This post has two purposes. First, it is a letter to my dear friends, who I love, miss, and like to update from time to time. Second, it is a transparent confession to other mothers raising children whose first mom died—written in hopes to encourage and inspire.
On November 5, 2017, I married a widower with three children. Our first Mother’s Day together was only six months after the wedding. My husband and I were incorporating many activities and practices to help the kids and I bond, but attachment takes time. I wanted to “feel” like a mother to Lucy, Campbell, and Ginger, but I didn’t. I’m certain they didn’t think of me as “mom” either. This was only the children’s second Mother’s Day without Sara, and their loss was still fresh. As older children/teens, the memories of Sara were full-bodied and rich. Theirs was an emerging adult relationship with her. She was not only a caring woman who read bedtime stories, but a friend. Her smile, laugh, favorite color, fashion style, and essence filled their hearts and our home.
When my husband shared that he and the kids had gone out to Sara’s grave the previous Mother’s Day, and that he hoped to continue that practice, I agreed. Mother’s Day is a perfect day to honor the woman who gave them life and loved them so very deeply. However, on the inside, I was torn. I didn’t want them to artificially celebrate me. That would feel insincere. But I was sad that I had three kids I didn’t give birth to. Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful to be their mom. I saw God’s lovingkindness in bringing us all together. Still, I had to grieve afresh never having given birth to children I could attach with from the very beginning.
Chris’s logic made sense, “I don’t want the anniversary of her death to be the primary day the kids remember Sara.” He also wanted the kids to honor me as their new mom on Mother’s Day. His idea was to visit Sara’s grave after church, and then come home to make a nice dinner to honor me with the children. I wasn’t sure how the day would go. How could the children experience such sorrow, and then come home to feel any joy? I agreed, moving forward with the “right thing,” though I was emotionally shaky.
As we drove the hour it takes to get to Cool Springs Cemetery in the Shenandoah Valley, the kids shared memories and stories about their mom. Campbell even said, “I think you and my mom would have been friends.” That might be the highest compliment a 13-year-old boy could give! As the stories continued, I wrestled between selfishness and service. I wanted a nice Mother’s Day, and I wanted to help the kids remember their mom, and grieve their loss. It was such a tricky place to be!
We walked up the grassy field, surrounded by picturesque mountains, to Sara’s grave. We each took turns reading scriptures that Chris had prepared, and then prayed. My heart overflowed as Campbell let me hold him when the tears fell. I remembered his sweet comfort at my grandmother’s funeral just two weeks after the wedding.
Our drive home was quiet, while the children played games and watched videos on iPads. I’m sure Chris and I talked, but I don’t remember much of the ride home. As we spilled through the front door, something I did not expect happened. The kids hurried around the house in hushed, excited voices. They insisted that I stay in certain parts of the house so they could secretly carry out their tasks. Whispers and snickers filled the quiet space. I sat down to a delicious meal prepared by my live-in-chef (Chris!), surrounded by three faces beaming with pride. Gift bags and cards decorated the buffet next to our dining room table.
I did not believe the children could grieve and celebrate both Sara and I on the same day. I was wrong. They did.
We’ve continued our tradition for the last two Mother’s Days, and each one has been sweeter. This year, Lucy is graduating high school and headed off to college. She hasn’t previously been one to write long letters or freely express her feelings. This year, she made me a beautiful card with a sticky note that said, “For when you need a reminder that you are a good mother.” Here are a couple of glimpses:
“… You have taught me so much. About living. About myself. About loving others. About hiking. About plants. About making a home beautiful. About God. About parenting. About letting others into my heart… Thank you for making time for me in a house filled with people, full of needs. I see your care, love, and heart for me and the rest of our family. You are such an amazing mother. I’m so grateful you are in my life. I’m excited to continue to grow and to have you with me for each step…”
I was blown away and moved to tears.
Something occurred to me this year. Sharing Mother’s Day with Sara actually freed the children to love me. As I entered into the dark place of their pain, they felt known and comforted by me. Their feelings were ok. In return, the children moved toward me and were able to find joy.
Both parts of the day were fully sincere. Either without the other would have been incomplete — only grieving Sara or only celebrating me would not have acknowledged the children’s reality.
I am so grateful for a wise husband and a God who gives me courage to do hard things!
If you are in a similar situation, the only book I’ve found on the topic is “Step-Parenting Grieving Children” by Dianne Fromme. There are many useful tips and insights that are very helpful in navigating this uncharted territory.
All my love,