Mother’s Day Without Mother

For most people, Mother’s Day brings to mind bouquets of sunny flowers in pink hues, often-obligatory brunches, and lingering in the aisles trying to find the perfect greeting card to sum up gratitude for a lifetime of love and care.

However for those of us who have suffered the loss of a mother, or a child, Mother’s Day can be a muddle of complex emotions.

On the one hand we want to be mindful that it is a celebration, but it is simultaneously a painful reminder of roles and people that we have lost.

The question of the bereaved mother is, “What do I say when well-meaning strangers ask how many children I have?”

For a bereaved child or adult missing your mother today, you wonder, who will pick you up when you fall? Who will you call when you need a recipe or a favorite uncle’s birth date?

Mother’s Day this year may be a day for you to take some time out for contemplation and to explore unresolved issues.

Yes, that is correct. Resolving issues with those who have died is not only possible, but can even improve your attitude and quality of life. As a family therapist, I have found that those who feel that their life has not evolved as imagined often feel blame and anger toward their mothers, in some cases even years after a mother’s death.

Also, mothers who have lost children often feel the guilt of not having been able to take care of their child, or not having a chance to say goodbye. I know I felt that way when my 17-year-old son, Scott, was killed.

Another aspect of sorrow at Mother’s Day is that not everyone has had a responsible, reliable, or loving mother into adulthood.

For some, the biological mother died during childhood and is thus only a dream of what could have been.

For others, there was a childhood of neglect with the caregiving (mother role) being taken on by a grandmother, aunt, or foster mother.

I hope that no matter what your circumstances are, you take time this Mother’s Day to reflect on what “Mother” means to you and to write a letter to your mother or your child with the purpose of telling them how you feel.

Here are a few sample letters to get you started on your journey to healing.

Letters to Your Mother

Gratitude Letter

Dear Mom,
I hope somewhere you can read this letter. I would just like to tell you how much I appreciate you and what a great mom you were. I like the way you held your own and how you lived your life with ________. We didn’t always agree on _____, and I am sure that you at times questioned my behavior, but as an adult I always felt your love and respect.

Unresolved Differences

Dear Mom,
I don’t know why you did _______, but I am sorry that we didn’t have an opportunity to resolve our differences. I have come to realize that my expectations were not always reasonable given your life experiences, and I hope you know that I’ve always felt _________.

Early Death

Dear Mom,
I am sorry that you had to leave so early. I have thought of you so often, especially when I am ________, and although I will always miss you I know you would be proud of me and cheering me on. You would be proud to know that since your death, I have ________. I’ve missed you being part of __________.

Anger Letter
If you are angry with your deceased mother, I challenge you today to find something really special about your mother—after all, you are carrying her genes! You need to feel good about yourself and I am sure everyone can find something.

Maybe it is only that she had great legs or a sparkling smile. Perhaps she passed on her integrity, wit, strong work ethic, reverence, or love of learning. Look for something good, even if it means asking friends or relatives. You will find a nugget.

Dear Mom,
I know that you had a sparkling smile, and I remember that you _______. I just wanted to tell you that I am feeling very angry with you, because ________. Even though we only had you for a short while, and things between us were not perfect, I am grateful I inherited your _______.

After you have written the Anger Letter, pen a response from your mother. Take these letters and share them with a friend or therapist, or go to a place that reminds you of your mom and read them aloud.

Letters to Your Child

Gratitude Letter

Dear Child,
I hope somewhere you can read this letter. I would just like to tell you how much I love you and what a blessing you were. I smile every time I remember how you would _______. I was so proud of you when you ________. Although our time together was shorter than we wanted, I am grateful that you taught me ________. I miss you with all my heart, especially when I ________. I am forever grateful to be your mother.

Unresolved Differences

Dear Child,
I know you were angry with me because I _________, and I hope you know my actions were out of love for you. Although we argued about ________, I hope you know that I’ve always felt _________. We didn’t always agree on the path you chose when you ________, I will always love you and hold you in my heart.

Feel free to write more than one letter and encourage your other siblings and family members, or partner in the case of a child’s death, to do the same.

Share stories and memories, including gripes along with the stories of love and laughter. You can end the day by having everyone come to dinner and have everyone bring a dish that reminds them of their mother or your child.

Or you could go to your mother’s, or child’s, grave to read the letters. You can then burn the letters and mix them with soil and plant a rose bush, or other special plant, considering colors or names that are important, or leave the letters on the headstone.

However you choose to spend this Mother’s Day, take time to remember not only what was lost, but also the times you shared, and the love that made you who you are today.

Join the conversation. Share your letters in the comments section below. How about recording a video of yourself reading your letter and posting the link below? Or, just let us know how you plan to spend Mother’s Day this year.

About the Author

author image

Dr. Gloria Horsley MFC CNS Ph.D. is the Founder and President of the Open to Hope Foundation a multi-media, web-based resource for the bereaved. Gloria is an internationally known grief expert, psychotherapist, and bereaved parent. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Clinical Nurse Specialist, and has worked in the field of family therapy for over 25 years. Gloria co-hosts the Internet radio show, “Open to Hope,” and has authored a number of books and articles. She is the co-author along with her daughter Heidi of Open to Hope: Inspirational Stories of Healing after loss and Open to Hope: Inspirational Stories of Handling The Holidays. She has been on a number of radio and television shows including “The Today Show”.Dr. Heidi Horsley is a licensed psychologist and social worker, and is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Open to Hope Foundation. Dr. Heidi is in private practice in Manhattan. In addition, she is an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University. An internationally known grief expert, author, and bereaved sibling, Heidi co-hosts the syndicated internet radio show, Open to Hope. She serves on the National Board of The Compassionate Friends and on the Advisory Board for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). She has written numerous articles for professional journals, and is co-author of the books, Open to Hope, Inspirational Stories of Healing After Loss; Real Men Do Cry: A Quarterback’s Inspiring Story of Tackling Depression and Surviving Suicide Loss; and Teen Grief Relief: Parenting with Understanding Support and Guidance. Dr. Heidi earned a doctorate in psychology (Psy.D.) from the University of San Francisco; a master’s degree in social work (L.M.S.W.) from Columbia University, and in mental health counseling (M.S.) from Loyola University in New Orleans.

Read more from Dr. Gloria Horsley and Dr. Heidi Horsley

Sign Up for's Weekly Must-Read

More Posts from Architects of Change