When grief and holidays collide

Mother’s Day is right around the corner. This holiday has become problematic for my children and me. Their mother died in July of 2015, when my twins were 10 years old.
We learned the hard way how difficult Mother’s Day can be. In the first years after her death, we made the mistake of running errands together on that Sunday. Cashiers and employees alike would see a father and two young children and say:
“Looking for anything special for your mom?”
“It’s nice of you to give your mom a break on her day.”
“I hope you enjoy Mother’s Day with your family.”
These words came from the heart. They had no idea that my kids’ mother had passed away. They were just trying to be kind. That being said, their words felt like a punch in the gut.
Slowly, we learned how to navigate Mother’s Day. We would brace ourselves for ads on TV or references on social media. We stopped running errands or shopping on that Sunday. To create a protective cocoon, we planned things to do by ourselves, disconnected from TV and media.
We maintained this routine for years.
We are now eight years down the road. Mother’s Day has become easier for us all now that my kids are 18. But that does not mean it is an easy day. I never know what could happen to trigger a memory or an emotion. It’s impossible to completely protect my children (and myself) from what is waiting for us on Mother’s Day.
Milestones this year occurring near Mother’s Day have made the holiday even more emotionally challenging. This spring, my kids will graduate high school. In the weeks leading up to graduation, they have been going through the process of deciding their next academic pursuits. 
This exciting time in their lives has made their mother’s absence more glaring. If only she could have seen the amazing young adults our children have become. If only we could have celebrated these milestones together. If only they could get that post-graduation hug from their mom. If only we could experience together what they will be doing this summer to prepare for what they will be doing in the fall. If only … if only … if only.
All of us can share similar emotions as other holidays/milestones draw close: Father’s Day, anniversaries and birthdays; when our kids start college, move out of the house, marry or have a child of their own.
At such times, the absence of loved ones who have died becomes intensified. That’s OK. That is a normal path of grieving. When a family member or friend dies, we are always in a state of grieving. Sometimes it is negligible. Sometimes it rises to the surface. At such times, we can experience a whole range of emotions. 
We can face an added challenge of navigating the calendar of holidays and milestones. American cultural norms teach us that there is an appropriate or expected way to observe these days. We are supposed to miss our family who have died. We are expected to feel sadness. We are instructed to long for them.
But what if we had a problematic or even toxic relationship with our deceased family member? What if unresolved conflict remains? What if that person was physically or psychologically abusive?
A trap exists for us to feel guilty if we do not celebrate these holidays and milestones as our culture and society instruct us to celebrate. Talk about a one-two punch. These milestones dredge up negative emotions and memories, and then we feel guilty for feeling these emotions.
During Mother’s Day and throughout the calendar, let us feel what we will feel. Let us remember what we want to remember. It’s all OK. It’s all part of grief. 
As we navigate holidays and milestones, I hope we can be self-compassionate and self-forgiving. I hope we can find just one confidant, one person we can talk to and share our emotions and memories.
In particular, for my children and me, I would like to experience a Mother’s Day that is more sweet than bitter. I hope the time will be right to share memories and tell stories. After all, she will always be their mom. 

Rabbi Barry Cohen is the Jewish community chaplain of the Greater Portland area. chaplain@jewishportland.org


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