Losing a parent at a young age -- or both parents G-d forbid -- has an array of hideous "perks" for those of us in the know. We think in the beginning that it might get easier with time. And in some ways it does. We smile, we go through the motions of holidays and birthdays and graduations and weddings and even having children. We even enjoy them.
But there is always an ache. And for a motherless (or fatherless) person, Mother's and Father's Day are two of the hardest days on the calendar.
I lost my mother at 16 and until I had my own first child 12 years later, the whole month of April was a blur of tears at commercials and in the drug store as people started to celebrate something I no longer had. Even now, as a mother myself, I still struggle with enjoying the day. Most of the time, I just want my husband to take the kids and let me do yoga and run all day.
Allison Gilbert, the author of Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children knows this better than anyone. A parentless parent herself, she addressed some questions for The Stir on how we might best address Mother's and Father's Day for the people for whom those days might not be the happiest on the calendar.
Here are her thoughts:
The Stir: Why might parentless parents find Mother's Day and Father's Day particularly difficult even after they have their own kids?
AG: Of all holidays, Mother's Day and Father's Day seem to have the greatest push-pull for parentless parents. It's often difficult to remember your mother and rejoice over your life as a mother at the same time. From nursery school on, we are trained to celebrate these holidays, first by making our parents cards out of construction paper and pipe cleaners, and later by buying them gifts. Our role as sons and daughters is clearly defined. And when we become parents, we also know what we're supposed to do: receive all the attention and smile! But the truth is being a mom hasn't removed the part of me that was also a daughter, and Mother's Day is sometimes just a painful reminder of her absence. Remarkably, nearly 50 percent of parentless parents who took the Parentless Parents Survey find themselves grieving more on Mother's Day and Father's Day than celebrating. That said, we cherish our kids, and the kisses we receive Mother's Day morning allows us to focus more of our attention on what we have, not what we've lost.
The Stir: What are some ways to help them through this?
AG: I think the best antidote is to honor your mother, despite her absence. And not just privately. Share your thoughts. Tell stories to your children. Take the time to cook a special dish that reminds you of your mom. I also think it's important to connect with other parents who understand what you're going through. It's not an automatic that your friends "get" what it's like to be a parentless parent, and sometimes not even your spouse understands, particularly if he hasn't lost a parent. Parentless Parents has a Group Page on Facebook and it's a great place to feel validated and supported and to exchange ideas. Last, I think it's hugely important to take care of yourself. Don't wait for anyone to give you what you need. If you're having a tough Mother's Day, give yourself permission to take a step away from your family and do something just for you. Go for a walk. Get a massage. In essence, be a parent to yourself.
The Stir: What led you to take on this book?
AG: I am a parentless parent. My mother passed away before I got married, and my father died when my son, now 11, was just 18-months old. In every imaginable way I felt compelled to get my thoughts and feelings on paper because for the longest time I felt so alone. Raising my children without my parents has been harder than I ever could have imagined. I wish I could call them for advice. I miss not knowing what I was like when I was my children's age. And I long for the simple pleasure of just bragging about my kids. These feelings come and go, but there always there just below the surface.
The Stir: What are some of the ways to incorporate a dead parent?
AG: There are so many wonderful activities you can do! My favorite idea for Mother's Day is to show kids the physical traits they may have inherited from their grandmother. To create a photograph of your son or daughter with your mom, find a picture of your child, and then locate a photograph of your mom similar in size. If the photo of your mom isn't in your computer already, scan it. Using Photoshop, edit the images so it appears like it was taken at the same time. This new "fake" photograph will allow your children to see what physically links them to their grandma.
Another terrific project you can begin on Mother's Day is to create a special scrapbook. Most scrapbooks are autobiographical -- put together to be a mirror of one's life, friends, and family. A scrapbook assembled about another person is another thing altogether. That's called a biographical scrapbook. Creating a biographical scrapbook about your mom is a fun activity to do with your children. It also gives them a rich, multi-layered understanding of who she was and what was important to her. To create a biographical scrapbook, first gather some photographs of your mom. After you've gotten together the pictures, locate some of her old letters, ticket stubs, or any other flat memorabilia you may have saved that have particular significance. When you're done, invite your children to print pictures off the Internet that will help put all of those photographs and memorabilia into historical context. For example, what type of telephone did your mom use? Find a photo of it! What kind of food did she most enjoy? Print a related image. Both are easy projects to do, and since they're also interactive and involve computers, most kids will have a great time participating.
For all us moms who are marking another year without our own moms, let's try to think of each other on Sunday.
Did you lose your mom? Is Mother's Day hard?
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