Mother’s Day Without Mother

For most people, Mother’s Day brings to mind bouquets of sunny flowers in pink hues, often-obligatory brunches, and lingering in the aisles trying to find the perfect greeting card to sum up gratitude for a lifetime of love and care. Mother’s Day is traditionally a celebration honoring mothers, motherhood, maternal bonds and the influence of mothers in society.

However for those of us who have suffered the loss of a mother, or a child, Mother’s Day can be a muddle of complex emotions. On the one hand we want to be mindful that it is a celebration, but it is simultaneously a painful reminder of roles and people that we have lost.

The question of the bereaved mother is “What do I say when well-meaning strangers ask how many children I have?” For a bereaved child or adult missing your mother today, you wonder, who will pick you up when you fall? Who will you call when you need a recipe or a favorite uncle’s birth date? Mother’s Day this year may be a day for you to take some time out for contemplation and to explore unresolved issues.

Yes, that is correct. Resolving issues with those who have died is not only possible, but can even improve your attitude and quality of life. As a family therapist, I have found that those who feel that their life has not evolved as imagined often feel blame and anger toward their mothers, in some cases even years after a mother’s death. Also, mothers who have lost children often feel the guilt of not having been able to take care of their child, or not having a chance to say goodbye. I know I felt that way when my 17-year-old son, Scott, was killed.

Another aspect of sorrow at Mother’s Day is that not everyone has had a responsible, reliable, or loving mother into adulthood. For some, the biological mother died during childhood and is thus only a dream of what could have been. For others there was a childhood of neglect with the caregiving (mother role) being taken on by a grandmother, aunt, or foster mother.

I hope that no matter what your circumstances are, you take time this Mother’s Day to reflect on what “Mother” means to you and to write a letter to your mother or your child with the purpose of telling them how you feel. Here are a few sample letters to get you started on your journey to healing.

Letters to Your Mother

Gratitude Letter

Dear Mom,

I hope somewhere you can read this letter. I would just like to tell you how much I appreciate you and what a great mom you were. I like the way you held your own and how you lived your life with ________. We didn’t always agree on _____, and I am sure that you at times questioned my behavior, but as an adult I always felt your love and respect.

Unresolved Differences

Dear Mom,

I don’t know why you did _______, but I am sorry that we didn’t have an opportunity to resolve our differences. I have come to realize that my expectations were not always reasonable given your life experiences, and I hope you know that I’ve always felt _________.

Early Death

Dear Mom,

I am sorry that you had to leave so early. I have thought of you so often, especially when I am ________, and although I will always miss you I know you would be proud of me and cheering me on. You would be proud to know that since your death, I have ________. I’ve missed you being part of __________.

Anger Letter

If you are angry with your deceased mother I challenge you today to find something really special about your mother—after all you are carrying her genes! You need to feel good about yourself and I am sure everyone can find something. Maybe it is only that she had great legs or a sparkling smile. Perhaps she passed on her integrity, wit, strong work ethic, reverence, or love of learning. Look for something good, even if it means asking friends or relatives. You will find a nugget.

Dear Mom,

I know that you had a sparkling smile, and I remember that you _______. I just wanted to tell you that I am feeling very angry with you, because ________. Even though we only had you for a short while, and things between us were not perfect, I am grateful I inherited your _______.

After you have written the Anger Letter, pen a response from your mother. Take these letters and share them with a friend or therapist, or go to a place that reminds you of your mom and read them aloud.

Letters to Your Child

Gratitude Letter

Dear Child,

I hope somewhere you can read this letter. I would just like to tell you how much I love you and what a blessing you were. I smile every time I remember how you would _______. I was so proud of you when you ________. Although our time together was shorter than we wanted, I am grateful that you taught me ________. I miss you with all my heart, especially when I ________. I am forever grateful to be your mother.

Unresolved Differences

Dear Child,

I know you were angry with me because I _________, and I hope you know my actions were out of love for you. Although we argued about ________, I hope you know that I’ve always felt _________. We didn’t always agree on the path you chose when you ________, I will always love you and hold you in my heart.

Feel free to write more than one letter and encourage your other siblings and family members, or partner in the case of a child’s death, to do the same. Share stories and memories, including gripes along with the stories of love and laughter. You can end the day by having everyone come to dinner and have everyone bring a dish that reminds them of their mother or your child. Or you could go to your mother’s, or child’s, grave to read the letters. You can then burn the letters and mix them with soil and plant a rose bush, or other special plant, considering colors or names that are important, or leave the letters on the headstone.

However you choose to spend this Mother’s Day, take time to remember not only what was lost, but also the times you shared, and the love that made you who you are today.

Gloria Horsley 2012

Gloria Horsley

More Articles Written by Gloria

Dr. Gloria Horsley is an internationally known grief expert, psychotherapist, and bereaved parent. She started "Open to Hope" to help the millions in the world with grief. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Clinical Nurse Specialist, and has worked in the field of family therapy for over 20 years. Dr. Horsley hosts the syndicated internet radio show, The Grief Blog which is one of the top ranked shows on Health Voice America. She serves the Compassionate Friends in a number of roles including as a Board of Directors, chapter leader, workshop facilitator, and frequently serves as media spokesperson. Dr. Horsley is often called on to present seminars throughout the country. She has made appearances on numerous television and radio programs including "The Today Show," "Montel Williams," and "Sallie Jessie Raphael." In addition, she has authored a number of articles and written several books including Teen Grief Relief with Dr. Heidi Horlsey, and The In-Law Survival Guide.

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  • Dear Gloria,

    Thank you for sharing yourself the way that you do here on Open To Hope. These suggestions of how to manage our surrounding losses and our grief (especially where our mothers are concerned) are so helpful.

    I have come to appreciate – over these last 3 plus years – how faithful you are to the grieving world. It’s not easy work, I know myself personally and clinically.

    I respect you and your hopeful message. I also believe with all my heart that when we help someone else we have another kind of focus. We have a focus that will help us not only to survive but to thrive.

  • Thank you Mary Jane for your kind comments and for all you do for the bereaved and for Open to Hope. It is so important to empower and give a voice to the bereaved. Connection is what it is all about. Friends helping friends. Fondly Dr. Gloria

  • Mark says:

    Writing letters to our loved ones is very affective to communicate the emotions that we have had no outlet for. Letters allow us to form a semblance of our loved one, to formulate our vision of our lost loved one away from the torrent of unreleased emotion locked up inside of us offering us the outlet of pent up emotion.
    I apologize in advance for going off topic, but I have always felt that soldiers in a combat area could benefit from writing letters. If they have time they could write a letter to “home” were “home” represents “sanity” away from the traumatic life threatening situations that they are in each day. The letter connects them and reminds them that there is a sane place where everything isn’t dangerous and life threatening, which can help the soldier determine the difference between non combative civilian life and combat situations. The letters can then be used with their therapist when converting back to civilian life after war time.
    Thanks for the insight Gloria, and everything you do to help people.
    Sorry to be off the topic but