It’s complicated – grief on Mother’s day when your relationship was difficult

Mother’s Day can be really tough if you’ve lost a mum or are a mother whose child has died. It can be even more complicated and painful if you had a difficult relationship before they died.

March 22, 2022

Over the past few years people have been starting to realise just how triggering Mother’s Day can be for so many, for so many reasons. At Cruse we see lots of people struggling in the lead up to this this day.

This year we’re looking at grief on Mother’s Day when things weren’t great for any number reasons:

  • perhaps your relationship was toxic
  • maybe you’d fallen out or you weren’t in contact at all
  • perhaps they were abusive or neglectful
  • or maybe you just didn’t get along.

Complicated feelings

If our relationship with our mother was not society’s ideal of a close and loving one it can be really confusing and confronting. It’s a different type of heartbreak.

  • We might feel very guilty about not feeling as we think we should – whether that’s not feeling sad about our own parent, or feeling sadder than we expected for someone who may have mistreated us.
  • Others around us might not understand. They might judge us if we don’t act the way they expect, or can’t or don’t want to take part in funerals and other family rituals.
  • We’re still not great as a society talking about death. It’s a whole other taboo if you didn’t actually like or love a mother who has died. This can feel very lonely.
  • Many of us have been conditioned to do the ‘right’ and dutiful thing. But it doesn’t always mean it is the right thing for our own grief journey.

We all have the right to grieve in the way that is right for us. We can grieve the relationship we have lost in all its complexity and imperfections. And we can grieve the relationship we wished we had, and the loss of hope for any future resolution.

Ways of coping on Mother’s Day and beyond

So just how do you grieve a mother you didn’t like or who didn’t like you – someone who maybe mistreated you or worse? And how do you deal with any judgement from others? In our special Instagram live we put your questions to grief expert Julia Samuel. You can watch our discussion below.

Complicated grief is hard to define, because emotions are unique and hard to define. Grief is a normal reaction to someone dying, and in most cases we can learn to feel the pain and slowly adjust to our new world. In complicated grief the normal pain is heightened and we may feel stuck – we might find we are obsessively going over things, we are attacking ourselves, or feeling despair and that live isn’t worth living. It’s being stuck in a grief that doesn’t shift.

Timescales are not fixed in grief, but generally grief comes in waves. If you are feeling pain or other difficult emotions intensely with no break after six months, you may be experiencing complicated grief. If you are feeling this way after a year it is definitely time to seek further help, if not sooner.

Complicated grief often comes after a traumatic death, if you had a difficult relationship to the person who died or if you are already vulnerable due to past trauma or illness.

It’s natural to want to find some resolution or closure if you had a difficult relationship with your mother. But relationships are messy and complicated and you may have to learn to live with feelings which may seem in conflict with each other. Our mother is always going to be a hugely significant relationship. We need to acknowledge this regardless of the relationship when they were alive.

Grief is an alien landscape but the key to grieving lies in accepting your emotions and feeling your pain. Be careful about burying those feelings or covering them up with self-medication such as using alcohol, overwork, drugs, sex, or gambling. But also take your time, allow the feelings bit by bit – treat yourself with the same compassion you would someone you care about.

We can often be left with feelings of regret or guilt, especially if you were estranged. It can help to write letters to your mother saying everything you need to. Or many people find journaling really helpful where you write out all your feelings and emotions. Often it can help us find acceptance of ourselves and of the bereveament.

It’s natural to feel jealous of others and of their relationships. Grief can tap into some emotions we might feel very uncomfortable about. Being honest with yourself about how you feel and acknowledging it is the first step to moving through jealously. It is a very normal reaction.

“Grief can bring up versions of yourself that you do not want and you do not like. You can look at other people with their mums and literally want to stab this innocent person that you’ve never met, because they’ve got the mum you haven’t got.” Julia Samuel

Delayed grief is common, and perhaps even more so recently when many of us had to put feelings on hold during the pandemic in order to keep going. Complicated grief is usually characterised by feeling overwhelmed whereas delayed grief is likely to happen when we are supressing our feelings. Often the grief then comes out in other ways, for example in physical symptoms and pain. It is possible for something to then trigger the grieving many months or years later.

Family conflict is common after someone dies even when there were good relationships with the person who’s gone. So when there was a difficult relationship it can make the grief process so much harder.

We all react in our own ways and it can be hard for everyone to understand differences, whether that’s attending funerals or not, crying a lot or not crying, or being able to carry on versus collapsing. The fantasy for many is that we will all be kind to each other and understand each other’s point of view and ways of grieving but this can take time or may never happen. It could help to explain how you feel, and let them know your choices are right for you. Ask if they can find it in them to respect that.

It’s very natural to feel anxious and upset in the run up to Mother’s Day or any milestone, such as a first anniversary or birthday after someone dies. Communicating what would help you to your friends and family gives them the opportunity to support you.

On the actual day you could do something to connects you with your mum. You could do something that reminds you of them, share memories or go somewhere that was meaningful to you. Feel how you feel on the day. Many people worry their emotions will overwhelm them so go at your pace. Then follow this with something that is supportive and consoling to you. Something that you find nurturing.

The best support for grief is connecting with others. If you find people aren’t reaching out to you at a difficult time, this might be more about them, not knowing what to do or say or not joining the dots of how painful it is. Reach out, tell friends and family how you are feeling.  Or you can contact Cruse for support. Always remember you are not alone.