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Facing Mother’s Day after the death of a child

(Phil Mansfield Photography)

I don’t feel much like celebrating Mother’s Day this year. My 15-year-old daughter died 51 days ago, after being plagued by a rare, relentless form of cancer for five years. I’m not sure what the celebration is supposed to look like when I failed at my main task as a mother: Seeing my child safely to adulthood.

I realize that attributing the death of my child to my own failure is irrational. I understand that guilt and blame won’t bring her back, that we tried valiantly to cure her with treatments that ranged from a liver transplant to chemotherapy to radiation. I know cancer kills children every day. But she wasn’t a statistic. She was my child, and I couldn’t save her.

I couldn’t save her.

I know other mothers who’ve lost children, and they’ve tried to prepare me for how unbearable this Hallmark holiday can be, how your very identity as a mother is shaken and upended when your child dies. We’re a dismal, heartbroken club of kindred spirits. We share the pain of empty, quiet rooms that hold the remnants of our children’s lives — keepsakes that remain long after our dear ones have gone.

How can I celebrate this day? How can I celebrate myself? Every day I open the door to my daughter’s room, sit on her tidy bed and wonder how any of this is real. How is it possible that all I have left is her collection of albums, stones and crystals, and her closet full of untouched clothes? How long will they serve as proof that she was here on this Earth, that she was real?

As the days go by, my daughter’s proximity to me fades, the reality of her absence becomes more concrete. This would be okay if it were because she had graduated high school, gone off to college and started her life, but that’s not what happened. She stopped existing at 15. She stopped.

I don’t know how to celebrate Mother’s Day without the consolation prize given all mothers — that our babies are gone, but we have laughing toddlers in exchange, that our toddlers are gone, but we have curious, bright-eyed preschoolers in their place, that the messy, carefree days of preschool meld into the primary years, when interests and personalities emerge and blossom, giving us teenagers who are whole, unique people. The fact that our kids grow up into actual people distracts us from the pain of their fading childhood. Except, of course, if they don’t grow up.

I am two mothers now — the mother you see walking beside my remaining daughter in the all-too-real world of chores and homework and trivial things and the mother you don’t see — the mother bereft, imagining that my daughter is two steps behind me, just out of sight.

There are too many mothers like me, rushing here and there, pretending we’re fully in one world when, really, we’re in two.

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I look whole and normal, but deep inside there’s an emptiness where my heart used to be. I can’t walk with my surviving daughter without imagining the shadow of her sister right beside us, rolling her eyes, glancing at her phone.

I wish I could go back to when my kids were 9 and 6, when Mother’s Day was about hand-drawn cards and breakfast in bed. I can almost smell the burned toast, taste the mint tea. Dwelling on the past is the only thing that allows me to feel something other than numbness and despair. The others who walk this path of intense grief tell me it gets better. Eventually, I’ll start feeling what I’m supposed to feel. I’ll move more fully into the world of living children. Until then, I’m as much a part of my dead daughter’s world as I am my living daughter’s.

But what if I don’t want that to happen? What if time erases the only thing I have left of my daughter, dulling the edges of her face in my mind’s eye like a faded photograph? Living this quiet pain is how I feel closest to her right now.

Two years ago each of my girls bought me a tree for Mother’s Day — a magnolia and a dogwood. It’s the only Mother’s Day gift I remember clearly. The trees are small but thriving. Each year they grow a little bigger, acting as living reminders that I had two daughters, not one.

I guess Mother’s Day is just a day, not unlike the day that came before it or the day that follows. Realizing this somehow makes it okay that I can’t celebrate this year. The holidays we cherish are as real as we make them, just like our lives, just like the titles we give ourselves. My daughter isn’t here anymore, but that doesn’t make me any less her mother. Since she’s died, I’ve been afraid of losing that, losing the last little bit of her that I’ve been clinging to.

There will be more painful days to come — her birthday, Father’s Day, Christmas, a first day of school she won’t get to attend and on and on. I’ll need to reconcile her absence on these days so I can be present for my remaining child. Somehow, I must figure out how to forge a new connection with my daughter now that she’s no longer here.

The mothers that walk with me in grief tell me it’s hard to face all of these milestones in the first year, but it’s even harder in the second. That’s when the reality of my child’s absence will finally feel real. I believe them because I can sense it’s coming. I dread the full weight of time and distance that will inevitably make her absence a solid thing, final and irreversible. Even so, I hope I can find my joy on Mother’s Day again, if not this year, then next.

Dooley blogs about her daughter at

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