Don’t expect bereaved mothers to ‘get over it’, says speaker

“I fell into a huge hole.” That’s what bereaved mother Helena Stahls told those gathered at a recent talk on maternal grief.

Stahls was describing the impact on her of the death of her 34-year-old daughter Donna by suicide. Although she lost her daughter more than a decade ago, the pain of that memory clearly persists. That was one of the key points Stahls delivered at a joint presentation Jan. 23 at York with Professor Deborah Davidson, a sociologist and a mother bereaved by perinatal loss.

The talk, “Maternal Grief: The Need for Social Support”, was part of the Women’s Health & Mental Wellbeing Speakers Series sponsored by the Office of Echo’s Chair in DebraDavidsonWomen’s Mental Health Research at York.

Deborah Davidson

Grief is a multidimensional response to loss, said Davidson, and maternal grief is one of the most intense forms of grief that is complex, fluctuating and manifests itself in various ways both psychologically and physically with grievers experiencing withdrawal from society, anger, anxiety, loss of concentration, loss of self-identity, loss of hope, loss of routine, short-term memory loss, exhaustion, insomnia and high blood pressure.

Unfortunately, death is a taboo subject in today’s society. People do not want to talk about it and those who have not experienced maternal grief – even medical professionals trying to “fix” those in grief – expect bereaved mothers to “get over” their loss at some point. They don’t seem to realize the damage that does to the griever when her grief is not validated.

Even those who try to console the griever can inadvertently do harm by saying things like, “I know how you feel,” when in reality they don’t, or they cite the death of an elderly relative or a pet, but those are not the same. Judgment is also unwelcome and unhelpful. Telling someone “You should…” or it’s time to “move on” or saying “It was for the best,” or asking, “Aren’t you over it yet?” suggest the person’s grief is not valid and demonstrates a lack of understanding that there is no time limit, nor HelenaStahlsshould there be a time limit on a mother’s grief, said Davidson.

Helena Stahls 

A common experience for bereaved mothers is the sustained lack of social acknowledgment and support. Friendships are lost, marital relationships suffer and same-sex partners often experience even less validation. Stahls described the experience of picking out her daughter’s burial outfit as one of the most painful of her life. During her grief she was so exhausted she could not get out of bed for days; she could not take part in family photos, attend family reunions or watch a bride dance with her father.

The death of her daughter Donna also meant a direct link to her grandchildren was broken. Time did not assuage her grief as anniversaries and birthdays continued to trigger her grief into the future. Family and friends no longer called, not wanting to upset her, but the silence was even more painful at a time when those personal sources of support would have been helpful. Both Stahls and Davidson mentioned the two-year mark as the most difficult because that is when the loss truly sinks in as more anniversaries and significant dates pass, whereas the first year seems surreal.

Speaking as a bereaved mother, Davidson recalled her experience at the hospital back in the 1970s where her babies were born prematurely and died shortly thereafter. She remembered being told by the hospital staff to go home and forget about it, and for years grieved in silence with no outlet for her grief and no support. Fortunately, change has taken place within the past 15 years as hospital staff is now much more aware of maternal grief and provides support, but this is not always the case in other workplaces. Many employers still expect grieving mothers to return to work within a set period. Stahls said it is common for employers to only provide three days off – an impossibly short period of time when there are funeral arrangements and an estate to deal with.

Ultimately, what bereaved mothers need are rich, personal, sustained sources of social support provided by family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances. The World Health Organization recognizes social support as a key social determinant of health. Both Stahls and Davidson emphasized that active listening with empathy and without judgment is the best way you can provide support – even to simply say, “I’m sorry.”

Both speakers said it is crucial to:

  • Validate the griever’s grief, recognizing that grieving persons are vulnerable;
  • Acknowledge their experience as more painful than you can imagine and that they will never “get over it” or just “get on with it”;
  • Listen and look (at their pictures and mementos);
  • Learn from their experience;
  • Identify their child/loved one by name and speak of them often;
  • Provide support, such as running errands, attending to other children or helping in the home which can assist both physically and emotionally;
  • Allow them anger, envy, tears and time;
  • Allow them to talk and talk and talk – let them direct the conversation;
  • and educate others.

During the Q&A session that followed the presentations, an audience member asked about the impact of cultural differences on grieving mothers, citing cultures where certain traditional expressions of grief are followed. Davidson replied that this is an area that merits further study, but the key for all grieving mothers is that the woman has to have authority over her own grief, not have it imposed by others.

A grieving parent always worries that their child will be forgotten, said Stahls. To keep the memory alive of her daughter Donna, who suffered from depression and Crohn’s disease, Stahls established Just gotta Skate, an annual fundraiser now in its 12th year, which has raised more than $100,000 for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of Canada. Since 2001, she has volunteered at Bereaved Families of Ontario and at the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of Canada. In November 2012, Stahls was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in recognition of her volunteer and fundraising work.

For more information, visit the Office of Echo’s Chair in Women’s Mental Health Research website.

For more information about the 2012-2013 Women’s Health & Mental Wellbeing Speakers Series, click here.