There are a lot of ways to lose a mom. She can die, or retreat into dementia, or into illness or addiction. You may have had a chance to say goodbye, or not. You may have been on good terms when you parted, or not. She may have been a great mom to you, or not.
But when the holidays show up, when you’re surrounded by songs and ads and Christmas letters that exalt family ties, the chances are that your heart turns toward her. You miss her, or at the very least miss the mom you wish she’d been. You yearn for her presence, the one thing you can’t have. Or, like me, who had seven Chrismases with my mother increasingly lost to dementia, you may have the confusion of her physical presence but her psychological absence.
The first impulse is to avoid, and dread, the holidays, which people warn you will be so hard. Instead, you can decide to answer that yearning in ways that celebrate what is left. The following steps prove the adage that though people die (or retreat), relationships live on; that relationship trumps absence. The purpose is twofold: to ease your pain through positive action, and to celebrate the person you miss. I know that they work, because I’ve tried them all. As a counselor, I have watched others choose one or two and feel their dread ease.
• Remember a story that tells a lot about who your mother was, and tell it to three people. It’s okay to tear up. They have mothers, and mother issues, too. It’s also okay, and desirable, to laugh.
• Make a donation, volunteer, speak from a soapbox about something she cared about, or about issues that challenged her. Who better to carry out her legacy than you?
• In case you tend to put her on a pedestal, make yourself remember something she used to do that drove you crazy. You’ll feel closer if you let her be merely human and down in the muck with the rest of us.
• Since you are merely human too, give yourself a guilt pass for the holiday. Sure, you weren’t the perfect child, and you have regrets about not doing more, or seeing only now what more you could have done. She, of all people, knew you were less than perfect. Think instead of the ways you made her happy or proud.
• Spend a few moments with her by writing her a letter, or by visiting a place you used to go together, if only in your imagination. Experience that she is still with you, inside your memories and your heart. As long as you live, she will remain.
• If she was difficult, work to understand why, and imagine that she is free of that torment now. Then you can be free of it too.
The holidays will pass, and it will be January. You will pay the bills, and look forward to spring. And you will carry your mother forward with you. Carry her as lightly as you can.