For many, Mother's Day is an emotionally complicated day. Mother's Day can be particularly difficult to navigate for families facing the loss of their precious baby, whether the loss occurred years ago or is coming in the months ahead.
Mother's Day honors the mother herself as well as the impact motherhood and maternal bonds have on personal relationships and society as a whole. For some, the day is about celebrating the woman who raised them. For others, it is about celebrating the maternal figures who entered in and shaped their lives. As women start their own families, the day is about celebrating the role they play in their children's lives. For their significant others, it is about honoring the way motherhood has grown and shaped the women they love. Yet, for many, the day is a reminder of the pain that accompanies infertility as well as pregnancy and infant loss.
At its core, Mother's Day is a celebration of the women who sacrifice so much of themselves for their children. When a woman chooses to continue a pregnancy despite a life-limiting prenatal diagnosis, the sacrificial nature of motherhood and the depths of a mother's love are on full display. When she made the decision to continue her pregnancy, she did it out of love. She knew she was willing to face pregnancy, delivery, and loss to give her baby as much life as possible.
That walk is not easy. It comes with triggers each and every step of the way. From the moment of diagnosis, she puts one foot in front of the other knowing that she is walking towards the most unimaginable pain she will ever face. During delivery, she will put herself through physical and emotional suffering, desperately hoping for fleeting moments with her child while he or she still draws breath. Eventually, the moment will come when she will be asked to do the hardest thing of all: hand her baby over, knowing she will never see her baby again. Then, she will go home and somehow learn to live despite all that she has been through.
There is no denying that she is a mother. She may be a mother with empty arms, but she is a mother nonetheless. On Mother's Day, mothers grieving the loss of their babies deserve to be seen and heard because the day is not just for mothers who get the privilege of raising their children. So, as the network of support walking alongside a grieving mother, know that Mother's Day is for her, too. Reach out and let her know that you see her.
To help you know how to support a grieving mother on Mother's Day, I created the TEAR model. TEAR stands for think, empower, acknowledge, and remember.
Taking the time to put yourself in a grieving mother's shoes and thinking through what this particular day might be like for her is an act of empathy. As the network of support walking alongside grieving parents, empathy is your most powerful tool for support. You do not have to understand fully why this day is hard for a grieving mother, and you do not have to understand why she does what she does this time of year. No one expects you to understand what you have not experienced yourself.
Your empathy is what is needed. It is what equips you to enter in and provide tender and supportive care.
So, before reaching out to a grieving mother on Mother's Day, pause and consider what the last few weeks leading up to the day have been like. She has likely been bombarded with Mother's Day themed displays in stores. She has probably seen dozens of television commercials advertising the best gifts to give or depicting the precious bond between mother and child. She has likely not been able to escape the barrage of Mother's Day advertisements even in her car thanks to radio spots honoring mom and offering advice on how to celebrate her.
These weeks may have been full of triggers, whether she is still carrying her precious baby, newly grieving her loss, or still bearing the weight of her experience years down the road. Mother's Day has a new meaning for her because a piece of her motherhood is missing.
Mother's Day can also bring up feelings of guilt and questions of identity.
She may feel guilt over the fact that she was not able to prevent the diagnosis or stop it from taking her child from her. When surrounded by aisles of cards and items proudly exclaiming things like, "world's greatest mom," she may feel like anything but. She may feel as though she somehow failed her precious baby, and she may feel as though her grief is preventing her from being the mother she wants to be to her living children. For the woman who lost her only child, she may wonder if she can even call herself a mother. She may be wrestling through the question of whether or not she will ever get to raise a living baby.
Receiving a life-limiting prenatal diagnosis, carrying to term, and grieving the loss of a baby changes the parents at their core. They are profoundly affected in ways that shape their sense of identity, their relationships, and the way they interact with the world around them. They are different, and as a result, holidays are different.
Holidays now bear a new weight and awareness. Parents are acutely aware of what they are missing, year after year. This experience and lingering pain often leaves parents with a heightened sense of empathy for the world around them. So, now, these grieving mothers may not only be grieving for themselves on Mother's Day, but also for every other mother facing this same experience and grief.
So, take a moment and consider the weight this holiday now holds. It is not as simple as it once was or as it might still appear to be. For some grieving mothers, this holiday may not affect them or heighten their grief, but I encourage you not to assume that that is the case.
One of the best gifts you can give to a grieving mother on Mother's Day is empowerment. Simply put, empowerment is the authority given to someone to do something. It is about giving grieving parents the permission, encouragement, and support to grow confident in their voice, control, and rights in the midst of grief. Never underestimate the power of permission and empowerment. Here is how you can empower a grieving mother this Mother's Day:
- Encourage her to speak about her baby, experience, and feelings. Her story has a place in this world, and she has every right to give words to her experience. There is tremendous power in sharing stories, both for the grieving mother and for all the other grieving mothers looking for connection. To read more about the power of sharing stories, please read our post found here.
- Empower her to ask for help and support as she needs it. Let her know that you are willing and informed about how to support her as a parent carrying to term. Let her know that it is okay if she needs help in the form of professional support like counseling and support groups. Give her permission to not be strong every minute of every day. Remind her that there are people who want to enter in and that there are resources available to her.
- Encourage her to set boundaries to protect her emotional well-being and avoid triggers wherever possible. Let her know that it is okay to turn off social media, ignore phone calls and texts, and decline invitations on hard days like Mother's Day. Remind her that, when she withdraws, there are still people by her side when she is ready to lean on them.
- Empower her to advocate for her baby following diagnosis, throughout pregnancy, during delivery, and in life after loss. Connect her with resources like Carrying To Term, so that we can ensure that she is fully informed and equip her with tools like our birth plan.
- Encourage her to see herself as a mother, no matter the circumstances. Validate her experience, and remind her that she is, in fact, a mother.
- Empower her by giving her permission to grieve. Give her the freedom to grieve how she needs to for as long as she needs to. Impose no expectations or timelines on her grief. Support her as she carves out a legacy in honor of her precious baby.
Acknowledgment is recognizing the truth or existence of something. How powerful would it be for a grieving mother to have her motherhood acknowledged on Mother's Day? There is so much healing and connection when someone recognizes the existence and value of an important part of her identity. She did not lose her status as a mother when her baby died and to have that validated is powerful.
She entered into starting a family with the same intentions as any other mother. She was planning for a future full of motherhood moments, the good and the hard. She never expected the hard to be impossible. Yet, when presented with that reality, she chose to carry to term, knowing that the only certainty is the grief that she will carry all the days of her life. Every day that followed the life-limiting diagnosis has been an act of motherhood and love. She is a mother, there is no denying that.
So, when Mother's Day comes, year after year, acknowledge the grieving mother in your life.
You can acknowledge her by being there for her emotionally. Offer yourself as a listening ear when she needs to talk. Validate her feelings and support her in her grief. You can acknowledge her by sending a text, card, or flowers on the day. Pick out a special gift or keepsake for her in honor of her baby. Offer to provide a meal, run an errand, or take her living kids for a while, so she can have some time to just be a mother to the baby she is mourning.
Invite her to brunch, out for dinner, or to an activity that she would enjoy. With every invitation, give her the permission to say no, and when she does not respond or accept your invitation, keep reaching out. Just her knowing that you are thinking of her and willing to include her is powerful and supportive.
Acknowledgment looks like continually entering in. It is validating and offering support each step of the journey. Do not avoid grieving mothers, especially on Mother's Day, because you are worried that you might remind them or because you are unsure of what to do or say. Your silence and absence are isolating. Your tender, well-intentioned efforts at leaning in are powerful.
Where acknowledgment is about recognizing the mother, remembering is about holding space in honor of the precious life lost too soon. So, when you reach out and acknowledge a grieving mother, remember the precious baby who made her a mother, whether for the first time or the fifth time.
That precious little life changed hers, so speak the name she lovingly chose. Validate that her baby mattered to you and had impact on your life. Share what aspects of her journey and characteristics of the baby you remember and are most thankful for. Tell her that you love her baby and that you think about him or her often. Let her know that you still feel the pain of their loss.
Remembering is a way to speak life into a baby's memory. You are helping to create a legacy when you remember and reach out to the parents. More than anything, grieving mothers want their babies to never be forgotten. After all, they carried their babies for the entirety of those little lives. Now, they will spend the entirety of their own lives loving those precious babies. When others do the same, it is a powerful feeling that connects, supports, and frees mothers in their grief.
Mother's Day can be difficult to navigate for women facing a life-limiting prenatal diagnosis. In the weeks leading up the day, these grieving mothers may experience a range of emotions and feel a heightened sense of grief thanks to an increasing number of triggers. Mother's Day can serve as a painful reminder of what these families are facing and the lifetime of grief they will carry. The holiday is more than just the second Sunday in May. It is an emotionally complicated holiday for many, especially mothers who know the pain of losing a child.
So, this Mother's Day, remember the women in your life who are grieving. Take the time to think through how this holiday might affect her. Empower her to speak freely about her baby and her experience. Acknowledge her as a mother. Remember the precious baby who made her a mother.