It had been nearly 40 years since Linn Holt lost her mother, but some days, the pain was as unbearable as the day she died. Family gatherings were heartbreaking, Mother’s Days were miserable. And on every anniversary of her mother’s death, Holt would stay home in bed, hibernating from the world, swelling with grief.
It wasn’t normal, she thought. She needed help.
Three years ago, Holt attended a seminar on Mother’s Day weekend for people struggling with the loss of their mothers. She realized she wasn’t alone.
For more than a decade, the workshop at the Stella Maris Center for Grief and Loss in Timonium has been helping people confront and cope with the loss of their mothers during a trying time of year. From faith services honoring mothers to the endless loop of TV ads pushing “that special gift for Mom,” it’s a day most people can’t avoid if they tried.
Instead of trying to escape it, workshops like the one at Stella Maris encourage people to embrace the day as a way to honor and celebrate their mothers’ memories.
“We hope they can begin to face Mother’s Day head on and find that it can be joyful; it can be a day to honor with love,” said Doreen Horan, manager of bereavement services at Stella Maris, who has led the workshop for six years.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s the first Mother’s Day since a mother died or the 40th; there is no expiration date on grief, say grief counselors.
“People tend to think you get through all the first anniversaries and you’re healed,” said Robin Stocksdale, bereavement services manager at Gilchrist Hospice Care. “But anything can kick up those memories and those feelings. It does tend to get a little easier with time, but you don’t get over it. You learn to get through it.”
Holt, 58, of Baltimore, was 15 when her mother died of Hodgkin’s disease. As the only daughter left at home, Holt inherited the cooking, cleaning and responsibilities of caring for the household. Her father shut down emotionally, and her brother was just 7 years old. Holt had to stay strong and keep everyone together, she said.
“My whole world came to a crushing end,” she said. “And I couldn’t talk about it. It was done, it was over, and I was expected to move on.”
At her first workshop three years ago, Holt was asked to do things that were foreign to her: write in a journal about her feelings; listen to classical music; and use colored pencils to draw recollections of her mother.
“I thought, ‘What, are you crazy? I don’t just sit down and write. What do you want me to say?’ ” she said. “But I tried it. I realized I had a lot of anger and frustration. And I left feeling that it’s OK to feel this way. It’s OK to be 56 years old and ticked off that your mother isn’t here.”
During Horan’s workshop, participants spend half the time writing in journals and drawing, and the rest listening to classical music designed to evoke warm memories. Attendees can share their reflections, but they don’t have to.
“The point is for us to realize that life will not go on in the same way without our mothers — if it did, it would conclude their lives meant nothing and had no contribution,” she said. “It’s for us to talk about that, process that and move forward.”
Channeling hurt feelings into something positive is key to coping with grief, said Penny Graf, a social worker at the cancer institute at St. Joseph Medical Center. People should try to honor their mothers on Mother’s Day, either with an activity that their mother would have enjoyed or by spending time with family.
Even so, there’s no quick way to “get over it” said Stocksdale. Sharing feelings with someone who will listen is a start, she said.
Holt thinks that has helped her enormously. After therapy and two years of Mother’s Day workshops, she’s looking forward to helping others during this year’s event.
“I have learned to look at the things my mother taught me in the short years I was blessed to have her in my life and not the loss of not having her,” she said. When she’s down, Holt listens to music, writes in her journal or pulls out a photo of her mother.
“These are things I learned to do that have helped,” she said. “Maybe I can pass this on to somebody who is going through this for the first time.”