grieving child being embraced by an adult

Embracing Children’s Grief on Mother’s Day


(A note on my word choice: I am using the word “first” next to “mother” to pay respect to the relationship between a birth mother and child if the child is now being raised by someone else.)

Mother’s Day is almost here, and boy, does it crush the souls of some children. A day dedicated to celebrating maternal love and appreciation can be a challenging time for children who have lost connection with their first mothers. While many families joyfully prepare for this special day, for those grappling with the absence of a mother figure, it can evoke a complex array of emotions.

Grief, already a profound experience for adults, can manifest uniquely in children, presenting caregivers with the delicate task of supporting them through this period. Especially those children who have lost contact with their mothers due to mental health problems, abandonment, substance misuse, or incarceration. As caregivers, relatives, and communities, it is paramount that we recognize and support these children through their grief journey on Mother’s Day and throughout the year.

Understanding the Depth of Childhood Grief

Grief knows no age limit, and for children who have lost their mothers, navigating Mother’s Day can unearth a multitude of emotions. From sorrow and longing to confusion, anger, and even guilt, these young hearts are confronted with the stark reality of a void that cannot be filled. Each year, as the world brims with tributes to maternal love, these children are reminded of the absence of their mothers. Their mothers may still be here on this earth but unavailable and inaccessible to the child, making their grief invisible and potentially traumatic. This type of loss is called “ambiguous loss” and is based on research by psychologist Pauline Boss. To help children through this devasting type of loss, it’s critical that we embrace their need to grieve even if the loved one is still alive.

As a trauma therapist for children in foster and kinship families, I learned that children always long for the love of their first parents. It doesn’t matter what happened or how long it’s been, they will usually desire the nurturing care of a mother or father. Maybe not their mother in her current condition, but the mother they hoped to have. I think it is built into our DNA to yearn for the love and acceptance of those who created us. Although I don’t have the research data to back this up, anecdotally I witnessed it over and over again in the children I worked with.

Children Grieve Differently than Adults

Children cycle through their emotions related to grief faster than grown-ups. They might be crying one minute and laughing about a burp the next. It’s like their brains can’t hold all the grief at once, so they experience it in bits and pieces. This is why it’s important to continue nurturing their grief expression even if it’s been a couple of months or years since the loss.

Young children take even more time to grieve because they are unable to comprehend the finality of death. They might believe the person is coming back or that if they behave a certain way, the person will reappear. This is because young children believe in magical thinking and are also self-centric, which means they think they are the cause of what happens to those closest to them.

Grief does not have a Chronological Timeline

We are never finished grieving the loss of a mother or parent. It’s also important to know that the “five stages of grief” are a myth. In fact, the research of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the psychiatrist who coined the five stages of grief, was on people who were terminally ill, not on those who were grieving. She never intended the five stages to be a rule of thumb for grieving people, yet somehow, her work was misinterpreted and perpetuated by the general public.

Embracing Children’s Grief on Mother’s Day

As caregivers and loved ones, our role in supporting grieving children on Mother’s Day is our responsibility! Here are some practical strategies to nurture their hearts, but keep in mind that some children will refuse to talk about their grief, and that’s okay, too. We do not want to force children to disclose their feelings if they are not ready, but we can open the door for conversations in the future by letting them know we are comfortable talking about grief and loss.

1. Create a Safe Space for Expression:

Encourage children to express their feelings openly and without judgment. Create a safe environment where they feel comfortable sharing their emotions, whether it’s through words, art, or play. Invite them to create a piece of art and write a story or poem to remember and acknowledge their first mother. It can also help to mention their loved one’s name and see where they take the conversation. You could say, “With Mother’s Day coming up, I’m wondering if you are thinking about your Mom.”

2. Validate Their Feelings:

Let children know that their feelings are valid and normal. Assure them that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, or confused and offer reassurance and comfort as they navigate their emotions. Some children might also feel relieved that their mother is no longer in their life. They might be feeling guilty on top of feeling relieved. Normalizing their feelings of relief can be a powerful part of their healing process.

3. Honor Traditions While Embracing New Ones:

Respect existing traditions while also being open to creating new ones that honor their mother’s memory in a way that feels meaningful to them. Whether it’s visiting her favorite spot, planting a tree in her honor, or preparing her favorite meal, let children take the lead in deciding how they want to commemorate the day.

4. Stay Connected:

Losing a first mother is a lifelong grieving process. If they agree, find ways to stay connected to their mother. If they can’t spend time with their first mother on Mother’s Day, perhaps they can write a letter, visit a special location, or make a favorite food or meal. The important part is that you leave your judgments behind and walk beside them in their grief.

5. Be Present and Patient:

Above all, be present for the child on Mother’s Day and in the days leading up to it. Offer your love, support, and understanding, and be patient as they navigate their grief journey. Let them know that you are there for them, no matter what. Give children who are grieving your undivided attention for at least ten minutes a day.


As Mother’s Day approaches, let us not forget the children who carry the weight of loss in their tender hearts. Let us extend our compassion, understanding, and unwavering support as they navigate this emotionally charged occasion. By honoring memories, fostering open communication, and embracing their hearts, we can help these children find solace and strength as they navigate their grief on Mother’s Day and beyond.

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To schedule training or workshops on childhood trauma and children’s mental health, contact me.

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