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Marking Mother’s Day After Mother Is Gone
Mon, 05/05/2014 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

82 Ways to Tell Mom You Love Her.” “Don’t Forget about Mom!” “Tell Your Mother You Love Her.” “Make Sure Mom Gets the Message.”

This year, the first of about a thousand emails reminding me to call, appreciate and buy stuff for my mother on Mother’s Day arrived on April 7, more than a full month before the holiday itself (May 11). But for those of us who have lost our mothers, this holiday presents an onslaught of media messages that taunt, provoke and wound as they urge us to reach out to someone we can no longer touch.

For me, it’s been three years; I’m a junior at Loss University — experienced enough to feel steadier, but there is no graduation day to work toward. Starting with Passover, the calendar is an annual emotional minefield; commemorations of holidays are shaded by other associations, extending through her May 1 birthday, and to Mother’s Day and Israel Independence Day. This time period ensnares with its complex, wildly variant emotional responses; especially this year, when the week that begins with Israel’s Day of Remembrance ends with my mother’s yahrtzeit and Mother’s Day in a 48-hour timespan. Without my mother, and not a mother myself, Mother’s Day contributes to this month of emotional intensity.

My mother is on my mind a lot — so much so that I could light a yahrtzeit candle every day from the end of Passover through Lag b’Omer (her Hebrew birthday). But yahrtzeit candle or no yahrtzeit candle, my mother’s memory and intonations echo, and allow me to “visit” with her patient wisdom and sharp-edged humor. In dreams, she appears stronger than her illnesses left her in the last years of her life. She issues reassurances and sometimes lays Jewish mother guilt on me for my choices. In some ways, she’s become part of my subconscious; in other ways, I become aware that she always has been.

I feel like her delegate at family affairs, that my presence in the lives of my amazing nephews and nieces is surrogate for hers. My youngest, newest niece — now 4 months old — is named for her. Holding her — at her Simchat Bat in public, and in her home for more quiet moments — has been remarkably powerful.

There are other mothers to celebrate, of course. My sisters-in-law who are working with my brothers to raise those aforementioned nieces and nephews. My friends who have bravely separated the search for a partner and the road to motherhood, and now have children — biological and adopted — on their own. The dozens of friends whose children are beginning to reach major milestones: bar and bat mitzvah, high school graduation or — in Israel — army service. And the mothers who struggle with challenges ranging from learning differences to autism, from illness to loss. I honor them as individuals and as mothers who are in my life. But none of that erases the ache of my mother’s absence.

During this Hallmark holiday, I’m developing my own rituals. I’ll light a yahrtzeit candle (and then again for Shavuot) because the light reminds me simultaneously of my mother’s absence and presence — altered, but still real. I’ll clean my closet, which my mother would certainly have considered a Mother’s Day present (and perhaps a minor miracle). I’ll continue to wear her jewelry.  And I’ll keep writing, in memory of my mother the writer, who — even as her typing strength waned — wrote a partly autobiographical book that she referred to, in her writing process, as “visiting with my parents.” She gave me that phrase, and in so doing, set up a symbolic context for me to visit with her now that she’s gone.

Some of us will try to forget this day, and others will search out new ways to honor and remember our mothers, and perhaps even to celebrate — albeit somewhat more mutedly — their impact on our lives. Whatever we do to remember — writing, spending time with children, or acknowledging supportive influences around us — continues their act of creation. Their words and energy live beyond their lifetimes when we acknowledge the debts we owe them for decades spent raising us. Even if our relationships with them were sometimes complicated, as we birth our own creativity in any of its forms, we connect to the mothers who brought us into the world (and sustained us, and brought us to this season, to invoke the Shehecheyanu, a blessing of gratitude).

American culture reminds us to remember them on Mother’s Day, mostly through celebratory sales and elaborate floral arrangements. But we don’t need the reminders, because we keep them with us, always.

Esther D. Kustanowitz, a former Table for One singles columnist for The Jewish Week, is a writer based in Los Angeles. She is currently writing “Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): A Guide to Loss and What Comes After,” and blogs at

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We should honor our mothers 365 days/year, not just on this Hallmark manufactured day and that's what's most important. My heart goes out to everyone for their loss.
I am even more resentful of upcoming Father's Day as there are so many that can't even claim a "father". My own blessed child is the result of door insemination and has had to explain her roots for the last 20 years.

I just wanted to send you a quick note thanking you for your very insightful article. I wish I had received my copy of last weeks the Jewish Week before the weekend because I would have used it in some of my public remarks over the past few days. I am the current President of the Jericho Jewish Center (Jericho, New York) and in that capacity made remarks to the congregation at both a UJA event last Thursday evening and after Shabbat services this past weekend. Each of those comments were not only influenced by Mother's Day, but by the fact that it also happened to coincide exactly with my mothers Yahrzeit. Without your objection, I will certainly put this article to the side and use it next year when formulating similar remarks.
I am certain that your mother would be very proud of you for not only remembering her the way you do, but for reaching out to other people to assist them in remembering their mothers in such a positive way also.
המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים
May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

I'd be honored, Mark. Thanks for your words of appreciation and about my mother - I was very lucky to have had her inspire me while she was here, and her memory inspires me to this day. Sending you words of comfort as well...

Esther , Thank you so much for your beautiful and comforting article. I am in my "freshman year" @ Loss U (my amazing moms 1st Yahrtzeit is this summer). I am not a mother myself as well, so I can relate to the emotional intensity. I wish you much happiness and blessings !

Beautifully written.
Thankfully Mother's Day has no meaning for me since in England it is very connected to Christianity so we never marked it. There are plenty other days in the year to get through as you say. The fact is though, it isn't so much the special days as events at which she is missing and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren who never knew her and who she would have loved so much. It's also the little moments, like when your friend's mother calls her and you know that they speak every day, or when a friend talks of problems with her mum and you wish you could have those problems since then you would have a mum.
You learn to live with this and it stops being a raw wound, but you don't get over it and you don't stop mIssing your mum.

My mother died on Wednesday at 92. Funeral was today. Had to cancel brunch we had planned for Sunday...very sad.

Really sorry to hear of your loss, Lynne. May your family and community provide you with the comfort and support you need...

I lost my mom 8 years ago and I still want to pick up the phone to tell her the good, funny or sad news! Her legacy is the importance and love of family and so I continue to keep those connections with all the generations. When she died I became the "front line" and I take that role very seriously. She was ahead of her time in many ways and continues to be an inspiration. There is a sadness with all holidays when loved ones are gone, but what wonderful memories and what a great opportunity to build new memories!

The concept of the "front line" really resonated with me, as did the familiarity of the impulse to call, share, ask for advice, etc. Focusing on the memories and how their wisdom informs you moving forward is a great approach. :) Thanks for commenting....

I was very moved by your article. I lost my mother 16 1/2 years ago, and miss her everyday. I have five grandchildren myself now, and with the birth of each new one, I "tell" my mother and father about them. My mother lost her own mother when she was just a year or two older than you are, and I can't even imagine that. Good luck to you.

Thanks for your comment, Bonnie. I talk to my mom, too, when it feels organic to do so and something's important, like the arrival of a new family person. :) Wishing you much nachas from the grandchildren, and the opportunity to "tell your parents" about them as they do great things.

Thank you all so much for reading and commenting - I appreciate your stories and hope that the memories of those we've lost will always be for a blessing and inspiration.

This piece is so moving and beautifully written. I love how your honor yourself and your mother simultaneously. As someone who has suffered many close losses, I can assure you that although gratefully for me the pain and agony has dimmed, the comfort and inspiration from memories has only become more potent and powerful. I am wishing the same for you!

Much appreciation from a fellow junior in the Loss Academy.

I very much like the idea of creating and having your own rituals.

This is my 52nd Mother's day without my mother. There are so many things I would have wanted to say to her. She was only 43 and I 19. Now past 70+ she missed out on my children and her great grandkids.

I experienced my first mother-less Mother's Day right before my mother's first yartzeit. I was invited to an event which helped me to cope with the day and turned it into a very positive experience. UJA funds a beautiful, kosher group home for disabled women in Westchester and a group of women and I cooked dinner for the residents, brought them flowering plants, and listened to a speech by one of their mothers explaining how much peace and happiness the group home brought to her daughter and family. It was very uplifting and I hope that UJA will repeat the event. There are other volunteer events such as luncheons for elderly women who have no visitors, that can similarly transform the day for motherless people.

Thank you for this tender, meaningful post. I could really relate to a lot of what you said. This is my first Mother's Day since my mom died. Using your terminology, that makes me a Freshman. I like your analogy.