Six years ago this January, I shared a cup of tea with a grieving friend following the sudden loss of her son. I had an understanding of how she felt because I had lost a daughter a few years previously. While we sipped our tea I asked my friend what she thought about me starting a no-cost bereavement group for mothers who have lost children. As a practicing certified group psychotherapist for 34 years, I felt there was a need for this kind of specialty group and I was called to do it. My friend said to count her in if I began a group like that.
Within months the group was up, running and named “Mothers Finding Meaning Again.” The title defines its participants and its purpose because it was designed for grieving mothers hoping to find a new meaning for their lives. And although I know how deeply fathers also suffer when they lose a beloved child, I did not include them in this group because mixing genders would have altered the group dynamics.
We have 29 women registered to date. Our ages range from early 40’s to late 70’s. Our religious orientations are varied: Catholic, Jewish, Quaker, Protestant, and spiritual. We are black, white, and Asian. Some of us still work; some are retired. We are nurses, teachers, caregivers, professors, business professionals, comedians, receptionists, psychotherapists, social workers, yoga instructors, volunteers, artists, vocalists, sales reps, stay-at-home mothers, grandmothers and writers. We are married, divorced, remarried, single and widowed. A couple members are cancer survivors and one mother is presently battling that dreadful disease. Last year we lost a member to cancer. Some of our members have other living children; some do not. We are tall and we are short. We are all gorgeous, compassionate and loving. We like wine.
Many forms of deaths took our children: an accidental drowning, murder, a boating accident, cancer, blood disease, viral encephalitis, mental illness, suicide, alcohol, drugs, accidental overdose, and unknown illnesses. Four mothers lost two children and of that group three lost twins. Two moms lost special needs children. One mom’s child died five years after being tragically paralyzed. The deaths of our children were sometimes anticipated, sometimes sudden. But no matter the cause or timing of our children’s death; we are left with the same reality: our children are gone.
None of us feels we look the same since our child’s death. We stare at old pictures or in the mirror and remember how happy we felt and looked when our child was alive. Many of us feel the world we live in now is much closer to heaven than to earth. And yet, despite the magnitude of pain and loss we feel, every one of our members has made the decision to live the life she now has in front of her.
Some members struggle with depression and anxiety daily, some periodically. Upcoming holidays, Mother’s Day, and our children’s birthdays and anniversaries are hard for every one of us. As a group we’ve grown emotionally close so we look out for one another during these times, checking in by phone or text, email or with a cup of coffee in between meetings. That differentiates us from a traditional psychotherapy group. Ordinarily, this kind of contact outside of a meeting is frowned upon. In our group it is welcomed.
Our monthly meetings follow a regular agenda. We gather on the fourth Wednesday in a home spacious enough to accommodate up to 14 women. We all contribute light fare for sharing; arrive promptly at 6:30 p.m. and socialize for the first 30 minutes. Embraces and cheek kisses along with introductions of new members fill our hosting mother’s kitchen with welcome. We all feel energized and happy to once again be together socializing and admiring a new hairdo, a pair of killer boots, or a symbolic tattoo. As other women and mothers do, we enjoy fashion, chatter and pleasantries. Where we are unlike other mothers is how we must manage a sorrow that no mother wants to imagine or accept.
As a psychotherapist I feel the socializing aspect of our group is as important to us bereaved mothers as is our emotional support because when someone is grieving there is a natural human tendency to pull back and stop seeing friends, to isolate. But avoiding friends is not a healthy choice – it increases the risk of an even greater depression or worse, an immobilizing despair. The model for our group is to socialize along with sharing our feelings about our deceased child. Maybe our need is indeed the mother of invention because our loss, our needs, prompted me to try this dual approach which I believe enhances our mothers’ well-being which then strengthens their own resolve and mine to stay involved in our daily lives and responsibilities and to also reach out beyond our group when other opportunities to say yes to additional life-enhancing and recreational activities present themselves.
After our 30 minutes of socializing, we form a circle with our chairs and sit. We inhale a few deep breaths and center ourselves at the encouragement of our yoga mother. She then leads us in a prayer for our deceased children and for us, their mothers. Following this opening moment of remembrance, our president or I remind everyone of our ritual which is as we go around our circle, we share our name, (if there is a new member) then our deceased child’s name. We do this because we’ve all come to recognize how so few people mention our child’s name anymore and it makes us all feel lonely and sad.
Again, when a new member comes into our group we mention how long our child’s been gone. This detail is particularly important because it’s a loose indication of how our own personal grief may appear a year or five or twenty years out. We mothers who have lost children closely observe other women who have been going through this agony longer than we have. It always gives us hope. We also shower our new member with extra care for no other reason than “we remember.” Next, if we are comfortable, we share some of the circumstances around our child’s cause of death. This is always difficult and painful because we cannot predict what lies at the bottom of our sea of sorrow. I’m vigilant here in my role as facilitator in protecting the group members and our process when the sharing is detailed and emotional.
Our process is sometimes organic meaning we let some questions emerge spontaneously and then learn from members’ responses how to manage our grief in different settings. For instance, handling questions from others such as “Do you have children?” or “How many children do you have?”
Sometimes our group discusses negative and ambivalent emotions related to the death of our child, deeply buried emotions as guilt, or shame or anger at family, friends, spouses, co-workers, or even at ourselves or our child as “Why did you leave me?” Feelings don’t have to make sense to outsiders because they make sense to us. Regardless of what we share, a group such as our needs lots of compassion and mercy and we offer these virtues generously and often to one another.
Sometimes we talk about lost relationships in our lives since the death of our child – people who have abandoned or betrayed us because now we might not be as much fun, or they think we’re bad luck, or we’ve written a blog or a book and shared some dysfunctional family dynamic and they didn’t like it. We discuss our feelings of resentment and some closely guarded thoughts that even our spouses or our best friends haven’t heard. Our group also takes time to identify and process some of the additional losses which were attached to our deceased child, things wonderful and sometimes now missing in our lives as when one of our member’s sons would walk in the door and if music were playing he would grab her hand and around the kitchen they would dance. These kinds of memories not only keep the communion alive with our child but sharing these tender stories with other sensitive and like-minded souls is healing for all of us in a psychodynamic way.
Our president tells us that our group has literally given her back her life. That before she joined “Mother’s Finding Meaning Again” she couldn’t move; couldn’t get off her sofa. I love hearing that the group has helped her. It makes me feel the group is really helping our mothers because when she affirms the group’s purpose the other members’ heads nod in affirmation. She has also generously taken it upon herself to send out emails reminding all the members of the date of a child’s upcoming birthday or the anniversary of their death. Now, on those painful days, we members can drop in with an email, a call, or a note to that mother and lift up her broken heart or at least let her know she’s in our thoughts. People don’t realize that we mothers who have lost children feel terribly sad and lonely when people forget our deceased child’s anniversary date, a day which in our own heart burns in perpetuity. And while we realize it is unrealistic to think others will remember our deceased child’s date, we know for sure that we all remember those people who do not forget and we love them for it.
This December, in a nearby Italian restaurant, “Mothers Finding Meaning Again” will celebrate its sixth annual holiday dinner together. We have a huge group attending this year and I’m so excited. The mothers always sparkle and look elegant in their satin and velvet. Once we are seated, I will look around the table at their beautiful faces grown even more so the last year. I will make a toast to them, something along these lines, “Ladies, you are all courageous women. You are ever loving and supportive to one another and to me. I feel so proud of all of us tonight. So, join me now and let’s raise our glasses for our precious children both here and on the other side and also for ourselves. Happy Holidays dear sweet ‘Mothers Finding Meaning Again.’ Salute!”