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Mother's Day—the forgotten memorial day
5 Resources & One Next Step for Making Your Own Meaning on Mother's Day
Readers and clients have asked what resources I turn to for living with loss AND with joy, so periodically I share suggestions and invite you to share what’s helping you.
Amid the ads for flowers, the reservation rush for Mother’s Day brunches, and the pitches for gifts (ranging from jewelry or cars to vacuum cleaners or even noodles!), it’s easy to forget the origins of this holiday in the US.
Today ‘Mom’s Special Day’ is as likely to kindle sadness, stress, or hostility as it is to incite celebration.
The truth is—Mother’s Day was borne out of loss.
Did you know that? If you’re missing your mother, or you’re a mother feeling the absence of a child, well, the day was created with you in mind.
You see, beyond the public rationale for a Mother’s Day, what privately motivated Anna Jarvis (who never had children of her own) to secure what she thought of as a national “memorial mother’s day” was simply a blend of mother-love and grief.
Today we have Mother’s Day because Anna loved and missed her mom. It falls on the second Sunday in May because Anna’s mother died on May 9th. The massive letter-writing campaign Anna mobilized may have been how she got President Woodrow Wilson to create the holiday in 1914. But, her why was love and remembrance.
Want to know another irony in this origin story?
Mother’s Day was so quickly taken over by the florists, candy makers, greeting card sellers, and whatever commercialization looked like in the early 1900s, that ultimately Anna spent the rest of her life trying to erase the holiday.
Why share all of this?
I don’t want anyone to miss out on being nurtured by meaning on a special day just because others would rather turn it all into profit. I’m glad Anna failed at undoing her holiday.
Many women living with loss, though men, too, get so irritated with the continuing commercialization, the selling and the fakeness, that they miss seeing this day as an opportunity to create their own meaning.
Also, for some of us, our mothers weren’t that idealized, always-there-for-you, adoring persona. Our mother-child relationship was lumpy at best, so Mother’s Day comes with thorns.
Either way, the irritation and idealization just become more negative distractions, more emotional burdens, leading us away from what really matters.
What if you leaned into Anna’s original intention to remember? To honor the continuing bond, even if altered by death or tested by imperfect love?
What if you leaned into your own meaning-making powers to create the day you want? What rituals, what rhythms to your day, what little adventures of the mind, heart, body, and spirit might you plan?
Yes, there’s sadness and pain you might prefer to avoid. But. Do you ever want to get to the point that when you think about the people you love and have lost there’s no twinge of longing at all?
Why not let your tears out to play? Let the dark emotions visit awhile, then send them on their way.
Tending to what hurts is how we heal.
Then, excavate from your memories the joy that lives within them, and bring that joy into the day.
Are you a mother or a child, a motherless child or a mother missing a child?
Perhaps you’re none of these, though remembering a wife, sister, daughter, friend, or beloved other who was a wonderful mother or a loving child now gone. Anna’s “memorial mother’s day” is for all of us, don’t you think?
Holiday comes from holy day, and holy comes from blessed and whole.
This Mother’s Day, whether your thoughts turn to the living or the lost, what might help you feel blessed and whole?
To inspire your thinking, below are 5 resources and a suggested next step to support you in reimaging what Mother’s Day can be.
Big read: Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Williams. I’ve read this book at least three times. Besides the writing being utterly beautiful, it tells two, intertwined stories happening at the same time. One story is about Terry as a young woman dealing with the reality that her mother is dying of cancer. The other is Terry the writer-naturalist, watching the rise of Great Salt Lake threatening a migratory bird refuge and mourning the impending loss of resident and migrating birds. My first read was for the sheer, poignant pleasure of the writing and storytelling. The second read was during my mother’s journey with terminal lung cancer. The third read was inspired by the need to nurture myself leading into my second Mother’s Day without my mother as a physical presence in the world. We all need to create our own refuge, yes?
Little read: Chasing the October Moon, by Jacqueline Dooley. Why a story about an October moon in May? I’m sharing it with you now to remind you how you get to make your own meaning and rituals that nurture you and help you stay connected to the one you love as you as you live forward into your own future. It’s about sitting in the sorrow of a daughter taken by cancer, rather than avoiding it, and letting that sorrow also lift you. Forget the advertising and hype, Mother’s Day also very much belongs to mothers who’ve lost children, and if that’s you, may this piece feel like a kindred spirit.
Listen: Anna Malaika Tubbs: The Three Mothers on the TED Radio Hour Podcast, May 6, 2022. Listen as podcast host Manoush Zomorodi talks with author and scholar, Anna Malaika Tubbs, about the often overlooked impact and influence of mothers in shaping the trajectories of our lives, specifically the ‘hidden figures’ behind three pivotal changemakers. The conversation begins by looking into the life of Alberta Christine Williams King, Martin Luther King’s mother. It’s striking to realize that she learned about the death MLK, Jr. the same way anyone did living at that time, on the radio, except for her it was more than the assassination of a civil rights icon—it was her son. The following year she lost her youngest son, too. What was her Mother’s Day like after that?
Watch: What Will You Say? A Must-Watch Video for Mother's Day! created by Echo Storytelling. At a little over three minutes, I’ll let you discover what this clip is about. Whether your mother or your child or beloved other is still in this world, or not, it’s never too late to say what you want or need to say to them . . . and to listen for a reply that may come in surprising ways.
A Poem for the Path Forward: I don’t remember how I discovered Li-Young Lee, an American poet born in Jakarta, Indonesia of Chinese parents living in exile. In my 30s, I was captivated by the depth and simplicity of his poetic language. Also I loved that he was a working poet (in a Chicago warehouse) rather than an academic, which echoed my belief that one is a poet because one is simply a poet regardless of vocation or validation.
As I was grabbing the poem below for you, a ticket fell out of the pages of his book, the city in which i love you. I heard him read at the Newmark Theatre in Portland, February 8, 2008. I’d forgotten that. Then on the title page, this: Kimberley, sister-poet, Peace, Li-Young Lee. A memory-flood, I’m grateful—also I suddenly want to stop what I’m doing and work on unfinished poems ;-).
I Ask My Mother to Sing
She begins, and my grandmother joins her. Mother and daughter sing like young girls. If my father were alive, he would play his accordion and sway like a boat.
I’ve never been in Peking, or the summer Palace, nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picknickers running away in the grass.
But I love to hear it sung; how the waterlilies fill with rain until they overturn, spilling water into water, then rock back, and fill with more.
Both women have begun to cry, But neither stops her song.
One next step:
One of my key practices for living with loss is what I call being an avatar. I use it when I’m feeling grief-y in general, or heading into a special day when I’m likely to feel the absence of a beloved other (which for me is as likely to be a person as an animal).
What’s being an avatar?
It’s walking through the world being the eyes, ears, nose, and fully sensing body for the one you love and miss. If you’ve read or listened to my book, Grieving Us: A Field Guide for Living with Loss Without Losing Yourself, this practice will be familiar.
Like an avatar in a video game or the movie, Avatar, for awhile you live for your someone else. That is, they live within you, getting to experience the richness and unending surprises of life in the present moment, wherever you are and whatever you are doing.
Feeling too blue to leave the couch and take a walk? What about taking your your mother, your child, or whoever you’re missing right now, for that walk?
Whether strolling a city street or a park path, look with new eyes at whatever is unfolding or blooming around you. You are seeing it all, hearing it all, witnessing it all for your beloved other. You are on the walk together.
You might even find yourself thinking, whispering, or saying out loud, “Look at this, look at that!” You might be surprised to find yourself pointing, caught up in the moment, maybe even smiling.
Ask yourself, what would she like to see, do, eat, or explore? What was special to her that you could experience for her today? What is special to you that you could ‘share’ with her in an avatar moment?
Think you might try being an avatar? It’s an easy and meaningful way to feel connected not only to your mother, your child, or whoever you may be grieving, but also to your own heartbroken-and-still-beautiful life.
Note: if your relationship with your mother, child, or other person you’ve lost was troubled or involved trauma, this practice may not be for you. We hold grief not only in our mind and emotions, but physically in the body, too.
One request: I’d love to know what resources are helping you now, and how you will make Mother’s Day meaningful for you.
Please share in a comment using the button below, which will help others living with loss, too. Or if you’re reading this in your email and wish to be more private, simple hit reply and share with me directly.