How to cope with Mother’s Day if you don’t have a mum

Written by Catherine Renton

A writer who lost her mother six years ago shares her coping mechanisms, in the hope of bringing some relief to those who are also without a mum on Mother’s Day.

Last year, I received an email from flower company Bloom & Wild asking me if I’d like to opt out of Mother’s Day marketing. I’ve never clicked a link faster.

Since my mum died in September 2013, I’ve become hypersensitive to every Mother’s Day advert and shop display. I dread this time of year the way that most people dread the dentist. I can’t shake the creeping fear that no matter how many words I mute on social media, or how many emails I confine to junk, I will still be confronted with the stark truth – I am motherless on Mother’s Day.

Mum’s death wasn’t a surprise: she succumbed to terminal cancer 14 months after diagnosis. But nothing fully prepares you for the death of a parent. To me home was a person, not a place. My family revolved around Mum and we were lost without her. 

In the days and weeks following her death I felt a physical weight of grief, like I was lugging a rucksack that got heavier with every step. The pain was almost unbearable.

Friends and colleagues avoided talking about my mother in case they upset me. Some cut contact altogether, scared my misery was contagious. I missed Mum constantly: my days were punctuated by moments when I wanted to call her, to ask her questions, to seek reassurance that I would survive this agony. 

I realised that of all the things my mother taught me, she had left out an important lesson – how to live without her.

In a year filled with milestones and anniversaries, Mother’s Day feels the most upsetting. Most people don’t know Mum’s birthday or the anniversary of her death, but Mother’s Day is unavoidable. From 15 February shops replace their Valentine’s Day hearts and flowers with gifts and cards for mums. Messages implore us to “treat mum” because “everyone has a mother.” 

Well, some of us don’t. Some of us would love to treat her, to hug her or even to argue with her one more time. But we can’t.

I used to get irrationally angry and wanted to knock over every card stand I passed like a petulant child. Every email that mentioned mother/mum/Mother’s Day was marked as spam. I avoided social media in the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day and wanted to hide under a blanket on the day itself. But with time my anger lessened. The weighty rucksack I was carrying got a little lighter.

Whilst everyone’s grief is unique, there are some universal themes. Hopefully by sharing some of my coping mechanisms you may find a bit of relief if you’re also facing Mother’s Day without a mum.

Tell a friend you’re struggling

Friends are great but they’re not psychic. They may avoid discussing your mum for fear of saying the wrong thing. In the past five years I’ve learned the worst thing you can say to someone who is grieving is nothing.

I wish I owned a badge that said “ask me about my dead mum” because I could talk about her until I lose my voice. I could bore you with anecdotes until you begged me to stop. Yes, I may cry, but that’s because I love and miss her, not because you’ve upset me.

If you have good people in your life, drop them a message and tell them you’re not OK. Sometimes you need to make the first move. I know it’s hard to do, but asking for help is not a sign of weakness. 

Find other members of the club

The death of a parent is undeniably grim and grief can be a lonely, isolating experience. For the first few years I wandered aimlessly, trying to find more people like me, who were in the Dead Mum’s Club.

I read multiple texts about grief – self-help books and memoirs, academic articles and blogs. I spent sleepless nights asking Google if my grief was normal. I searched the internet for “my people” and found Facebook pages like Motherless Daughters and sites like Modern Loss filled with people who understood my grief.

I found the Griefcast podcast hugely helpful. Every week Cariad Lloyd sits down with fellow comedians to discuss the death of a pivotal figure in their life. I’d never heard grief discussed so openly before, and with moments of real laugh-out-loud humour. 

Through the show’s social media channels I’ve made friends with fellow members of the Club and we message each other around anniversaries and random Wednesday’s when you catch a whiff of your mum’s favourite perfume and dissolve into tears. 

Practise self-care

In early grief it can feel like all your nerve endings are exposed. Tears may be triggered by a song, a picture, a movie. Just seeing mothers and daughters walking down the street used to make me weep. I realised I needed to be extra kind to myself and practise self-care to preserve my sanity.

I applied filters to emails so that any references to Mother’s Day were immediately sent to my junk folder. I avoided department stores and found listening to podcasts helped distract me on supermarket trips, where cards and flowers were inescapable.

On Mother’s Day itself I tend to avoid social media. I’ve never been more aware of what I am missing than when confronted with posts gushing about mothers who are alive and well.   

Make new traditions

Every birthday, Christmas and Mother’s Day since my mum died, I’ve donated the money I’d have spent on a present to charity. I’ve donated to the local food bank, the cancer charity whose help was invaluable when Mum was sick and our local hospice. Doing a bit of good in her name makes a sad day a little brighter.

I also buy flowers in March because for a long time I only associated flowers with someone dying. It’s good to break that link while also enjoying some spring blooms.

Mother’s Day without a mum can seem daunting, but if you’re in the Club, know you’re not alone. It’s a pain I wouldn’t wish on anyone – but just being able to talk and share stories about the woman who raised me makes the day a little easier. 

This feature was originally published in March 2019

Images: Unsplash

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