Facing Mother's Day after the loss of your own mum

There is no right or wrong way to feel on the day.
There is no right or wrong way to feel on the day. Photo: Getty

As soon as the Easter eggs and Hot Cross Buns are removed from the supermarket shelves, the carnations and heartfelt poems appear. Mothers Day, the second Sunday of each May, is a celebration that acknowledges the mum in our lives with little space for the reality of so many. The women existing in two spaces - grieving the loss of their own mother while being mums themselves.

Leigh Van Der Horst lost her own mum, Joanne, in 2008. "I went to bed one night and the next day my life changed," explains Leigh. At the time of her mum's diagnosis Leigh’s children were 5, 18 months and three months – she felt as if she went from an idyllic life to one where the possibility of losing her mum became a reality. "It completely changed who I was. Beforehand I was selfish, I had a woe is me mentality but after mum's diagnosis I began to see how precious everyone really was."

Leigh had three more precious years with her mum before her final journey, and during that time she experienced every emotion possible. The terminal news changed the way her family existed. "At each milestone – birthdays, Christmas, Mother's Day I’d think, 'Is this the last one?'" With the certainty of time taken from her, Leigh focused on just enjoying being with her - being present and embracing her mum, her best friend.

The death of a parent is life altering, regardless of the closeness of that relationship. The loss challenges ideas about the bonds we hold, who we are and where we come from. Yet despite its common occurrences the death of a parent is seen as something to be expected – a natural course in life - but many find that losing a parent can shape the way we raise our own families. 

Living with grief is not just contained to the first few months after a loss, there are daily triggers – reminders that happen long after that early fog of sadness lifts. The ways that people learn to live with loss isn’t about the idea of moving through stages of grief – as if it is a linear process – but about continuing to recognise those bonds with the person who is gone by reminding yourself of who they were and how they impacted your life.

As a way to make meaning of her own experience Leigh reached out to other motherless mums around the world. Collecting their stories alongside hers for her a book that journals her own experiences. It gave her the chance to feel that collectively many women were living similar lives to hers. "For me it was important to know that all over the world women like me, who have lost their mum, are staring at other women out having coffee with their mums. Looking on and wishing it was them right now."

So what can mums do this Mother's Day as a way to mark the day and provide space for their own feelings of loss and love? Leigh suggests some simple ideas that has helped her through her own grief and from the stories people have so willingly shared with her:

  • The lead up to the day is always going to be difficult. Aim on making it a nice day rather than doing what everyone expects you to do. Leigh found that in the early times after losing her mum the expectation of what the day should look like was all consuming.
  • You can’t always make the day ‘right’, but you can connect with others as a way of seeking comfort through solidarity. "I do the Mother's Day walk for Cancer each year,"explains Leigh. "Mum didn’t have breast cancer but it gives me a reason to get up in the morning." Leigh finds that the messages from others doing the walk in the name of people they have lost reminds her of the ties that bind us together on this grief journey.
  • Be aware of the emotions that are intertwined to the day ‘you’re allowed to feel sad but taking time to honour your mum – by having her favourite drink or her favourite meal still means you’re spending Mothers Day with her.’

There is no rule book for dealing with loss. No right or wrong way of acknowledging a loved one who is no longer here. "It changes us all when we lose a mother," reflects Leigh. "But what I learnt from reaching out was that we all make sure our mums are in our mothering journey. My book is my journey of losing my mum, of loving life more than when she was here and by honoring her without putting on a brave face." 

How do you manage your feelings of loss on Mother's Day?

Sarah Wayland is a Sydney Based Grief counsellor and researcher. You can follow her on twitter.