Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are great ways to celebrate the people who brought you into the world. But while many are off brunching and showing up at their parent’s doorsteps with flowers on these two family-centric holidays, others may be curled up on the couch feeling the pain of having lost their parent.
“Once May rolls around, the advertisements and TV commercials start. ‘Show your mom how much you love her this Mother’s Day!’ ‘This Mother’s Day, call your mother!’ I think, ‘I wish!,’” said Lisa Goich, who lost her mother to kidney failure in 2011 and wrote about the experience in her book 14 Days: A Mother, A Daughter, A Two-Week Goodbye.
As he approaches his first Mother’s Day without his mom, Clark Souter, a musician in Los Angeles, is gearing up for an inevitably tough day. “I travel a lot as a pro musician and unfortunately have missed many Mother’s Days as a result. But knowing that even if I had the opportunity to see her this year, I couldn’t, is pretty sad,” he said.
And having witnessed a number of her friends having difficult times with these holidays, Courtney Woody, a 36-year-old marketing manager in Auburn Hills, Michigan, has struggled to try and help them through it. “It’s so hard, especially when I haven’t lost a parent and I know no matter what I say or do isn’t going to bring them back. And that’s what kills me,” she said.
Here are some ways in which you can help support your friends on what may be a painful holiday for them:
1. Understand the magnitude of the holiday
Once you’ve lost a parent, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day will never be the same. “This is true whether your parent’s death was expected or unexpected, regardless of your age or the age at which your parent died,” said Sherry Benton, a psychologist and founder of TAO Connect, a subscription-based mental health tool.
It’s therefore inevitable that a friend with a deceased parent will experience some degree of pain on these particular days, said Elizabeth Skibinski-Bortman, a family therapist and host of the podcast “Advice from Mom.”
“If your friend has lost a parent, these holidays may function in the same way that the anniversary of their death functions,” she said. “It can feel like the scab has been ripped off. The day itself might put your friend into a spiral of sadness and suffering all over again.”
“Although it may be uncomfortable for you, because you’re not quite sure what to say or do to ‘make it better,’ the key is to just listen,” said Jackie Bustamante, a bereavement coordinator at Compassus, a nationwide provider of hospice care.
She suggested sitting in silence and just being present with your grieving friend. “You may be surprised afterward when they share how much you helped them, just by listening. That’s one of the most wonderful gifts you can give,” she explained.
3. Honor their parent’s memory
Seize the opportunity to do something nice to honor your friend’s passed family member. “Take them out to dinner and give a toast to their parent! Order dessert in their parent’s honor,” Goich said. “It sounds silly, but save a seat for the spirit of their mom at the table. The first Christmas after my mom’s death, we reserved a seat for her at the table next to my dad. I really felt like she was there with us.”
Benton also added that you might try encouraging your friend to post a tribute photo of their parent on social media or to plant flowers or make a donation in their parent’s honor.
4. Reach out
Pick up the phone or pop a thoughtful card in the mail to let your friend know that you are thinking of them on this difficult day.
“When you’re in a place of grieving, especially during holidays, you feel like no one could possibly understand what you’re going through. You certainly don’t think that anyone is thinking about you on days like this,” Goich said, who explained that a simple, “Just checking on you and letting you know that I’m thinking about you today” note can have a huge impact.
5. Let them feel sad
Your first instinct may be to cheer your friend up. However, sometimes its necessary to feel the grief. “If you have a friend going through this pain, let them feel sad. With any grief reaction, it is helpful for people to spend some time letting themselves experience the grief,” Benton said.
Juliann Rasanayagam, a registered psychotherapist at Empathic Counselling Centre in Toronto, also stressed the importance of validating your friend’s gloomy emotions versus trying to change them.
“If they are feeling down, you don’t need to pull them out of it. Be alongside with them and show your support through your presence. Be the shoulder for them to cry on, share memories of mom/dad, and acknowledge that their feelings are normal,” she explained.
6. Be careful with your words
You might not know what to say to a grieving friend, and that’s OK, said Juli Fraga, a licensed psychologist in San Francisco. But there are a few phrases you shouldn’t express. “Avoid asking them, ‘What do you need?’ as this open-ended question may feel overwhelming to those in the depths of despair,” Fraga said.
Instead, offer support by doing something like dropping off a meal. Fraga also suggested steering clear of positive platitudes. “Telling your friend how lucky they are that their parent lived a full life may not feel supportive,” she said.
And refrain from saying, “Everything will be OK” and “Everything happens for a reason.”
“These statements can feel invalidating, causing your friend to feel uneasy opening up to you about their anguish,” Fraga said. Try sympathizing with, “I’m so sorry. This sucks. I care about you, and I’m here for you.”
7. Extend an invitation
Have your brunch with your parent then offer to meet up with your pal later in the day. “For me, just getting invited to do something with a friend on Mother’s Day is really nice,” said Thomas Giordonello, a 29-year-old account executive in Garrison, New York, who lost his mother in 2013.
Your friend might prefer to be alone but it’s definitely the thought that counts. “The people who invite me somewhere every year, even if I didn’t accept their past invitation, are the ones who make an impact on a lonely day,” Giordonello said.
8. Encourage self-care
Encouraging your friend to do something for themselves helps them find a way out of their grief, even if it’s only for a few minutes, said Sal Raichbach, a therapist and chief of ethics and compliance at Ambrosia Treatment Center.
“Meditation, getting a massage or doing anything that makes them happy can be a great escape from a somber day,” he explained. “Remind them that their sadness is only temporary, and there are plenty of reasons that life is good, despite the losses we experience.”
9. Follow your friend’s lead
Before making suggestions on what the two of you can do together, it can be beneficial to ask your friend how they want to spend the day. Then do your best to be supportive of their plans. For instance, maybe your friend would like to visit their parent’s gravesite.
“Going with them and being emotionally present for them would be a great gift,” said James Zender, a clinical psychologist in Detroit.
10. Finally, don’t ignore their loss
Bringing up a friend’s deceased parent may seem daunting, but it’s important to not ignore the elephant in the room.
“Everyone has a different relationship to loss and many people avoid the topic because it is too painful for them to think about or discuss,” said Natalie Moore, a Los Angeles-based mental health expert. “Keep in mind that you’ll be the one who sets the tone for how comfortable your friend feels talking to you about their grief. If you can hold space for them and speak candidly about grief and loss, your friend will see you as a safe person to go to and a soft place to land.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misattributed Juli Fraga’s quotes to author Kelsey Crowe.