My mother was an artist, and I spent a lot of my childhood watching her paint. I remember playing on the floor while she painstakingly painted something new. Sometimes she would take a finished painting and cut it up. Weeks later, I would spot fragments of it in an entirely new piece of hers. My family joked, “don’t get too attached to any one painting of Mom’s—it’ll be a different painting next week.” As a child, I never understood her roundabout way of creating. She was never satisfied with just making art. She had to make it, unmake it, and make something new.
On Christmas Day 2013, my mom died of lung cancer. I was 16. I felt like I was trapped in a thick fog of grief all winter—I couldn’t even open my mouth without breathing in the fact of my mother’s absence. As the months went by, the fog started to clear. And then, just as I felt like I could breathe again, it was Mother’s Day.
I couldn’t escape from Mother’s Day. The signs were all around me—in the greeting-card aisle at the grocery store, on social media, and even in spam emails telling me about “discounts on lotion for mom.” I was embarrassed that it bothered me. “It’s been five whole months,” I thought. “This grief isn’t new anymore. Shouldn’t you be used to it by now?”
It feels like there is very little space for motherless daughters on Mother’s Day. We get squeezed into a tiny corner, and we’re not supposed to come out until we have “moved on.” Motherless daughters have to make a choice. Do we give ourselves time to grieve, and get squeezed into that corner? Or do we give ourselves space to live our lives, and get rushed through grief?
In my heart, I wanted both space and time. I wanted living and grieving to be parallel processes. I didn’t want to choose between them.
I found that the one place I didn’t feel like I had to make the choice was at a Mother’s Day weekend retreat hosted by empowerHER, where girls without moms gather to do yoga, create art, and just appreciate each other’s company.
My favorite parts of the retreat are the quiet moments. Last year, I found a moment like this as I watched a girl braid her friend’s hair. She finished the braid, let it hang for a moment, and then undid it and started to braid again.
My mind wandered to Penelope in Homer’s “The Odyssey.” She has one of the bravest stories of grief that I know. Penelope’s husband goes off to war and presumably dies, and the people in her town urge her to pick a new husband and move on. She knows she doesn’t have time to mourn, but she’s not ready to move on. Working at her loom, she makes a promise—when she is finished weaving, she will stop mourning and remarry. So every night, she sneaks to her loom and undoes the weaving of the day.
To the townspeople, it looked like Penelope was stuck in her grief. But I believe Penelope knew exactly what she was doing. She was making time. She created, uncreated, and created again—working and reworking her grief in the loom.
The girls and their hair-braiding reminded me that we all have moments when we need to make our own time. Grief is an uncomfortable topic. Too often, society encourages rushing and brushing off uncomfortable topics. We tend to like things orderly, but grief is not a linear process. It is the weaving and unweaving of feelings and stories. And then, weaving them again.
It’s been four and a half years since my mother’s death. There are still days when I need to make time, just like Penelope does. I started college this year, and almost every professor’s syllabus says the same thing, “extensions for assignments may be given in cases of emergency, illness, or family death.” As I flipped through syllabi, I wondered whether there was an expiration date for family death situations. “I know it’s been four years,” I joked to a friend, “but do you think I could still get away with asking, ‘my mother died, may I turn in this essay late?’”
Mother’s Day is still hard. But now, with the help of resources like the empowerHER retreat, I have the time and the space to make meaning of the day. I’m not rushing or brushing off, and I’m not stuck in a tiny corner. I can braid and unbraid, weave and unweave, and paint and unpaint—just like my mom.
Eva Bloche is a student and future clinical mental health counselor at Lesley University. After losing her mother to lung cancer at the age of sixteen, Eva has become a passionate advocate for open and honest conversations about grief. Whether as a student, a counselor, a writer, or as part of her work with empowerHER, Eva strives to create safe, engaging community spaces.