Mother's Day also can be a time of pain and loss

The last Mother’s Day I celebrated with my much-loved mother was in 1991, although, of course, I didn’t know it at the time. Now I can’t even remember what happened that day. If I had known how momentous it was, I would have made sure I didn’t forget a thing.

When she died in March 1992, my mother was 67. I was 34 and the mother of two little girls of three and five.

My mother had suffered from severe crippling rheumatoid arthritis which began as a painful wrist when she was expecting me, and which became severe three years later during her second pregnancy with my sister. She had spent all the years in between in terrible chronic pain and had had many operations, including Australia’s first elbow replacement – a failure that later had to be removed, leaving her with significant disability.

Eventually, her organs failed as a result of the medication that was used at the time and she needed emergency surgery. She never regained consciousness from the surgery and, after a week in a coma, she contracted septicaemia and died.

I learned then that even when you know there is no hope of survival –  it always comes as a shock when someone you love dies.

I was frightened and appalled at the extent of my grief. I thought I would never stop crying. Sometimes, even to this day, it still takes my breath away.

Mother’s Day is full of pain for lots of people … a day when the kind of grief that is kept at bay on normal days can rise to the surface.

After that, even though I was delighted to be a mother myself by then and cherished little handmade cards from kindy from my own kids, I began to seriously dislike Mother’s Day.

It was the greeting card stands, and the cheery advertisements – each one brought a reminder that I would not now, nor would I ever in the future, have my mother with me on Mother’s Day – or any other day. The realisation broke my heart again every time.

Since then I have realised that Mother’s Day is full of pain for lots of people. It is a day when the kind of grief that is kept at bay on normal days can rise to the surface.

There are many ways that Mother’s Day can remind us of painful losses. During the past few years of pandemic, so many were separated from their mothers, especially those in aged care, often for months at a time. The grief of those who were not able to farewell their mothers due to COVID-19 restrictions is profound.

Watching extreme old age and dementia change the mother you have known also brings its own kind of deep grief. A friend once said to me, “You are so lucky your mother died young, you’ll never need to go through this.” And, although I didn’t really appreciate the words, I could hear the pain and lament behind them. But I still didn’t feel lucky.

Unfulfilled longing for motherhood, whether through singleness or infertility, is another kind of pain that comes into focus on Mother’s Day.

Being the daughter or son of a mother who was absent, unloving or abusive, is more ‘in your face’ than ever on Mother’s Day.

Having suffered the unthinkable loss of a child through death or estrangement is a loss every day, and then Mother’s Day opens that wound again.

Yet through my tears – and somewhat to my surprise – in the midst of my grief, I found that my faith in God and love for the Bible grew.

Working with grieving children has taught me that Mother’s Day is hard for them when their dad has died or is absent. Usually, it is a dad who will help you buy a present for mum, or cook those eggs-on-toast on Mother’s Day morning. So, when he is not there to help you, his absence really hurts. For the same reason, I learned, Father’s Day is hard when your mum’s not there.

Yet through my tears – and somewhat to my surprise – in the midst of my grief, I found that my faith in God and love for the Bible grew.

It surprised me, because I had always thought of myself as a person of fragile faith and I wasn’t sure I had the strength to keep it alive. Little did I know at the time, that it wasn’t me who needed to be strong – I could trust God for that. I’m not sure whether all this was exactly what Paul had in mind when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” – but my experience showed the verse’s truth to me.

It didn’t stop me being sad, or missing my beautiful mother deeply, but I knew the world still had a solid foundation. Just as Isaiah 53:3 points to Jesus, “the Man of Sorrows” who is acquainted with grief, so his redeeming death and resurrection brings real hope and light in our darkest times and places – in a way that I could rely on and couldn’t ignore.

A dear friend sent me a card bearing the words of part of Deuteronomy 23:27: “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” I clung on to those words when I thought that I was drowning in tears.

In a similar way, the words from Isaiah 49:15 have brought comfort to a friend whose mother caused her no joy, only pain: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands”, it says.

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, let’s not forget those around us who need special care and understanding on this of all days. Let’s help them know that they are remembered and seen, and that as God promises to do, in our churches they will not be forgotten.

Prayers that acknowledge them, matter. Asking them to lunch could, too.

Jill McGilvray chairs the Langham Partnership International Council and, through that work, loves to support global church leaders in their ministries. She is a former lecturer in pastoral care at Sydney Missionary and Bible College and Mary Andrews College, and still teaches on this topic in churches.