The Mother’s Day season always greets me with angst and bits of unresolved grief. Some years are better than others. If you are dealing with grief from the loss of a mother and this is a difficult time for you, I have a word to share.

My mother died in the winter of 1988. I was a 20-year-old college student, and I had just returned to school following our Christmas holiday break. My mother had recently had a hysterectomy and was having complications, none of which seemed serious. But when I got that phone call on a February morning at 5 a.m., I knew it was bad. My stepfather called and told me to get home as quickly as possible. In a frenzy, I got myself back to Dallas, TX where we had been living for the past few years. I was too late though. She had already passed away by the time I landed in the airport.

The following week threw me into a state of shock and grief from which I would never fully recover. I have shared many of these details in a memoir called, "Mother Loss: Reflections On Grief," which I began writing as a way to process my own heartbreak and confusion. In that book, I talk about the reverberations of my mother’s sudden death on my whole family. For a good while, we were all broken. 

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For me, each Mother’s Day season brings up varying degrees of grief and nostalgia. Each Mother’s Day, I am reminded that I don’t have a mother, and with that realization I find gritty bits of grief mixed with a flood of memories and emotions that I’m not sure I want to revisit. 

For those of us who are motherless daughters, you may recognize this experience as a slice of your life too. Some of us don’t know what to do with ourselves on Mother's Day. We see our friends and strangers going through the rituals of buying gifts for their mothers, making reservations for brunch or dinner. We hear our friends lamenting how their relationship with their mother is complicated or they express gratitude that they have a close and loving relationship, and how they don’t know what they would do without her. 

Some of them ask us, “How do you cope on Mother’s Day when your own mother has passed away?” Sometimes I reply, “Oh, is it Mother’s Day? I forgot.”  Sometimes it’s that kind of year where I have ignored all the cues and marketing campaigns and busied myself with my work or personal projects, and so the day slipped into the back of my mind. Other times, I respond with, “It’s always hard and surreal not to have a mother, but especially so at this time. I just keep going.” Every Mother’s Day brings its own realizations, memories, melancholia and sometimes a surprising contentment.  

From the time my mother died, I have had a recurring dream/nightmare in which I would unexpectedly see her out in a public place, and I would chase after her, calling for her to turn around and tell me where she had been. I could never catch up to her and I never got an answer. After several years of this randomly occurring dream, I finally had one where I found her sitting on a couch in someone’s house, and I was able to talk to her. She answered my questions. She had not in fact left me, she said, she was always there. When I woke up, I knew that I had turned a corner in the grief of losing my mom. My intense longing had been quenched. I began to feel that I could make room for peace around her death, and maybe even let my emotional guard down.

The grief from losing your mom is unique. The umbilical cord that we once shared with our biological mothers gave us more than nutrients, it also connected us to her heartbeat, her life’s blood, the marrow from her bones. She provides life from the moment of conception. Mothers who foster, adopt or otherwise care for children pour into them as well from their inner resources. 

Related: The hard lessons I’ve learned about grief

After my mother’s funeral, I remember wondering how I could physically remain alive without her. I was in full-on grief mode, feeling the anguish of her absence, and I floundered. Part of the grief of losing your mother is the realization that we are not just without a mother in the physical sense, but also the feeling that we are unmothered as a state of being, bereft without ongoing maternal nurturance and support in a world where being mothered is the norm. My attempted remedy to that longing was to collect other people’s mothers. 

I felt fortunate that I had close friends who invited me to share their mothers, especially during holidays. Now, that doesn’t feel as necessary. Now, I am comforted by the presence of my own mother when I see our resemblance reflected in the mirror and by the similarities in our mannerisms. In this way, my grief from losing my mother feels less acute and more like a tender spot that marks the natural bumps, bruises and heartbreaks of life. My spirituality enables me to connect with her as an ancestor. By reconnecting in this way, I realize that I am not actually unmothered. I am the embodiment of her. I quite literally embody her existence and keep her in the present. 

I bring her with me into any space I enter. I find myself using her words and inflections when I speak to the college students I teach. I had always imagined that if I ever had a daughter, I would somehow download her maternal presence into the ways that I mother. My daughter’s name would have been Catherine, named after her grandmother.

Being a mother without a mother must take on challenges when she is not here helping with the routine, mundane and joyful things of raising a child. I don’t have children of my own, and it seems to me that it offers a unique bittersweet opportunity to be able to pour into your own child what you received from your mother, grandmother and great-grandmothers. Mother’s Day provides an opportunity to intentionally share your mother with your child. Mother’s Day can become the day that you serve as a bridge between your child and your mother. 

Ultimately, how we as motherless daughters navigate the Mother’s Day season is as individual as we each are, but my experience says that we can transform our grief into an empowering way of being. I offer these suggestions for the season:

  • Recall and celebrate her traits that give you strength, courage, determination and compassion.
  • Continue learning from her life experiences—Gather stories about who she was as a girl. How did she navigate early obstacles? Where are the similarities you share with her?
  • What can you do in her honor? Do it on Mother's Day.
  • Create a home altar and place some of her favorite things there with a candle, glass of water and a picture. Recall fond memories there.

I keep an altar with a couple of pieces of jewelry on it that reflect not only her love of jewelry, but also a way that we connect via the sharing of the pieces. Some days, I wear the rings that usually remain on the altar, taking her with me out into the world. 

From one motherless daughter to another, I encourage you to find ways to keep your best mama memories alive.

You can find out more about my journey in my book "Mother Loss: Reflections On Grief."

Darnise C. Martin, Ph.D. is a Professor, Author, and Life Transformation Coach with 15 years of training and experience in helping people create Whole Life Abundance. Dr. Darnise has a life-long passion for helping people tap into their spiritual connections for authentic transformation in the areas of Relationships, Spirituality, Life Purpose and Career, Self-Worth, and Well-Being. She is the author of multiple books, including Mother Loss: Reflections on Grief. You can join Dr. Darnise's community at www.reflectionsonloss.com