Mother’s Day and Father’s Day serve as important reminders that parents are to be celebrated — whether by treating them to an indulgent brunch, thoughtful gifts, quality time spent with family, or all of the above. But, for those who have suffered the death of a parent, navigating these holidays can be particularly tough. And, for those who haven’t lost their parents, but have important people in their lives who have, they may also struggle to find ways to celebrate their own parents while also acknowledging how painful the day may be to those whose parents are no longer with them.
It’s common for those who have lost a parent to encounter a wide range of emotions on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, including dread, despair, and feelings of emptiness, explains Keisha M. Wells, a licensed professional counselor in Columbus, Georgia. “However, the pain of such holidays can be eased with support and preparation,” she explains.
To help, we asked grief experts to share some ways to approach and honor holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day when you or someone you love has lost a parent.
If you’ve lost a parent:
1. Know that the first year can be especially hard
The first Mother’s Day or Father’s Day after the loss is often the most difficult, explains Kayce Hodos, a licensed professional counselor in Wake Forest, North Carolina, who specializes in loss and grief. “I tell my clients the ‘firsts’ — birthdays, holidays, anniversaries — are about just getting through them,” Hodos explains. “As you move through your grief, you may come up with new rituals or traditions to celebrate and remember your parent, but there is no ‘right way’ to honor the memory of your parent.” It’s important to take care of yourself on these difficult holidays, Hodos says. Specific strategies she suggests include writing a letter to your deceased parent about how difficult the day is for you, gathering with siblings or your surviving parent, spending the day with your own children, or simply taking some time to be by yourself and do something that makes you feel better.
2. Plan in advance how you will spend the day
Grieving is a very permission-based process, explains Shelby Forsythia, an intuitive grief guide and host of the podcast Coming Back: Conversations on Life After Loss. “So giving yourself permission to anticipate the day, plan it in advance, and then experience your emotions as you go through your decided-upon activities goes a long way in facing Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and other ‘griefiversaries’ as they occur,” she says. While you may not be able to control the emotions that come up surrounding your loss and the holiday, you can control where you go, who you see, and how you honor (or don’t honor) the parent that you’ve lost, she says. When you plan, the day becomes a conscious and structured day as opposed to a looming day.
3. Remember your parent throughout the year
People often wish that they could have had more time with the departed, and feel the absence more acutely on a day like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, explains David Klow, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Chicago and owner of Skylight Counseling Center. “One way to help manage the loss is to make a practice of remembering them on a regular basis,” says Klow, author of “You Are Not Crazy: Letters From Your Therapist.” “Rather than just waiting until Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, an anniversary, or birthday, it can be helpful to regularly remember those who we’ve lost. Feeling connected to them throughout the year can make a day like Mother’s Day less painful, as we will already be in touch with their memory.”
4. Incorporate a ritual into Mother’s Day or Father’s Day
It can be therapeutic to carry out a ritual that marks how special your parent was, and is, in your life, says Dr. Michael Alcee, a clinical psychologist and two-time TEDx speaker who is in private practice in Tarrytown, New York, and works as the Mental Health Coordinator at the Manhattan School of Music. “For example, after my mother passed, each year I would place a bouquet of flowers in a stream or river to symbolize her love of the water and her beauty, and to represent the way she connected myself and our family to the flow of life,” Alcee says. Other times, he would visit her favorite place, the beach, to connect to what she loved the most and where he and his mother had so many special memories together.
5. Honor your parent with a tradition or memory
Keeping a loved one’s memory alive is one of the best ways to learn how to cope with a significant loss, says Sal Raichbach, PsyD, LCSW, of Ambrosia Treatment Center. “To honor your mother, you can do a number of things, such as host a family dinner and cook her favorite or most well-loved recipes,” Raichbach says. “You can plant flowers each year, write her a note, or just simply get outside.” Studies have shown that sunlight and fresh air significantly improve one’s overall mood, so going for a walk, visiting the beach, or even taking a hike on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day can help you boost your mood and enjoy the day, Raichbach says.
Louise Stanger, LCSW, recommends creating a celebration that has particular meaning for you and your family.
Some activities that have worked for her clients include:
- Take a long walk on the beach.
- Plan a game night with your family’s favorite games.
- Tell your loved one’s favorite jokes.
- Go out to eat at your mom’s or dad’s favorite restaurant.
- Plant a garden.
- Visit the grave site.
- Wear something that reminds you of them — favorite pin, scarf, or color.
- Share your memories.
- Write in your journal. A prompt could be three things about your parent that you are grateful for.
- Be of service and practice random kindness on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
6. Give yourself permission to ‘not celebrate’
When you’ve lost a parent, days like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day can be triggering, painful, and possibly a day you just want to ignore, says Annie Wright, a licensed psychotherapist and the owner/clinical director of Evergreen Counseling, a therapy clinic in Berkeley, California. That’s OK; check in with yourself to see if this is a day you want to celebrate or even acknowledge.
7. Seek out comfort and solace
If you do want to celebrate Mother’s Day, but the day still feels painful, Wright recommends you ask yourself what kind of celebration could bring you comfort. Maybe that’s spending the day with women who give you motherly energy, like a close girlfriend or an aunt, or maybe it’s flipping through photo albums of pictures of you and your mom. Or, a creative way to think about celebrating Mother’s Day would be to “mother yourself,” Wright says. To do this, think about the kind of attention your mom may have given you when she was alive. Perhaps that’s booking a supportive therapy session or getting a massage or manicure and pedicure.
8. Serve others
To celebrate the life of your parent, you could create an educational scholarship that will benefit a student in need, Wells says. The scholarship could be awarded in the spring as a tribute to your mother or father. Or, Wells suggests, volunteer with a local nonprofit. “Honor your loved one by giving and serving others in need at a local food pantry or shelter,” she suggests. Extending concern to others can be a good way to manage your grief and sadness as you transfer your energy to someone else’s well being, she explains.
How to comfort someone who’s grieving on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day:
Have a friend or a loved one who has lost a parent and not sure what to say or do?
There is no need to worry that you might be bringing up bad memories for your friend if you acknowledge their loss, says Klow. “They are likely thinking about their loved one that day already,” he says. “A gesture of care, saying, ‘I’m thinking of you,’ is typically received quite well.”
You can also ask a grieving friend how they plan to spend the day, and offer to hang out with them or do something completely unrelated to the occasion if the friend needs an escape, says Hodos.
“The most important thing to remember is that grief is supposed to be painful, so don’t try to avoid talking to them about their parent, and don’t try to rescue them from the difficult feelings,” Hodos says. “Allow them to grieve and reassure them that you will be there to listen and then do just that.”
Three women share how they honor their deceased parents:
- “Do something that day that your parent used to enjoy doing with you, but also give yourself space to grieve, as these big losses have a way of showing up at holidays and significant anniversaries. Last Father’s Day was the first one I spent without my dad. I took my family out for doughnuts at our favorite local doughnut shop, as doughnuts were one of my dad’s favorite foods, and we spoke about my dad. When we got home, I gave myself time and space to journal about my feelings and how I would not be talking to him on that day as I had on every other Father’s Day throughout my lifetime. After that, I focused on my husband and kids and spending quality time with these special people in my life right now.” — Heidi McBain, Texas-based licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed professional counselor
- “Shortly after my 18th birthday and just a few weeks before my high school graduation, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He fought for four years and got to see me graduate from college and get married before he passed away. I was 22. Every year, I write a memory about my dad that is precious to me. Usually, I share it with the world on my blog; sometimes, I simply share it with my mom or my siblings. (This is my favorite, and the first, one that I shared.) I’ve been afraid of forgetting things about him — maybe one day I’ll run out of memories to share, but for now this helps remind me.” — Rachel Kerstetter, marketing and social media professional in Ohio
- “My mom died in 2010 and my dad died in 2016, both from cancer, sadly. I never expected to lose them so young; they died much earlier than anyone in either of their families. I still find it hard to walk down the card aisle at the drugstore in May and June. My husband lost both his parents, too, around the same time, and several of our friends have as well. One year, we all went to New York City for Mother’s Day weekend and got tickets to shows and made dinner reservations in honor of our moms. Even if we stay home, we always try to toast our parents over great wine and just tell stories and remember the many great times we shared with them.” —Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder & CEO of Mavens & Moguls
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Brittany Anas is a freelance writer who specializes in health, fitness, and travel writing. She also contributes to Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Trip Savvy, Simplemost, Orbitz, and Eat This, Not That! She spent a decade working at daily newspapers, including The Denver Post and the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and she is a former federal background investigator. In her free time, Brittany enjoys hiking with her gremlin-pot belly pig mix that the rescue described as a “Boston Terrier” and coaching youth basketball. She also works with domestic abuse survivors, helping them regain financial stability through career coaching. Follower her on Twitter and Instagram.