Being the mother of a child who died–on Mother’s Day

I am the mother of a child who died. And that makes Mother’s Day very hard.

Recently I was talking to a mother whose child had just died. “What about Mother’s Day?” she asked, through tears. It was hard to know what to say, because it’s a terrible day for those of us who have lost a child. Other days of the year you can maybe make it a few hours without thinking about your loss; other days of the year you can pretend that you are an ordinary person and that life is normal. But not on Mother’s Day. 

On Mother’s Day it’s in your face that your child is gone forever. On Mother’s Day you can’t pretend you are ordinary or that life is normal. All the hoopla, all the Hallmark hype, the handmade cards and flowers and family gatherings, make it almost excruciating.

Our town has a Mother’s Day road race for which I am eternally grateful—especially because, in a demonstration of grace’s existence, the start and finish are next to the cemetery where my son is buried. On my way I can visit his grave and say what I need to say and look yet again at the name we chose for him carved into stone. At the end of the race, they give all the runners a flower; on my way home, I go back to the grave and lay my flower there. And then I move forward with the day.

See, that’s the real challenge after losing a child: moving forward. It’s almost impossible to envision in that moment of loss; how can life continue after something so horrible? But life does continue, whether we like it or not. There are chores to do and bills to pay; morning comes, again and again. So you pick yourself up and you live, but you are never the same.

At first, we are different because of our raw sadness. But over time, the sadness moves from our skin into our bones. It becomes less visible, but no less who we are. It changes into a wisdom, one we’d give up in a heartbeat to have our child back. We who have lost children understand life’s fragility and beauty. We who have lost children understand that so many things just aren’t important. All that is important is those we love. All that is important is each other. Nothing else.

It can feel very lonely, being the parent of a child who died. Especially on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. We feel so different from those around us, all those happy people with children the same age our child was, or would have been. But over the years, I’ve come to understand that I’m not alone at all.

There is a wonderful Buddhist story about a woman whose son gets sick and dies. She goes to the Buddha to ask him to bring her son back to life; I will, he says, if you bring me some mustard seed from the home of a family that has not known loss. She goes from house to house but can find no family that has not lost someone dear to them. She buries her son and goes to the Buddha and says: I understand now.

That is what I understand now. It doesn’t make me miss my son any less, or Mother’s Day any easier. But it helps me make sense of it; loss is part of life. There are no guarantees, ever. Our children, and all those we love, are gifts to us for however long we have them.

I understand now too that we are together in this, all of us, in joy and in loss. It’s the connections we make with each other that matter—it’s the connections we make that give life value and help us face each morning. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”

Years ago, I chose words to say each time I go to my son’s grave. It makes it easier to have a ritual. And over the years, the words have come to mean more to me. They aren’t just about about grief anymore. They are about who I am, what I have learned, and what I can give.

“I will always love you, “ I say. “And I will always be your mother.”

 

This Thursday May 17th at 6:30 pm, at the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center at Harvard Medical School, Boston Children’s will hold its annual memorial service for the children, teens and adults who have touched all our lives. Come join us. Remember them with us, celebrate their lives and celebrate the connections—and loyalty—we share.

  • Erica Kates

    Wonderful and very beautiful piece of writing.

  • Mary

    Thank you so much for this story Dr. McCarthy.  My son died in Children’s Hospital Boston 21 years ago.  It still hurts, but you are so correct.  It is not on the skin anymore it is in my bones.  God how I love and miss him so much.

  • Danny van Leeuwen

    Thanks for this, Claire.  Well said. As a father who lost a son (birthday tomorrow) I especially like from skin to bones, and loss is everywhere. I wouldn’t give up a minute of what we had. Too precious. 

  • Jmbenson

    Thank you for your story, I lost my son two days before Mothers Day last year…..you are so right….I will always be your mother…….Love you Eddie…..Mom<3

  • Ajjohnston79

    Thanks for writing this piece. Our daughter was at CHB for 15 months and just passed away on March 1. We are in town for the memorial service and Mother’s Day was particularly painful. The grief seemed to high jack me in a way I wasn’t expecting. The loss is especially raw while in Boston as we keep feeling the need to go to the hospital and and see her as if she should still be there.

  • whether a child , a brother or a grandparent died.. the loss is always painful and you will forever miss them.. and you wish to do a lot of things with them.. but let us just pray that after the life  here on earth we will be united with them..
    your story made me remember my grandmother who i miss everyday…
    thanks claire.. i love her.. i always will..

  • Isaiah’s Dad

    Dr. McCarthy, Bless you for your words iin this passage.  Our dear son passed on June 30, 2012 and we are fast approaching his Angel Day.  We were at Vanderbilt Childrens Hospital this past Sunday, May 20th at there annual memorial services.  The speaker referenced your article and i looked it up on the web.  Your words captured how my wife and i feel.  from skin to bone is such a great way to express how we feel.  Thanks again.  You have touched us forever.

    • Jmbenson

      Isaiah’s Dad….my heart goes out to you, our son was thirty when he passed…..Dr. McCarthy is right….goes from skin to bones….i can cry today like it just happened….Jo

  • Lynn

    My daughter passed away on April 12, 2012 at CHB.  She was 12 and had a lifelong battle with a brain malformation. From the day my daughter was born, I knew I would lose her; I just didn’t know when it would happen.  I am now on the other side of this 12 year grief journey and Mother’s Day was so very diffcult as it was my first without her; however, Dr. McCarthy’s blog offered me comfort in ways I didn’t imagine.  It helps to connect with a mother who understands loving, caring for and losing a special needs child. Thank you for your wonderful blogs about your son Aidan and your family.