What Not to Say to Someone Without a Mom on Mother's Day

As irrational as it sounds, I always wonder why no one has alerted CVS or 1-800-Flowers that my mother is not accepting gifts at the moment, because she has died.
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Kathleen Smith
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As irrational as it sounds, I always wonder why no one has alerted CVS or 1-800-Flowers that my mother is not accepting gifts at the moment, because she has died.

Every year around the middle of April, it starts. I play whack-a-mole with the emails in my inbox, burying their messages back into the ground. "Save on gifts for Mom!" Or, "Make her day truly memorable!" As irrational as it sounds, I always wonder why no one has alerted CVS or 1-800-Flowers that my mother is not accepting gifts at the moment, because she has died. It's the same surprise I felt when a strange woman patted me down at airport security eleven years ago, the day I got the phone call. Didn't she understand that the world had just ended? Safety was an illusion.

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It's unrealistic to expect a junk email to be considerate when any difficult holiday rolls around. But I do think that these moments of transition and celebration are also opportunities to remember friends and family who don't feel included, or loved ones who find that grief has once again tracked its muddy footprints through the front door. While you're celebrating your mom this Mother's Day, take some time to think carefully before you respond to the grief of others. And please, stop yourself before you spurt out these catchphrases that the motherless daughter could do without.

"It'll get easier when you have kids."

Does anything become easier when you have children? Besides ignoring strange stains on your clothing, I'm going to say no. I have never understood the fuzzy math people do when it comes to death. The people who stare at the funeral carpet and say, "It's good she didn't suffer so long" are probably the same ones who tell you that being a mom takes the place of having a mom. I've heard from many motherless daughters that while becoming a mother is its own gift, the role often morphs their loss into a stranger and hungrier creature. So yes, while Mother's Day itself might be a more exciting holiday with gifts and pancakes, grief can still show up.

"I'm dreading visiting my mom."

Most of the motherless daughters I know are incredibly patient and thoughtful when their friends regale them with stories of their mother's biting words or her vast technological incompetence. We will gladly sit through these conversations 364 days of the year, because we understand that family angst isn't a competition. Everyone has their own stuff to lug around. But even if you have a Betty Draper or a Kris Jenner for a mom, spare us the Mother's Day drama. You don't have to force yourself to be grateful or even lie, but maybe save the story for a later time.

"You're lucky you had your mom for so long."

Humans love to self-compare at an Olympic level. So we love to try to comfort each other with songs of, "Well look at that guy. You could have been him." But just because there are people who never knew their mother, or lost their mother as a child, doesn't cancel out the loss of a woman who is 50 when her mother dies. Or another who was raised by her grandparents because her mom couldn't get her shit together. Don't disenfranchise someone's pain, or make them feel guilty for not "being over it." Gratitude and grief do not cancel each other out. If anything they are reluctant bedfellows, and we learn to make space for them as we grow and reflect on the turning points in our lives. We will be grateful on Mother's Day in our own way and for our own reasons, so we don't need you to remind us.

"I don't know what I'd do without my mom."

Well, I do. You'd be really sad, and then guess what? You'd keep on living. You'd wonder if you should feel guilty because you've grown to love and appreciate the person you are because of such a profound loss. You'd view other women with more awe and respect and hold them even closer to your heart. When you pass the age your mother was when she died, you'd wonder if this is what she would have looked like if she'd been lucky enough to live this long. And then you'd do all sorts of things I could never guess, because grief paints with different strokes and colors in all of us. Motherless daughters can imagine all of these things, but Mother's Day isn't the day we want to be your spirit guide through hypothetical parentless scenarios.

If you can't say these things, then what exactly do you say? Try these fun phrases:

I love you.
I'm thinking about you today.
I know what a sucky day this can be for people.
If you need to talk, call me.

But to be honest, you really don't have to say anything at all. No one is trying to steal your Mother's Day thunder. The motherless daughter doesn't need you to shy away from your wonder and gratitude for the woman who gave you life. She just needs you to be comfortable with grief joining us for a bit. Make some space on the couch, or maybe offer it one of the leftover muffins you made. Because when we refuse to be motivated and intimidated by the fear of losing, we make space in ourselves for what grief can gift. We allow ourselves to be grateful for knowing and being known by others, for whatever time we are given.