Sharing wisdom from the mothers we’ve lost

May 10, 2017
The “Wall of Wisdom” Photo by Esther D. Kustanowitz

Because I lost my mother six years ago, Mother’s Day hits me differently every year.

First, there’s the rage over the onslaught of emails reminding me to make plans or reservations or purchases to show my mother how much I love her. (If only I could.) That feeling yields to grammatical frustration over the name of the day, where the apostrophe goes or if there should be an apostrophe at all: “Mothers Day”? “Mothers’ Day”? “Mother’s Day”? After a while, it all looks wrong.

This is the kind of editorial debate I would have had with my mother, I recall, noting the beginning of the next emotional transition into something approximating the fusion between deep sadness and calm reflection.

I miss my mom often even without national days, but as Mother’s Day photos appear on Facebook, I’ll be thinking about the last decade or so of my mother’s life, when her illness left her profoundly uncomfortable with the prospect of being photographed. I wish I had more photos with my mother.

The Jewish tradition does “immediate grief” very well, especially in the first year after a loss. The community supports emotionally uprooted mourners, and Jewish holidays also provide built-in liturgical opportunities, like the Yizkor service, to remember those we’ve lost.

But beyond a year of grief or Jewish calendar celebrations, there’s a more mundane, longitudinal kind of grief, a mostly dulled type that enables us to be more functional, but can be energized to a fever pitch at any moment by dozens of triggering stimuli that even the mourner herself may not be consciously aware of. And one of those stimuli is very likely the media push around the so-called Hallmark holidays, including Mother’s Day.

I am not alone, of course. It is the natural order of things for children to lose their parents, and although it is universal to the human condition, the grief experience is also remarkably personal and individualized. There’s no one way to grieve or to be comforted: Some find themselves healthiest in solitude, while others rely on the support of friends, family or community.

I mourn privately and publicly. There are moments that I share with very few, my nearest and dearest only. And there are those I write about and convene community around. Last year, as Mother’s Day approached, I felt the need to convene. Reaching out through my local network and the Dinner Party network — a group of mostly 20- and 30-somethings who have experienced significant loss — I invited friends and friends of friends who had lost their mothers to my home for brunch. The idea was to provide a safe space to celebrate our mothers, to sample the flavors of our respective and diverse childhoods, and to share the wisdom that we learned from those who gave us life. I called it the “Remembering Our Mothers (Day) Brunch.”

I set the table with flowers, orange juice and champagne, chips and dips, as well as French toast and chocolate chip pancakes that recalled the Mother’s Day breakfasts my brothers and I used to prepare for our own mother (for years before she told us that she didn’t like chocolate chip pancakes).

Nine people from different backgrounds came to my house, bearing breakfast treats of their own in answering my call for “foods of calm, comfort and connection”: bagels, yogurt parfaits, a potatoes au gratin dish, fresh breads and a fancy cheese platter. The wall was designated as a “Wall of Wisdom,” where I invited guests to put up a Post-it, bearing specific pieces of wisdom from their beloved mothers. Sayings included “Crumbs have no calories,” “Never go out without lipstick,” “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” and “Make your own music.”

Once underway, the brunch was a bit of an emotional journey. In the room were women (unintentionally, this event was all women) who had varying years of experience in mourning their personal losses. For some, the loss was decades old; for others, only a few months had passed. About half of them knew me, but the others walked into a stranger’s house, not knowing what to expect. This was an act of courage for them and an act of trust in me, that I would create a safe space to embrace them, to provide them with comfort and community.

This was an act of courage for them and an act of trust in me, that I would create a safe space to embrace them, to provide them with comfort and community.

There was no official program. We milled about the space, in and out of conversations with other guests, writing wisdom on the wall, eventually sitting down with our food in what became a sharing circle.

Seeing a look of panic come over one woman’s face — not everyone is ready for a group-therapy type situation that comes out of nowhere while she is eating a bagel — I made the sharing optional. I am used to telling stories about my mother and about her death, I told the group, but they should feel free to talk or not talk, according to their comfort level. In the end, everyone spoke, although some longer than others, and there was a lot of supportive back-and-forth that made it feel more organic, like more of a conversation than a group confessional.  

When I was younger, I might have looked at that gathering of honest and emotionally raw people and hoped or predicted that it would lead to magical long-term friendships, forged in grief and expanding beyond that. While some of my connections with guests deepened, others walked in, got what they needed and walked out. But that’s OK with me.

Sometimes these spaces are one of a kind, with circumstances binding us intensely for a short period of time before we all rejoin the flow of mostly anonymous humans making their way in the world. This is not a failure of the space itself, which fulfilled its purpose marvelously; it’s part of the transition back from intense grief with a dedicated space to a less-rooted grief that isn’t contained by a space and time, but follows us as a dull hum in our daily lives.

Some communities are temporary, but give us exactly what we need at exactly the right time.

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