Mother’s Day usually brings smiles to our faces. Handmade greeting cards. Flowers. Family picnics. Yet sooner or later, many of us will acknowledge this holiday with bittersweet memories of the mothers who are no longer with us. These losses are not isolated events; the grief that follows can ripple through generations. Children and grandchildren will mourn the death of a grandmother. We not only grieve for our mothers but there are times that we will grieve with our mothers.
As adult sons and daughters we are, for the most part, equipped with resilience-building life experiences, and caring family and friends to support us in our grief following the loss of a mother. But children have a very different experience. Before Mother’s Day arrives, children who have lost their mother face an avalanche of grief reminders over the airwaves, in their communities and in their schools.
Addressing Grief at School
Teachers witness this dilemma first hand in their classrooms. Are schools sensitive to how grieving children respond to preparations for Mother’s Day? Perhaps not as much as they could be. A New York Life Foundation/American Federation of Teachers survey found that 92 percent of educators believe that childhood grief is a serious problem and deserves more attention from schools.
Teachers should be aware of how their students might react to such holidays, how they can be more inclusive and create a safe space in the classroom. Keeping the physical classroom environment comfortable for all students should be a priority. When decorating bulletin boards, select photographs and graphics carefully. Instead of primarily using images of mothers and children, consider focusing on themes like the 21 century family, cultural differences and resilience.
If creative writing and art opportunities are offered or assigned to students, teachers can rename the assignment using the words “family” or “special people in my life.” Honor these individuals by creating opportunities to take positive action in school or community projects.
As Sheryl Sandberg noted in her new book on grief and resiliency, Option B, it’s not just about Mother’s Day and Father’s Day — grief “triggers” come up throughout the year. When schools host events like a “Mother-Son Bowling Night” or “Father-Daughter Dance,” many students may be excluded. School administrators should consider school-wide policies that create new ways to honor people in a student’s life.
For additional guidance on how to support grieving children at school, the dedicated site created by the Coalition to Support Grieving Students offers a wealth of educator-endorsed resources specifically geared toward members of the school community.
Preparing for Mother’s Day as a Family
Of course, families bear the ultimate burden for helping their children navigate grief and the unexpected reminders of a mother’s death. Families with children under the care of single parents, grandparents or other caregivers need more bereavement support and resources. In a 2010 New York Life Foundation/Comfort Zone Camp survey of parents who lost a spouse and are raising young children still at home, 85% wished there were more resources to help with their grieving children.
Family members should talk to each other about Mother’s Day ahead of time. Make a plan; don’t just wait for it to “pass.” Think about reframing Mother’s Day itself. It can become a new experience, a day to reach out to others, which allows children to honor their mother in a different way. Try to recognize that when brothers and sisters grieve the loss of a mother, their responses will undoubtedly be unique and different. Embrace those differences.
Talk to your children. Adults struggle to begin and continue the difficult conversations about death. Recently media coverage has focused on the legacy of Princess Diana 20 years after her death. Prince Harry, Diana’s youngest son, has made a profound contribution by publicly sharing how he shut down his emotions for years, admitting that all of his grief came to the forefront years later. He and his brother William have recently spoken openly about the need to share conversations with others, to have good listeners, and to keep close those who can be present for the journey.
Yet, even when caring adults and children know how to talk about the loss of a mother, with all of its messiness, there are fits and starts, and a few wrong turns along the way. Nothing is carved in stone and there will be plenty of occasions to revisit, re-explore and support each other. Mother’s Day is an ideal time to begin and continue these important conversations.
To find bereavement support in your area, please visit the National Bereavement Resource Guide, a compilation of state and local resources for people experiencing loss.