process: I noticed you are wanting to be alone in your room, I wonder if you are feeling ____________ ? Then, listen.

  1. Release Expectations

Everyone creates expectations for a holiday. Unmet expectations can compound already present grief. As the day unfolds, expectations can prove to be unpredictable sources of pain. Sometimes your expectations might be conscious and other times they lie under the surface as hopes. It’s normal to expect and hope. Letting go of expectations tied to Mother’s Day, you can be present as the day develops rather than “shoulding the day away.” 

Practical Tip: Reflect, Here are some reflection questions to think about or journal. 

What are some things I most want this Mother’s Day?

How might I communicate that to my people in a thoughtful way?

What might I do if my people are not able to meet those expectations for some reason?

Practical Tip: Release, Lift up these questions and prayers to God.

God, what might be some expectations I need to release this year?

God, I need your help to let this go. Be with me today as I try. Comfort me when it’s hard. 

Prayer of Relinquishment by Richard Foster

And, even with reflection and release, there might be times when subconscious expectations will slyly creep in and go unmet. Go ahead and grieve that loss when it happens. Feeling sorrow leads to feeling acceptance. 

  1. Find a Friend, Be a Friend

Remember, you are not alone. God has promised relationship. In early 2023, God helped me see something new. 

I have given you a partner and I have given you friends who can see this world you're walking in and they can see the things that might trigger the losses you've gone through and they can hold your hand. They can say, are you okay?  And, I’m in this with you.  And in relationship, you can begin to heal in ways you never thought possible. 

We have a powerful and kind God who offers presence through his word and Holy Spirit. And we have a God who gives us real life human beings to walk with. These are the people who will love you when it's hard to give those triggered parts to God right away.”

Practical Tip: Let someone know that Mother’s Day is not your favorite. Ask them to look out for you on that day. This might be that they give you a gift, or send you a text that it’s okay you said no to an event, or even go on a walk with you. 

Maybe, the idea of grief on Mother’s Day is new to you, and you have not experienced losses here. How might you reach out to and offer friendship to someone who has?

KEY WORDS: Mother's Day, Grief, Understanding Grief, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Stages of Grief, Holding Space, Fostering Grief Support, Practical Tips, Seeking Support, Offering Compassion

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