How Mother’s Day Evolves After Your Mom Is Gone — and What I Do to Honor My Own

Joanna Douglas
Joanna Douglas

The author and her mom on Mother's Day, 1985.

When your mom has passed away, every day can feel tough for a variety of reasons. But when Mother's Day comes around, and the drugstores are brimming with cards, and everyone around you is out at brunch with their moms and posting beautiful photos of their moms on Instagram, there are triggers everywhere. It feels like no one seems to remember that many people are going on existing without their moms here. I'm an unfortunate member of this club. As hard as it is, I choose not to mourn on Mother's Day. I prefer to celebrate in my own way, and focus on just how lucky I was to have had a mother who loved me and raised me so well.

I lost my mom on July 7, 2016, making this my third Mother's Day without my mom here. While it feels like yesterday, I've come a long way emotionally since then. At the time, one statement really stuck with me. A childhood friend who had lost her mother a few years prior said that with time she was able to think about her mom more often with a smile than with tears. I made that my goal — and reached it much quicker than I thought. I've gone from crying about her daily (monsoons of tears during my eight months of therapy) to maybe once a month now. But May is a major trigger month for me since Mother's Day is closely followed by her birthday on May 21, and it reminds me that that feeling of dread — that my mom is gone forever — is always lingering there just below the surface.

As for Mother's Day and the emotions it conjures up, I've learned it's not something to fear.

The loss of a mother overwhelms and consumes in such a forceful way because I think no matter the circumstances around her death — illness, an accident, old age — it's shocking that one day she's just gone. My mother's death was entirely unexpected, and I had no idea how to cope with it. Since then, several close friends have had their mothers pass away, and I've seen them go through the same wave of emotions, from shock to sadness to anger to emptiness and back. Nothing could ever prepare you for it, but I was able to find the most comfort in others who have experienced this type of loss. If you're reading this and you have been through it, wherever you are, I understand, and I'm so sorry you're right here with me. And if you're reading this and your mom is still here, please celebrate and love your mom literally like there's no tomorrow for those of us who can't. I often think with regret about the delayed trip I never took to Florida so I could have seen her one last time. Please, take the trip.

As for Mother's Day and the emotions it conjures up, I've learned it's not something to fear. Because it's something I now anticipate, I've found some really great ways to cope and make the holiday not feel so bad after all. Here are my suggestions on how to get through Mother's Day and use it as a way to honor all the incredible women we've lost.

Do something your mother would have loved.

I've found that when I surround myself with the things I know my mom enjoyed, it conjures her spirit in the absolute best way. For me, this has meant going to an art museum, going to the beach, cooking one of her recipes, or listening to her favorite music. I swear, when I do these things, my mom feels so close! So I try to do them often — solo and with other people I love.

Make a small tribute in her honor.

My mom wasn't big on the fanfare of Mother's Day, but she was touched by any small, honest token of appreciation, from a bouquet of flowers to a luxurious bubble bath and a good book. She might not be here, but I still want to thank her for the impact she's made on me. Every year on Mother's Day, I make a donation in her name to an animal charity, since it's the cause she was most passionate about as an animal-lover, advocate, and volunteer. The first year I donated to her local chapter of the Humane Society, where she was a volunteer and adopted her cat. Last year I opted for North Shore Animal League, the world's largest no-kill shelter, which paired me with my own two adopted cats. I know she'd be touched, and be proud that I'm continuing her tradition of helping animals.

Take a moment to celebrate the mother figures you still have in your life.

No one can or will ever replace my mother, but I am incredibly grateful for the nurturing women in my life who are in my corner and offer love, support, and advice unconditionally. From mentors and older friends to my boyfriend's mother and moms of those close to me, they have supported me through this loss, and provide comfort and guidance in many ways and forms. I know my mom would have loved these women, and would be equally grateful for their support.

Take a stroll down memory lane.

I personally like to look at old photos on Mother's Day and remember happy times and share specific memories with my family. Recent photos may feel harder, but nostalgic childhood pics are sure to make you relive some of the cherished moments you spent together. You could try home videos, too — but I personally haven't been able to watch them yet. Be warned that your emotions may be heightened on Mother's Day, so take it slow. Which leads me to . . .

Think about your mom exactly as much as you want to.

You can choose to explore your feelings on Mother's Day, or you can turn away and think about something else. This is all on your terms, and what feels right for someone else may feel like too much for you. If you don't want to deal with it this year — or any other year — you can ignore Mother's Day altogether. I've learned there is no right or wrong way to deal with loss. But do make a conscious effort to set aside time to think about your mom on a day when you're ready. Because every great detail about her is worth remembering.