By Rebecca Soffer
Ten years ago, my mom and I met for brunch in Princeton, New Jersey (halfway between New York City and Philadelphia, our respective homes). It was her first Mother’s Day without her own mom, who had died two months prior after a massive stroke.
Over Bloody Marys and avocado omelettes she told me – for the first time – that she’d been struggling with the loss. “I know it sounds ridiculous,” she said (given that she was 63 years old when she said it), “but a mommy is a mommy is a mommy, and these days I just feel like a little girl who lost hers.”
It was one of the only times I’d seen this strong woman look so fragile, and my heart broke for her. I couldn’t begin to imagine what her sadness must feel like.
Four months later, I could. My mom died in a car accident an hour after we hugged and kissed each other goodbye. I was now a daughter without my mom or my grandmom, the two most important women in my life. And I was shattered.
Over the last 10 years, each Mother’s Day has been different for me. Not only because I’ve experienced different aspects of grief but also because I’ve moved through different stages of life, from single to dating to married, to losing my dad, and later to becoming a mother to two little kids.
Some years I’ve spent the day by myself (purposely steering clear of any technology or people who would remind me of the day’s meaning) with a lighthearted book and a giant tub of goat cheese (okay, and wine). Other years I’ve indulged myself in being angry at everyone around me who seemed to have a sterling relationship with a wonderful, living mother.
Then there have been years when the day caused no deep sadness, no crying, no anger, and no anxiety. The result? Massive guilt over wondering whether I was a terrible person because I merely felt fine. I’ve also been shocked by what a perfectly lovely day I enjoyed with friends and family, experiencing the small but surprisingly significant moments the day promises to bring, like when my two-year-old handed me my first crayon-scribbled card.
I have a sneaking suspicion that this year will be extremely bittersweet. When I saw my first Mother’s Day ad (way back in late March, for the love of God, why, advertisers?!) I had a good ugly cry. I’d been home from the hospital with my newborn for only two weeks, and all my emotions were simmering at surface level.
I couldn’t help but think how damn unfair her absence is to all of us: She won’t get to be a grandmom to my little boy – my second kid to go through his life without her. She isn’t here to get a kick out of the way he looks just like me as a newborn, or receive a handmade macaroni bracelet, or teach him all about Janis Joplin and Harry Belafonte.
And she can’t support and encourage me during this crazy ride of motherhood and reassure me every small misstep won’t necessarily send my kids into lifelong therapy. I also didn’t get to have her with me during a scare in the hospital and subsequent trip to the ER with my 5-day-old baby. She wasn’t there to mother me, to stroke my hair and let me be a mess. There’s no mom to replenish all the steely strength I put into making sure he was ok.
This year I’ll do my damndest to focus on being grateful on Mother’s Day, and I really am. I’ll go to brunch with my husband and two beautiful boys, and thank my lucky stars they’re all healthy. I’ll call a few women in my life who’ve been mother-like figures to me. And to feel less alone, I’ve organized a massive gift swap for other people with a similar hole in their lives where a mom, sister, partner, or child once stood.
And yet, the day will cut deeply nonetheless, and likely more than in other years.
It gets better, then worse, then better again. That’s the awkward dance you do when you mark another year on this planet without your mom while at the same time you celebrate everything good you do have in life: Two steps forward, one step back. Or five steps forward, nine steps back.
After my mom died, I would have sworn under oath that I’d never be happy again. I was wrong. But part of my happiness truly has been taken away permanently. A part of me will always feel like a little girl who’s lost her mommy.
This article was originally published on the Seleni Institute website and is reprinted here with permission. Seleni is a nonprofit mental health and wellness center providing clinical services, provider training, research funding and online information and support for women and mothers. Rebecca Soffer is a writer and co-founder of Modern Loss, a website providing candid conversation on grief and resilience. Her book, co-authored with the same title, is forthcoming from HarperCollins in January 2018. You can follow her on Twitter @rebeccasoffer and Seleni @selenidotorg.