Coping without Mama on Mother’s Day: Writing your Way Out

By Dominique Brown. Photography by Deun Ivory. 

Since losing my mama five years ago to cancer when I was 26, this time of year has become incredibly difficult. Especially as a single woman with no kids of my own yet. I look at pictures on Instagram of women and their mothers twinning beaming with pride, joy, and reflecting love back to each other like we used to do together. Much like many black women, my mother was my rock, she was the family matriarch and queen of the house. The old adage if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy definitely rang true in our family. We all worked hard to make sure mama was happy and she devoted her life to care for us. Like a lot of women, especially black women, she put other's happiness above her own, at times to her own detriment. She was ours and we were hers.

Mother’s Day used to feel like a benign holiday when we would run around the house before the Sunday morning church celebration just trying to make it on time. Then, spend the morning usually arguing about something silly at brunch. This was our fairly standard routine that in all honesty, I used to low key resent. Now, however, I would give anything to sit with her and have her remind me of all the stories she used to tell me about my grandmother, and her grandmother. All of them, women who inform so much of my own personality and physical features it is scary to look in the mirror or hear myself speak.

Now that she has left me and become one of my ancestors, her spirit brings me joy and comfort in the way her physical presence used to bring me when she was alive. Not in a supernatural way, but the memory of her. I can close eyes and lean into the warmth of her love that reminds me everything is going to be ok.

Writing has become a tool for coping with her loss. Both as a means of recording the memories we shared together and the stories she shared with me. It is where I can come to terms with the grief I still feel even now over five years later. It is how I traverse through my memories and write down the stories she told me about myself and our family, so they do not get lost. It is where I put even the smallest details of our lives down on paper so I don’t forget the nuances of our relationship. The beauty of the time we shared together on this earth.

After she passed I discovered that she had also kept a journal. It spanned decades from 1979 – 1999. It allowed me to enter into conversation with my mother at exactly the same age as myself. There were her words comforting me reminding me that God has always taken care of everything, even in the darkest times, there is a way through.

Now writing has become a way that I can still communicate with her, tell her my hopes, dreams, and ask for continued guidance. My prayers partly to ask for wisdom I know she would have to offer. She is my ancestor now, my lighthouse in the storm guiding me back to safety on solid ground. She is my inspiration to keep journeying.

If this resonates with your personal experience and you need some guidance on where to begin, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Find a quiet place and bring something of hers that might trigger important memories. Anywhere you can just think and be for a moment.

  2. Unpack memories, good, bad, or otherwise to release the trauma of the loss.

  3. Write down your pain, when it hurts, don’t block it out, let it out.

  4. Write regularly (daily, weekly, or monthly). Finding whatever routine helps you make it a regular practice and part of your life.

  5. Most importantly, write what is in your heart to write.

Essentially, there are no real rules to writing or perfect ways to cope with loss, we all grieve differently. And if you need it, seek out professional and/or community support. There is so much that can come out of sharing your grief with others. This might look like therapy or individual counseling, it could be faith based support from your spiritual or religious community, or grief support groups. There are many options available, and writing can help you to identify what you might need. If you are struggling with this particular type of loss, honor her memory this Mother’s Day by being gentle with yourself.

More and more I think about the long line of strong women who raised me, who made me who I am and without whom I could not exist. They literally gave me a piece of themselves through physical and spiritual DNA that make up the pieces that hold me together. Their voices speak to me and I hear the encouraging words of my mother, grandmother, and even great grandmother. A women I only knew through stories told to me about her. I have no knowledge or wisdom that they did not give of me. I am a product of their hopes, dreams, wishes, beauty, darkness, fears, transgressions, and faith.

Dominique is an educator and advocate who is passionate about the power of dialogue to transform us. It is her personal mission to pursue work that generates deep connection through bridge building. She believes that people not knowing each other leads to mistrust, mistrust leads to hate, and hate fuels violence. But these powerful forces can be leveraged in the reverse to foster empathy. In her student development and community work, she has seen these positive forces at play, she is now pursuing scholarly development of these ideas through doctoral research in the Educational Leadership, Culture, and Curriculum program at Miami University.