“The most beautiful masterpiece of God’s heart is the heart of a mother,” said Félix Dupanloup, Bishop of Orléans, in 1885. His thought may seem overly sentimental in our cynical age, but it influenced the art of Paul Gauguin, who studied with Dupanloup for five years, and Thérèse of Lisieux, who quoted that passage in her letters. I wonder, though, is it entirely accurate?

My mother died in 2013 after a long battle with cancer. I know the shock of losing a parent: the loss of bearings, feeling adrift and orphaned, despite the fact that her death was inevitable. It’s the way of the world, we may tell ourselves. But that doesn’t make it any easier. So I ask, as the good bishop said, was my mother’s heart a masterpiece of God (le cœur d’une mère est le chef-d’œuvre de Dieu)? Perhaps. My daughter’s certainly was—at least to me. Had she lived to be a mother, her child may have had other ideas!

We who have lost mothers are in danger of deifying their memories. It’s a normal grief reaction, to be sure, and one that serves a vital role. Therapists have found that in memory we are able to heal many wounds that seemed insuperable in life. As the years go by, we may come to accept the good and the bad, understanding that our mothers, too, did the best they could. I believe my mom did.

Mother’s Day may be steeped in nostalgia—a good thing, in small doses—and also in a hidden sorrow that can blindside us. After any death, special occasions take on new meaning. For we who have lost our mothers, and for mothers who have lost children, this holiday is also a time of memory, tears, and prayer.

The unspoken grief

Robert Weiss, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, observes that parents “develop very strong investment in newly born children, in children still in gestation,” adding that this sense of continued connection to the child never abates. Parental bonds are usually immediate, persistent, and absolute. “We know little about what triggers attachment to children,” writes Weiss. “Nor do we understand fully why parental grieving so regularly persists indefinitely.”

This may be one reason that Mother’s Day can be so difficult for couples that have given birth to a stillborn child. Researchers have found that parents feel a significant sense of failure and guilt. Couples relate continuing fears that somehow they were responsible for their baby’s death. They also tell of social stigma: blame from others; misunderstanding of their grief; and a lack of long-term support and acknowledgement of the child’s life.

People may distance themselves from the baby almost immediately, even at the hospital. Alice Lovell with London South Bank University reports that once the staff discovers a baby has died “there [is] an abrupt cut off in the identity construction process” and, in actions and words, there is a “denial of the baby’s existence.” Such official responses frequently affect fathers, who relate that they suppress their sorrow, doubting that they felt any real attachment to the child. Studies indicate that stillbirth fathers experience slightly less intense levels of grief than mothers, but are more likely to avoid outward displays of mourning out of shame or confusion. Part of this reaction, men say, stems from a sense that they were treated as the “supportive partner”—leaving some of them feeling overlooked by healthcare professionals, friends and family members.

Mothers report that they experience a change in their quality of life overall, especially in their body image, which includes appearance as well as seeing themselves as healthy child-bearers. Their grief is often most acute two years after the death, though it never really goes away. They weep freely, read and write about grief, and often seek ways to help others that know loss. Loneliness and remorse can be constant companions.

Parents also speak of feeling cheated out of the memories they had hoped for in what Joanne Cacciatore with Arizona State University calls “the ultimate paradox” of the stillbirth, “the convergence of life and death and the fundamental contradiction it represents.” Mother’s Day is an annual reminder of a future that will never be.

Both parents retain a sense of pride in their baby and speak of new attitudes toward life, death, and their identities. However they respond, writes Christy Burden, a lecturer in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Bristol, “Experiencing the birth of a stillborn child is a life-changing event.” The pain is now a part of their lives, something poet and bereaved mother Alice Meynell knew well:

One wept whose only child was dead,
New-born, ten years ago.
"Weep not; he is in bliss," they said.
She answered, "Even so,
Ten years ago was born in pain
A child, not now forlorn.
But oh, ten years ago, in vain,
A mother, a mother was born."

Missing our children

“When your parent dies you have lost your past,” observes psychiatrist Elliot Luby. “When your child dies you have lost your future.” Loss is an intensely vulnerable experience. What we imagined to be inviolate has been violated. In the aftermath of death, even simple routines seem fraught with the possibility of catastrophe. As the years roll by, each Mother’s Day can remind us of the banal terror of daily life after losing a child.

Bereaved parents speak of losing their illusions of control and safety, describing the severity of what has happened with comparisons like a global shift, the rug was pulled out from under me, or my whole world collapsed. Our expectations of security and a bright future have been destroyed. We are beset with fear, anxiety, and a concern that in our acute grief we may be “going crazy.”

One researcher found that 86 percent of bereaved parents became more protective of their surviving children after the death. This can display itself in positive ways: practical awareness of vulnerability may lead to greater vigilance and more rapid responses to signs of trouble. Families also establish reasonable boundaries, allowing themselves time to grieve privately. However, these same tendencies can cause damaging overprotectiveness.

Parents may conceal their grief from their children, especially on holidays, out of a misplaced sense of protection, thus cheating the family of the healthy aspects of shared memory and mourning. They may subordinate personal needs for the children’s perceived benefit—more than usual, that is. This can also lead to marital strain, blaming, competitiveness for attention, social isolation, and “smother love.” Ironically, overprotectiveness often leads to parental rigidity and an inability to support and emotionally care for surviving children. Out of fear, our desire to nurture and shield may have the opposite effect, causing our loved ones to live in that same fear.

Other parents report that they have learned, with loneliness and trepidation, to value the inevitability of life’s many ups and downs. This act of surrender causes a surprising shift in perspective. Having learned the true nature of vulnerability, they see clearly what it means to survive. Ronald Knapp with Clemson University writes that bereaved parents experience a curious sense of invulnerability regarding life’s other hardships: “These parents came to realize that tomorrow might never come. It never came for their child . . . Thus today took on a new importance in a way that perhaps can be understood only by those who have experienced the ultimate tragedy.”

Missing Mom

I facilitate bereavement support groups. One participant, D, whose story I relate with permission, complains that his friends at church “scold” him for not celebrating that his mother is now in heaven. His grief, they sniff, is unhealthy and “taking too long.” During our sessions, I found that the opposite is true. D’s sorrow is perfectly natural; his reactions to loss are expected and normal.

“One guy told me that I hadn’t seen her for a while,” D says. “She lived in another state, and I didn’t know her that well anymore.” Okay, I admit I lost my facilitator demeanor completely. “That’s just nonsense,” I blurted out, a no-no on any level. “Look, I don’t think I want to know a guy that doesn’t mourn his own mother!” (D forgave my indiscretion, by the way.)

The loss of a mother is painful. We review past mistakes, harsh words that can never be healed. But I have been surprised to see how often we find healthy ways of coping. One common response is an effort to emulate those character traits of our mothers that we admired; or at least we try to behave (even as adults) in ways we hope they would appreciate. “I know she’s proud of me,” D says of his mom. “She knows I’m trying to live right and she likes that.”

Our mothers and our children will always be part of our lives, in life and death. Surprisingly, grief does not dominate our existence, it informs it. Therapists call this “shadow grief,” a persistent, lifelong acknowledgement that we will always miss Mom. Of course we will. Our grief is an aspect of our love and of our hope for reunion on some distant day.

Truly, God’s masterpiece.

Image Credit:Rembrandt, “A Weeping Woman” (1644) via Collections – GetArchive

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