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How to Honor Mother’s Day Without Your Mother

This week, walking through the card aisle of the local drug store, I stopped and decided to pick out a card for my mom. I bought one that said, “From your daughter,” because not only do I miss having a mother but I miss being a daughter. It’s been 23 years since I’ve bought a Mother’s Day card. She died of cancer when I was eighteen and for over two decades this particular holiday has been fraught with many emotions for me.

When I got home from the drugstore I wrote out a letter to my mom in the card and then I propped it on my desk. My own daughters picked it up later that day and asked me if I’d gotten myself a card before they’d had a chance to do it themselves. “In a way yes,” I told them, because getting this card for my mother was really a way of nurturing myself, and remembering to connect to my own internal version of my mother.

For those of us who no longer have our moms, Mother’s Day can sometimes serve as a painful reminder of that loss. Whether we lose our mothers to death, abandonment, or other circumstances, there are many of us out here who often feel unable to participate in all the daisy-clad celebrations surrounding this holiday. The constant commercials, card displays, and gift-giving prompts can bring an unusual amount of emotions to the surface.

In the beginning, after she died, I dreaded Mother’s Day, feeling anxiety and even bitterness as it approached. There were other years when it felt softer, when I was in more peaceful places, like after the births of my children. And yet more years when it felt hard again, like when I was going through a divorce in my mid-thirties.

During those hard years seeing all the celebration around motherhood just made me miss my mom even more, and often left me with a sad emptiness that was difficult to put into words. But this year I decided that two things can be true: I can miss my mother and feel sad that she is not here, and I can also honor both her and myself.

She might not be here anymore, but I do still have a mother. She was a luminous woman and I continue to feel her influence in my life. Our culture often sends the message that when we lose someone we love we need to move on and find a way to let go of them, but after a decade of working as a grief counselor I know that the real answer to finding peace within our losses is to find ways to remain connected to the people we love.

There are many alternative ways to celebrate a day like Mother’s Day, many ways to celebrate mothers who are not here, and many ways to honor what it means to have a mom in this world.

  1. Celebrate even if she’s not here. Write her a card anyway. Have brunch somewhere she would have enjoyed. Talk about her to friends and family, or post a remembrance of her on social media.
  2. Take the day off. If this is a hard year for you, skip it! Draw the curtains and watch Netflix all day. Remember that this is an arbitrary date and that you do not have to participate, or you can pick your own day to honor your mother.
  3. Ask your friends and family to support you. Explain how and why this is a difficult day for you and ask for those close to you to send a little extra love your way.
  4. Find a community of others who understand. There are many bereavement groups out there who understand that days like this are hard. Look up Option B or Motherless Daughters.
  5. Honor other people who have mothered you. You can miss your own mom and also feel a deep appreciation for people who have stepped in in her place. Take time to celebrate them and express your gratitude.
  6. Honor your own sense of mothering and nurturing. Use this day as one to pay homage to all the ways you’ve taken care of yourself, even without your mother. And if you need to up your game in that department, use today as a day to make that commitment.

Mothers are iconic and we will never stop longing for, and believing in them. No matter your relationship or circumstances, remember that motherhood comes in many forms and that there aren’t always going to be cards at the drugstore that fit your story. Or that you can make the ones that are there fit in your own special way.

Claire Bidwell Smith is a Los Angeles–based author and therapist. Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief is her third book about grief and loss, following The Rules of Inheritance and After This


This essay was featured in the May 12th edition of Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper newsletter. The Sunday Paper is the paper of record for individuals who want to be Architects of Change, lead meaningful lives and Move Humanity Forward.  To get inspiring and informative content like this essay delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.