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6 Ways to Cope with Being Motherless on Mother’s Day

Kara Conceison

On the Friday that I was officially diagnosed with an eating disorder, my mother had her first seizure. That weekend, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, the following Monday she had brain surgery, and that night we were told that her cancer was terminal.  

As my mother’s illness progressed, so did mine. As she grew sicker, I grew more symptomatic; my eating disorder became a protective factor against my mother’s illness. If I was focused on destroying myself, I was less vulnerable to the feelings evoked by watching the cancer destroy my mother and my best friend. I was wracked with guilt for “making” myself sick when my mother was fighting a real illness; years later, I have come to a less black and white way of thinking about this.  

I wasn’t making myself sick; I had an illness that I couldn’t control and that I didn’t choose. In a lot of ways, my illness served its purposes: to numb feelings, to distract from my mother’s pain, to battle feelings of guilt and shame, and to quiet the voice in my mind telling me that I was not enough. In some ways, I felt that I should be the one to die and not my mom.  

This summer, it will be 15 years since my mother’s death. The pain has changed but it has not gone away. The pain of losing one’s mother never does. There are times that it comes upon me in waves: holidays, the anniversary of her death, the birth of my own son, other instances of grief and loss, and, of course, Mother’s Day.  

Scrolling through my Facebook feed over the past couple of days, I have seen many, many posts on Mother’s Day. NEDA has had a few of their own, asking how people’s mothers have been helpful in their recovery. These posts always cause a pang inside of me. Thoughts of “I wish I had a mother,” “I wish my mother had been there to help me through recovery,” and “It’s not fair that my mother is gone” spiral through my mind. 

I know there must be others out there dealing with the pain and loss that is triggered on this special day, and I wanted to post some ways that I have used in the past and will use this year in order to cope while motherless on Mother’s Day.  

1. Step Away from Social Media

This year, on Mother’s Day, I will delete my Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone and will not log in through the Internet. For me, this is a self-care decision. My feed is bound to be full of pictures of people with their mothers, of tributes to amazing moms, and of people feeling blessed and lucky to have their mothers in their lives. I honestly don’t begrudge people who are lucky enough to have their mothers with them, and I think it’s beautiful that there are tributes on social media. However, I do not need to see them on a day that is already quite painful. It only serves to bring to light my own issues with grief and loss.  

2. Do Something to Honor Your Mom

This will look different for everyone. For me, it’s often been taking day trips to places my mother loved. It has also been looking through the photo album I put together after she died, writing her a letter, and visiting her grave.  Perhaps you could do something that the two of you liked to do together: shopping, visiting a garden, taking a walk, or going to a coffee shop.  The important thing is that you are honoring her memory by doing something that she loved, and taking care of yourself by cherishing the happy moments you had with your mom. 

3. Nourish Yourself

It might be tempting to restrict on Mother’s Day. It always is for me. Sometimes, the emotions dampen my appetite; other times, I want to restrict to numb those very emotions. It is important to follow your meal plan or to eat intuitively on Mother’s Day in order to heal both your body and your mind. Even though it might feel right in the moment, restricting or otherwise engaging in eating disordered behavior will only make you feel worse in the long run. Take care of yourself the way your mother would have taken care of you. Pretend you are a child dealing with something difficult; you would want to nourish that child with food that will give them the physical and emotional energy to get through a difficult day.

4. Have Self-Compassion

For me, reading authors such as Pema Chodon, Tara Brach, and Kristen Neff has been very healing and helpful in developing self-love and compassion. I am currently reading Kristen Neff’s Self Compassion and would recommend it to everyone struggling with an eating disorder, depression, or anxiety, as well as anyone who experiences negative self-talk. Neff recommends that in moments of suffering, one can repeat a mantra: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I show myself kindness in this moment. I am deserving of self-compassion.” Sometimes, when I feel sad, I turn that sadness into other emotions: guilt, self-hate, anger, insecurity. 

This Mother’s Day, I plan to talk to myself as I would a young child who I care about very much. “Honey, you’re feeling sad. It’s okay to feel sad. You have a sad situation; your mother passed away, and it’s a day to celebrate mothers, and you feel lost and alone. However, you are not alone. There are people around you who love and care about you very much. It’s okay to feel sad. This is sad.”  

5. Reach Out

I am lucky enough to have an amazing treatment team who provided extra support this week, through appointments, notes in my journal, voicemail messages, and even an extra appointment on Mother’s Day.  I know that this is not possible in every situation, but it doesn’t hurt to ask for support in whatever form you find most helpful.  You can also reach out to trusted family or friends.  Ask for what you need.  

6. Celebrate Yourself

If you are a mom yourself, remember that this is your day, too!  It is not only a day of remembrance and perhaps grief, but also a day of celebration for all you do as a mom. I am a single mom of a young child, so it really is up to me to plan my own celebration! This year, my son and I will be going out to lunch and picking out a bouquet of flowers to brighten up my bedroom. I also hired a babysitter so I could take a few hours to myself, to get a pedicure or go to the bookstore to read. Find something you love to do and go out and do it! Today is not just about your loss; it’s also about celebrating all you have done to be a great mom to your children.  

Mother’s Day can be a hard day for many, especially those who have lost a mother.  It is important that on this day, we do our very best to take care of ourselves. Treat yourself like you would your five-year-old self: with nurturance, compassion, and love.  

Kara Conceison graduated from Harvard College and has her master's in Counseling Psychology from Boston College. She is currently a sixth grade English teacher in the Boston area. Her passions include mothering her three-year-old son, reading, teaching, writing, and body positivity.