How to cope when Mother's Day brings sadness

Mother's Day can be a bit of a kick in the guts for some people.
Mother's Day can be a bit of a kick in the guts for some people. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Lucy Corry for RNZ

If you believe the advertising, Mother's Day is all about flowers, breakfast in bed and a new pair of slippers. But for some people, the day brings sadness rather than joy. Lucy Corry asks the experts how to cope when life doesn't look like a Hallmark card.

On Sunday, Sally Hickson is hoping to wake up - or be woken up - to her first Mother's Day as a mum. Hickson, 33, is expecting to give birth this weekend. The timing could hardly be better, but Hickman's joy is bittersweet.

"It's amazing to be having a baby, but I just wish mum was here," Sally says. "She knew she was never going to see this happen, but it was just too hard for us to talk about it."

Sally's mum, Helen Hickson, died in 2018, seven months after being diagnosed with cancer.

"I miss being able to call her," Sally says. "After she died I used to call her voicemail just to hear her voice. When that was finally cut off, it was like she'd died all over again."

Mother's Day has been celebrated in New Zealand for more than a century.

It's an imported tradition, with origins both in 'Mothering Sunday' (when servants were allowed to take off the fourth Sunday in Lent to visit their mothers in 17th century Britain) and a 20th century campaign to recognise the work of mothers in the US.

Like most celebratory days in modern culture, it's now a huge sales opportunity. If you really love your mother, or feel guilty for not loving her enough, Mother's Day is the time to show it by buying her flowers, a new iPhone, a new handbag, recipe book, jewellery, spa pool or magazine subscription. Or so advertisers would have us believe.

For people like Sally Hickson though, Mother's Day can feel like a bit of a kick in the guts. The passing of time has helped, but she still feels the loss acutely.

"The first Mother's Day after my mum died, the bombardment of Mother's Day messaging was so overwhelming," she says. "I mean, it's a lot of bullshit commercialism, but it still felt really polarising."

Of course, Mother's Day isn't the only day on which it's hard to feel the absence of a dead or absent mother, or to feel the deep loss of infertility, miscarriage or being alone. But Wellington clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo says it can trigger sadness and grief symptoms, particularly when the loss of a mum is fresh.

"If it's a tough day for you, the best plan is just to do what works for you," she says. "Stay away from all the hype and off social media - and just indulge yourself in a pleasurable activity. If you do have to attend difficult family events, don't stay for long. Then go treat yourself."

Val Leveson, counsellor for The Grief Centre, recommends choosing who you spend the day with.

"Grief can make other people feel uncomfortable, so make sure you have people around you who will help you sit in your discomfort," she says.

"Be with people who understand and are happy to support you, rather than those who say things like 'aren't you over it yet?'. Choose not to be with insensitive friends."

Leveson recommends 'leaning in' to your feelings.

"If your mother has died and Mother's Day was always significant for you, create your own ritual," she says.

"Visit a place you would visit with your mother, or write her a letter, or light a candle. Lean into your grief, rather than away. It's hard and sad, but avoidance doesn't work all that well. It's ok to say, 'I'm mourning my mum'. But if you want to lie on the sofa all day and watch Netflix, that's ok too."

As she prepares for her own first days of motherhood, Sally Hickson says she's made a conscious decision to reframe how she sees Mother's Day.

"I've realised that there are lots of mother figures in my life, so instead of feeling sorry for myself, I'm grateful that I had a mum for 30 years and I'm grateful for the amazing people in my life who have stepped into that role. Every day I think about my mum and every day I'm thankful. We should let people know that we love them every day."

If you find Mother's Day to be a minefield, Karen Nimmo has the following tips:

  • Celebrate but be sensitive in sharing your own happiness.
  • Acknowledge others' sadness where appropriate but don't overplay it.
  • Open the door for people to talk about their loss/grief but let them lead the conversation.
  • Message friends who have lost a mum or child in the past year. A text is thoughtful but not too intrusive. A call may be appropriate if you have a close relationship.
  • Treat all people with kindness. You don't know their circumstances or what battle they're fighting.
  • If you've lost your mum, take a moment to honour her with a memory or a story. Even if your mum wasn't the best, she gave you the chance to be you and that's a pretty special gift.
  • The Grief Centre, 0800 331 333