Dealing with Mother's Day after the death of a child

May 11 2012 | Guest post by Laura Young

Mother's Day is approaching like a freight train with no breaks… and it is heading right at me.

Normally Mother's Day has been a day of mild celebration. My brothers and I would get a small gift for my mother, maybe a card, and we would tell her we love her. We are not a family that puts a lot of emphasis on holidays. But this year was going to be THE year. It was or is my first Mother's Day, and I don't know how to react.

Maybe I should explain. My beautiful daughter Zoë Faye was born on October 22, 2011. She passed away from a Malignant Rhabdoid Tumor on April 1, 2012. Zoë was my first baby, my only baby. And now here I am counting down the days to Mother's Day.

I don't know how to react. My body says I am a mother, with stretch marks, and widely set hips, and breasts that won't stop lactating… but I don't have a baby. I am suffering a loss so great that I cannot begin to explain it.

I guess I have two choices. I can curl up and ignore it — change the channel on the radio when commercials for flowers come on. Stay out of stores, keep the television off, and hibernate until it is over. Or I can embrace it. I can set out and purchase my small Mother's Day gift and maybe a card for my mother. Visit with my family and acknowledge how wonderful it is to be a mother.

Laura and Zoë at Children's Hospital Boston. Photo by Mary Louise Delano.
I know that somewhere, someone will wish me a Happy Mother's Day. This is something that began happening to me years ago before I was even trying to have a baby. I was always shocked by bold strangers who would take a shot in the dark and wish me a Happy Mother's Day. I made it a point to never say such a thing to a woman unless I knew emphatically that she was a mother. What if I was saying this to a woman who could not conceive, or put a child up for adoption? Now I think what if I say it to someone like me… someone who lost a baby. Their only baby.

There isn't a word in the English language for someone like me, a mother whose child died. We can say that someone is an orphan (but only if they lose both parents), or someone is a widow. But there isn't a way of describing the parent who has lost a child. Which makes it so much harder to explain to people why I am the way I am. I cannot easily say to that bold stranger, "I am sorry I am a _______. But thank you for wishing me a Happy Mother's Day anyway."

Losing a child is a tragedy that is not easy to ease into a conversation. There is not an easy way to say, "I am sorry I am a bit spacey today, I lost my baby last month."

Someone said to me today, "Man, all I want to do is stay in bed all day today with this rainy weather." I just responded with, "You have no idea." I feel like my ability to even have small talk has slipped away.

I am feeling like a small canoe lost at sea. I am floating around, and I look rather normal up close. It is only unless you look a little longer and see the bigger picture do you see just how lost I really am. So here I go lost and floating around out into the greater world waiting for that stranger to boldly wish me a Happy Mother's Day. I will smile and say, "Thank you." I will think of my Zoë, and do my best to be her mother on this very scary Mother's Day.

Editor's note: There are many phenomenal support groups and websites for those who have lost an infant and/or child. I asked my friend Kirsten, who lost her first child, Ewan, on October 4, 2011 for a few resources that helped her. Kirsten also started Say Their Names in honor of National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Day. Please feel free to add your own in the comments:

She is someone who has experienced infant loss, and has some really beautiful and artistic ways of helping other women heal from similar losses.

I am the Face is all about generating awareness, educating on the truths of miscarriage/stillbirth/infant loss, and putting faces on it. Really awesome site.

I just discovered this site — it has some good, basic, helpful things for friends and family and resources for bereaved parents as well (including how to stop unwanted "hey, you've got a new baby!" mail. Ugh. Hated that stuff (and now I'm getting "hey, you've got a toddler!" mail).

  1. Honest and beautiful. My heart goes out to you for your tremendous loss! You are a mother through and through. That will never change. I hope that as the years go by, Mother's Day won't be such a dreadful time for you. I think that it should still be a day to celebrate you.

    1 agrees
    • Since writing this I have decided to live it up on Mother's Day. So I bought a gift for myself, and I plan on hugging my mother, and grandmother on Sunday.

      2 agree
  2. So sorry about your loss. I appreciate you sharing your story and I hope it helps other mourning mamas find strength.

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  3. Yes, yes, yes. All those emotions and more. I lost my son Johnathan in December 2005, and this is one of the most difficult times of the year.

    I can't say it gets easier, but the grief does change, and over time the loss becomes integrated into your life. One day you feel happy again, and another day the loss will overwhelm you. And over time the happy days outnumber the overwhelming days.

    And your Zoe becomes part of it all.

    Be kind and gentle with yourself, especially this first Mother's Day.

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  4. Wow I am crying so hard right now. It is hard losing someone and I can not begin to imagine the pain felt. Though I have never lost a child, I suffered a different kind of loss. I went through a grief support group to understand the pain felt because when people say things like "time heals" is bull crap. This is an emotional wound that never goes away and never heals. I was surrounded by woman and men that have lost their child and I could not believe the strength they had inside of them even though their exterior looked beaten down. The days will pass, some tears will fall but you are the living memory. You are a strong woman for staying as tough as you can. I envy your strength. Sorry for the extended comment. Just felt the need to acknowledge the courage this woman has.

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  5. There are no words. My heart goes out to you, mama. Don't forget to take some time for yourself on Sunday.

  6. What a beautiful expression of your feelings! I am so sorry for the loss of beautiful Zoe. You ARE a mama and always will be, forever in your heart.

    I, too, lost a daughter. It's been 7 years. Mother's day is one of the most surprisingly difficult days. I choose to go to her 'special place' each mother's day to 'be' with her. I often write to her, talk to her, simply sit and remember. Shed a few tears and then breathe a sigh of relief when the day is over. I often see hearts in the sky, I like to think of as a hello from Heaven!

    I shall hold you and Zoe in my thoughts. May you find peace in this difficult time. There is no right or wrong way to experience mother's day, or any other day when you've lost a child. Just allow yourself to honor your feelings.


    2 agree
    • I am so very sorry for your loss Kim. I have been doing balloon launches when I feel the need to "talk" to Zoë. I write to her, then tie the note to a balloon and set it free. As much as the notes are personnel, but it also feels good to think someone may read them.

      I am happy to see that I am not the only one writing to my child.

      1 agrees
    A beautiful organization started after a mama lost her baby. They make and give away heart shaped pillows filled to weigh the same as the baby.
    Also, my heart goes out to Zoe's mama. There should be a word.

    • I feel like I need to invent a word. Maybe I will… Thank you for the link to the Heart to Hold organization. I might just have to look them up.

  8. such a terrible loss…i can't imagine. love and hugs on your first mother's day. i have one of the titles you mentioned…widow. i spent my first mother's day with my baby in my arms, but without the one who helped me make him, and with no other family to spend the day with. it's not the same and i can't pretend to know what it is your going through, but it hurt like hell.

    feel what you feel. my heart goes out to you.

  9. I lost my first child 13 years ago. It was a few weeks before Mother's Day. My son, Isaac, was beautiful in every way but he was born with severe congenital heart defects and only lived to be 3 months and 3 days old. I remember being unusually strong after his rather sudden death. I put together the funeral, wrote the obituary, and helped comfort family. And, then when everyone left and it was quiet…I fell apart. The pain of losing your child eventually numbs. But, I think the experience is similar to losing an arm or leg. You intellectually know that you are missing a limb but part of your brain thinks that it is still there.

    My son changed my life and I think he impacted the way that I mother his siblings. He has a brother, a sister, and another brother expected to be born this year. I sometimes watch my children play and think how different things would be had my son not died. What I cannot fathom is how different I would be if he had not died. My little son changed my life and continues to affect our family even after 13 years. He made me a better mother and a better person.

    I hope that you find a way to make Mother's Day special and meaningful for you this year.

    • Tracy I am so very sorry for your loss. I know that lost limb feeling. I wander around my house all the time looking for something. I know I will not find what I am looking for…but I cannot seem to stop looking anyway.

      Happy Mother's Day to you too!

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    • Tracy – my daughter is 7 and was also born with severe congenital heart defects. Thankfully, she is still with me, but I know that many others are now "angels". You are always a "heart mom" like so many others of us. That badge never goes away.

  10. i just want to hug you so terribly now. i know nothing of loss you (and anyone else in this position) have felt. but i now feel the urge to curl around my little baby girl and cry for your loss.

  11. Hugs mama.

    Last mothers day was my first. My twins were in the NICU and one was very sick with Necrotizing Enterocolitis at the time. While my situation is different then yours, and I am so sorry for your loss, I can say that partying it up on Mothers Day helped me. I took myself out for dinner and drinks. I didn't think I could emotionally handle brunch with all the other moms but dinner and wine was just right. I talked to my mom on the phone and had a nice day. I celebrated being a mom even though I wasn't able to be with my children.

    Also, a website that we like We've donated their Lily Wraps to our NICU in the past.

    • Keren,
      I wanted to thank you for sharing our website here on Offbeat Mama. Laura's story about Zoe is heartbreaking and too many of us can relate to her pain, especially with the passing of Mother's Day. I also wanted to thank you for taking the time to share that you donated LilyWraps to your local NICU. I am happy to hear that you like them. If you have a moment to email me and share your story I would love to hear it. Much love ♥

  12. You made me get teary. There is nothing I could say to make it better. You won't get over it, you'll get through it. You probably won't sprint through it, you'll crawl. But you'll get there. And you ARE a mother, forever. Don't ever feel like you're not.

    • Thank you for passing this term on to me. It is good to know that people have felt the need to have a term for my situation. I am not alone in that at least.

  13. There truly are no word for this. Well there is one, heartbreaking. I have honestly just put my arms around my 2yr old harder than ever before after reading this. I say this to a woman no a mother I don't even really know, but you are and will always be that beautiful little baby girls mother. No matter what has happened you are and will always be her mother. So this Mother Day you and every other mama who have ever lost a child should hold your head twice as high a those of us who have never had to feel the pain that you have felt. For you are one of the most beautiful mothers out there. I wish you the best first Mothers Day any mama has ever had. And know that there will be a silent prayer sent up for you and your baby girl this Mothers Day.

  14. Laura, you are a wonderful mother,I'm always following up on y'all on Facebook, and Zoe's website. Take it easy on your first mothers day, because after all you are a mother, you carried Zoe in your womb for 9 months, you felt her grow, you cared for Zoe throughout her life, you loved her unconditionally, & you are determined to make her story known, and get her foundation going, and I admire you and Zeppo for that. You guys are always in my prayers. hugs.

  15. oh sweetheart. I'm so sorry for this loss. While I have not lost a child due to death I have placed my first and only child for adoption. The first Mother's day sucked. I did spend it with good family friends but I was just numb through the whole day. I wish I could say the rest of the mother's day gets better, but it hasn't for me. Sure the rest of the year is easier minus a few key days but this day is always hard. Keep your chin up and don't feel ashamed if you have to go cry. If you can't handle something just simply excuse yourself and do what you need to do.
    Send hugs and prayers your way.

    • Amalaa, I respectfully insist that you ARE a mother, in the only way that really counts! You put a child's needs and future ahead of yourself. That is pure love and devotion, and speaks to the very heart of motherhood. Believe me that somewhere out there some people are thinking of you and thanking you for your sacrifice so that they could have the wonderful family life they have today. I'm taking a minute to say that thank you for them, where ever they are, because I have experienced the joy of adoption (my brother was adopted, 37 years ago.) Thanks and happy belated mother's day to you, Amalaa

  16. Laura, thank you so much for sharing your personal story with all of us—mothers, notmothers, horeh shakuls.

    Mother's Day is so loaded, and such a trigger, both at once. We're supposed to make it all flowers, brunch, and Hallmark but people are in pain all around being reminded of their losses and griefs. Their mother just passed away, they lost a child, their daughter is a heroin addict no one's heard from in two decades, they had an abortion as a teenager and were never able to conceive as an adult. During my acute grief I hid during Mothers Day and that turned out to be best for me.

    I don't know you, but I will be thinking of you this Sunday.

  17. I am not a "crier," but I read your post and instantly began to weep. I cannot imagine what you have been through or how you feel, but you have put things in perspective for me regarding my own children. My heart goes out to you and even though we are strangers I will think of you on Mothers day. Thank you for sharing.

  18. I watched my parents go through losing my younger brother eight years ago. I don't know if I'm a strong enough person to go through what my parents and you have had to deal with. But you are still a mom even if your baby isn't here anymore.

  19. I am so, so sorry for your loss. Judaism teaches us to say "may her memory be a blessing," and it sounds like this is deeply true for your daughter.

    Our daughters were born on the same day. I cannot even imagine what you have gone through, but just an inkling of what it must be like made me cry. HUGS.

  20. There's also a word in german. I think the fact there is no word in English is very telling. We like to pretend that this never happens and I think that this leads to ignorance for many people which adds to an already impossible situation for mothers whose babies have died. I hope that on mothers day you do whatever you need to get through it. If you want to celebrate and feel you can the do it. If you want to not get out of bed then that's fine too.

  21. I am so very sorry for your loss. This is my 2nd mother's day after the loss of my daughter Harper, who was stillborn. I was blessed to have to children before her but it is still hard. As the months have passed I am finding that instead of terrible 2's I have the terrible blues. I hope tomorrow is easy on you.

  22. My heart aches and goes out to you on Mother's Day. I just became a mother 2 weeks ago and knowing the love I have for him, and you have for your daughter, I could not imagine the pain you are feeling. My thoughts will be with you and the other mothers who have lost a child. It is truly heartbreaking.

  23. This year was the first year since the passing of my little one (UK Mothers Day was March 18th, and sadly, also my birthday) and it broke my heart to see everyone talking about their children and their bumps, I had to embrace that I'm a mother too. Big hugs x

  24. You are now and always will be Zoë's mommy. NOthing can take that from you my beautiful one. This is not the Mother's Day we intended, but we will still love and care about her and you and make the best of the hand we have been dealt.

  25. So sorry for your loss. I can't even begin to imagine.

    My mother in law lost her second child when he was just a few months old. Even though only his older sister ever "met" George, my fiance and all of his siblings still count him in the sibling roundup. As in, "I'm the youngest of five kids" instead of the four that grew up to be adults. I wanted to tell you this because it always comforts his mom to have George remembered by his little sister and brothers. Even though your daughter was only with you for a little while, she's still a part of your family and her memory will always be with you.


    • I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful this is to read! I hope that my future children will all count Zoë as a sibling. I told this to my husband, and it made his day. It sounds like your husband, and his family are some amazing people.

    • That is comforting to me and my husband, also. We lost two babies(pregnancies) in the past year, and we always thought of them as our kids still. We were so excited when I was pregnant the second time and we planned on telling him all about his sister, Hope, in Heaven. We lost the second baby late January. We named him Josiah. Now we think about them often, and plan to tell our future kids about their big sister and brother. =] Thanks for sharing!

  26. Happy Mothers Day <3

    After my miscarriage, dates such as my due date and mothers day drove me to tears for a long time. As cliche as it is, time and looking towards the positive things in my life got me through it. Hopefully one day the happiness she brought you will overpower the tough times.

  27. Laura,
    You are truly an amazing person… There are no words for the loss of a child because, it's not suppose to be that way but,sadly sometimes it is… I will be & have been thinking of you as Mother's day has gotten closer & I do say a prayer for you… Maybe when you see your Mom grab a couple of balloons & send them to Zoe.. I'm still in awww the day we did the baloon release.. EVERYONE around the word sent picts. So, maybe you could try that.. I'll be thinking of you… ♥

  28. Wishing you a really good mother's day with lots of hugs to a very special mother. I used to hate mother's day because my mother passed away when I was a teenager and I really resented strangers reminding me to send something to my mother. It just hurt. It still does. But I remind myself that Mother's day (originally) is about celebrating those aspects that make women wonderful mothers to all of us- whether they are our birth mothers or not. So this day is about women who are caring, nurturing, protective and wonderful people and I celebrate them.

    I celebrate you as someone who has already added to the world in many beautiful ways. Zoey was lucky to have you in her life for her short time here.

    1 agrees
  29. I'm afraid of not responding to this, but i'm also afraid to respond to this. There is nothing i can say to make you feel better but you are in my heart today and I will think of you and how you are doing from now on. You are a mother and always will be and don't let yourself let go of that. Being a mama is all about strength and you have more of that than i can ever imagine.
    Have peace

  30. I am so so sorry for your loss. Thank you for being strong enough to talk about this. My brother-in-law lost his only son this past March, and reading your story just made me realize that I have no idea what to say to him next month, what would have been his first Father's Day. Being a mother I can't even imagine what you are going through. Happy Mother's Day Laura. I know your little Zoe is smiling down at you.

    • Katie I don't know how your brother-in-law will feel on Father's Day. But I can tell you that friends and family wishing me a Happy Mother's Day felt lovely. Those who did so quietly, and just said, "I love you", were the best.

  31. I am a total blubbering mess after reading this. Your beautiful daughter was born two days before my sprout. I can not imagine how hard this must have been to share and I am deeply sorry for your loss 🙁 I hope you had the best Mother's day possible. xxx

  32. You are most definitely a mama and you always will be.
    Loss is so personal, there't no one right way to handle holidays. You do what you feel you should. (obviously it has passed and you did what was good for you)
    The first Father's day after my husband lost his son, he requested we stay in and just go about a normal day and not really talk about what day it was or call anyone, our respective fathers understood. It was too much for him to deal with.
    The following Father's day, we had a new baby. So it was low key but we got him a card and he called his dad.
    This year, he has already hinted and what he would like as a Father's day gift.
    It has already been said, it doesn't get easier, but it changes.

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  33. although we lost our pregnancy early on, i think back to the first moment i saw that heartbeat on the sonar.

    the moment it dawned on me that we were, and would always be parents.

    while it ripped us apart, loosing our little one, i'm so very proud that we made something and someone that beautiful.

    it breaks my heart we never had the chance to hold our little one. a sadness made worse by the thought that a miscarriage is seen as 'less' of a loss than any other

    i could never have imagined how fast i could have fallen in love with that being… or have given the world for her or him.

    i hope that in time, like the song goes, your grief may pass.

    i hope that when that time comes, what remains is a love like none other, gentle pride and unforgettable memories of a precious, brave and beautiful baby girl.

  34. Hello,
    I am crying as I read this because I lost my one and only child 27 days ago, He name was/is Emerson. He was almost 6 months old, I woke up to find him blue and not breathing, I tried CPR but I new he was gone. This was my first Mother's day too. I am so alone, sad, and grieving….God bless Zoe, you for your story, and my son Emerson.

  35. This would have been my first Mother's Day as a mom too. Unfortunately our daughter passed away at 5 months. I received lovely sentiments from family and friends and sent them. It's tough and there is no easy way to enter it into conversation. I have found some great support through some online groups of other parents who have angel babies from noonans. Lots of love and Happy Mother's Day. While we may not have our children to hold they still exist in our hearts and memories.

  36. You are mother to an angel. She will forever be with you and watch over your future children, she will keep them safe for you just like any big sister should. I offer you my sincerest condolences and I hope in the future this becomes an easier day for you. Happy Mother's Day

    1 agrees
  37. Scoti
    I will always be a mother to my precious son Justin who passed away January 17, 2004. However on Mother's Day, I really wish people would not say anything to me, it is a painful, and hurtful day for me and I am not happy.

  38. My heart hurts for and WITH you! This is my 2nd Mother's Day since losing my infant son Sam, an identical twin boy. And I feel as though I'm now a fake person, living life as 2 mothers. One that is busy with hectic chaos of motherly duties to my 2 living children, on robot mode most of the time as I muddle through the days. Then there's the other side of me, the one whose heart never stops hurting, there's a deep hole – a well inside of me that longs to hold my son Sam again, to sing to him, to kiss him goodnight. I sometimes curl up on the ground of his gravesite and wish I could reach down and hold him again (I rarely visit him, because as a mother to 2 other children I don't feel like I can let myself grieve and hurt and fall apart – for their sakes). So I look whole and normal, but deep inside there’s an emptiness where my heart used to be. I can’t walk with my surviving twin without imagining the shadow of his brother right beside us. Would they fight? Would they be best friends? I always dreamt of watching them snuggle up together, my 3 children, but I'll never see that day. Mother's Day is particularly painful as people only recognize me as a mother to 2, without knowing that I am and will always be, a mother to 3

    • Heather, since I wrote this post years ago I have been blessed with 2 children. Today my now 4 year old daughter asked me where Zoë is and why we cannot see her. That feeling of having a shadow child is exactly how I feel. I have intense guilt the moment I tell someone I have 2 children instead of saying I am a mother of 3. Saying 2 is easier…but leaves me wracked with guilt. Saying I have 3 means explaining where my 3rd one is…. I wish you all the best in your life, and know that you are not the only mom who has a child in the shadows.

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