The Best Question to Ask a Grieving Person on Mother’s Day

On Mother’s Day 2019, my then 14-year-old daughter Risa and I started the morning by looking through scrapbooks filled with photos of my mom. She’d died a few months prior, and it was our first time pulling out photos. We smiled at the pics of my mom that were so quintessentially her: wearing a goofy homemade bonnet at the NYC Easter Parade (she was Jewish but lived each year for this parade); taking Risa to the fanciest hotels for a tour of the ballrooms; hosting way-too-complicated scavenger hunts with an absurd number of items to track down. Risa and I were entirely caught up in reminding each other of our silliest memories.

The mood changed about an hour later, when the texts started coming in from well-meaning friends: “I know you must be devastated today…,” “I am sending hugs on this very hard day,” and “I bet Risa is missing her amazing grandmother today!” Their intention was so clearly loving and generous. My friends wanted to support me by showing up before their own celebrations with their moms started. But the truth is, their texts made me feel worse, and that sadness spilled onto Risa. Was there something wrong with us for not feeling sad? Should it be a horrible day? Meanwhile, I could practically hear my mom yelling, “Screw that, go back to the giggling and fun pictures of me!”

Here’s the thing: Everyone grieves in their own way, and we simply can’t make assumptions about how people are feeling on Mother’s Day, or any day. It’s also likely that the person who suffered the loss has multiple feelings and reactions throughout the day, or in any given hour. What may seem like an obviously sad day to you might be a perfectly wonderful day for the person who experienced the loss.

Mother, daughter, and granddaughter

With my mom and daughter from 2005

It’s often the in-between moments.

For me, grief doesn’t typically “get me” on the holidays and big milestones. It happens in the in-between moments when my guard is down. When I was 20, my father died in a car accident, and I thought Father’s Day and his birthday would be the hardest days. Instead, the biggest waves of grief came at random moments: when I saw someone at the drugstore who looked like him, hearing a Paul Simon song he loved, seeing an old vintage car on the highway that he would have admired, and so on. I should add that now when those unexpected connections pop up, they are far more likely to fill me with warmth than sorrow, but that took a long while.

Risa misses her grandmother, who was a huge cheerleader in her life, at random moments too: when she wants to brag shamelessly about her report card, when she craves the kind of spoiling that only a grandparent can do justice to, and when she’s looking to split a hot-fudge sundae with no one to say “slow down.” Risa especially misses her New York City adventures with my mom, and feels deep sadness whenever we visit other family there. Those are the hardest moments.

For plenty of people grieving a mom or caregiver, this Sunday will be painful. Your grieving friend or family member may want, even need, to talk about their loss. Or they may feel like Risa and I did, content and connected and looking to share positive memories. You can’t know because you are not a mind reader, no matter what their age or situation.

So what are the magic words you can offer?

Unfortunately, there are no magic words. The best thing you can do is ask your people how they are feeling. Reach out this Mother’s Day and say something like, “Hey, thinking about you and checking in to see how you’re feeling today?” Or, “You’re on my mind today. How is your morning going so far?” That way, the person grieving can tell you how it’s going with no assumptions or expectations.

In my case, if my friends asked how I was doing, I would have texted back, “Great – looking at old pictures of my mom with Risa and having sweet memories!” It would have felt good to let them know that. But I didn’t say anything because I worried that they’d feel guilty for having made wrong assumptions. Days later, I let them know as gently as I could about my reaction, and that I’d love it if next time they’d ask how I was doing rather than assume. Their reaction: relief. Sure, they felt a little bad about saying the wrong thing for me, but they were more happy to have just the right thing to say for next time. This was a perfect Mother’s Day gift for me.

Michelle Cove is the Senior Communications Manager at Experience Camps. She is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, journalist, and national bestselling author whose projects have been featured on numerous national platforms including “The Today Show,” The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times.