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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer

Motherless Mother’s Day: Honoring your Loved One on Holidays

By Olivia Smith

Content warning: death and dying

Grief comes in waves, and the waves can get bigger around important dates. I am still in my first year of “firsts” after the loss of my mother, and a lot of important dates in my life were overshadowed by her cancer diagnosis and death. 

Two days before my wedding ceremony in Italy, my mom’s husband pulled me aside and told me that they thought she had cancer again. He said there was a rash on her breast and it was swollen, and she was having back pain. I was angry because I was supposed to be excited about getting married and now I was focused on this heavy news, something in me knowing we were facing heavy news soon.

Olivia at her wedding ceremony in Italy with her mom, Michelle, and sister, Stephanie.

About two weeks after the wedding/honeymoon trip, I was preparing for our casual post-wedding celebration back home when my mom asked my sister and I to join her on a three-way call and told us that she had breast cancer again. She didn’t have all of the information yet besides it was inflammatory breast cancer, which starts minimally at stage 3 because it’s already in the skin. She told us it wasn’t a death sentence, that she would fight it, and would tell us once she got results back from further testing and had more information. 

A few days later, just as my in-laws were walking in my front door, I received a text from her with the full news; it was stage 4 – metastatic – and had already spread to some spots in her bones. This was not the news we were hoping for, yet I had to put a smile on my face and host my guests who came to celebrate me at a party I really didn’t even want to have.

My mom tried her hardest over the next ten months to keep the cancer at bay and continue living her life, but unfortunately, she died on August 20, 2023, after the cancer spread to her liver and caused it to shut down. On August 20 of the prior year, my husband and I got legally married in our home state of South Carolina before our wedding abroad.

My mom wanted to be cremated after her death, and we honored that wish. Her ashes were ready to be picked up and brought home on September 5, 2023 – my husband’s and my first wedding anniversary. My mom always loved to be the center of attention, so although it was fitting (and a little humorous) for her to continue the trend of overshadowing any event surrounding my wedding and first year of marriage, it made things difficult.

The first year of marriage is supposed to be a giddy, lustful year full of love and happiness. That was not my experience. While I am so thankful for my husband’s continued support and understanding, I was not a happy, fun wife for our first year of marriage. I was stressed, sad, worried, and grieving the inevitable loss of my mom along a roller coaster of emotions that went with her cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Our first anniversary was supposed to be spent in Hawaii enjoying some rest and fun together, but we canceled it as it was just under two weeks after her death. I am so incredibly thankful my mom was able to attend our wedding and will cherish those memories forever. However, our anniversary will now forever be overshadowed by watching my mother die, not simply our dreamy Italian wedding ceremony and honeymoon. 

I hope to be able to honor both events each year. Death and grief are difficult, but as difficult as they can be, finding ways to honor them can be so fulfilling and healing, too. Honoring a loved one can look different for everyone, but I truly believe it’s important to be present in your grief, even though it comes with pain. Some people honor their loved ones by visiting their grave site on holidays and bringing flowers or other items that their loved ones loved. I don’t believe there is a “wrong” way to do it, but I will let you know some of the ways I have found that have worked for me.

My sister, Stephanie, and I enjoy coping through dark humor. It’s common to talk about the best parts of a person when they’re gone or glamorize them in a sense. But sometimes we laugh about, “What would mom really think about this?” or “What would she actually say?”

We created a TikTok that made us laugh so hard, “touring” our mom around my sister’s new house and commenting on what we think she would’ve thought about it. For example, we included things like “She loved the front door – orange was her favorite color” and “She loved the dining room, tons of natural lighting.” But we also included comments like, “Here is the mantel she will stay on to judge my sister’s life choices, starting with wondering why she is sitting next to the sage and other spirit-cleansing agents,” and “Here is where she would rather stay (on the top of the stairs in the foyer) so everyone could see her when they walked in; she always loved being the center of attention.” We were cracking up and had such a great time “spending time” with our mom again.

I have created a few other funny and more serious TikToks remembering my mom, some with my sister and some without. It has been a fun outlet to connect with others who have experienced loss in a more light-hearted way while keeping my mom’s personality alive.

I have also done a few small things to honor her on different dates, like unique nails with different designs of some of her favorite things (leopard print, mascara, her motorcycle club saying, boobs, etc. for her celebration of life and her birthday. It brought me joy to look down at my hands (which look just like hers did – strong genetics) during tough dates and seeing some of her favorite things. The nails were also useful as a talking point with people who were uncomfortable broaching the subject.

I spent her birthday in Washington D.C., prior to a work trip. I decided to go shopping at T.J. Maxx in her honor because we loved shopping there together, and I miss those trips so much. I found a cute sundress in her favorite color I had to buy. After that, I spent some time walking by the waterfront and trying to be present and remember my mom on her birthday, even though it hurt a little bit. I sat and enjoyed the sunshine and breeze and sound of the water and let myself feel what came up. That evening I enjoyed a delicious dinner and glass of rosé with a colleague turned friend, and we cheered to my mom. 

With Mother’s Day coming up, I haven’t been sure how I want to spend it. The emails start coming early with gift ideas for your mom. (Some of them will have an email beforehand offering an opt-out option for those who have a difficult time with the holiday. This is a newer option that seems to be becoming more prevalent for certain holidays, which I appreciate.)

One email caught my eye from the spa where I get massages: a two-hour Mother’s Day massage special including extra treatments. I joked about getting it as a treat to myself for my first “I don’t have a Mom’s Day.” Then, I joked to my friends, asking if I should get it for said holiday. They all said different versions of YES, so I did it. I will be spending time near Mother’s Day relaxing and treating myself to a massage. We all deserve self-care, plus the body stores emotions such as grief that can cause physical pain, which a massage can alleviate. I think it will be a great way to pour back into myself while remembering my mom, and I know she would approve of it.

For some of the bigger holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, I was able to prepare myself further in advance for what could come up, which I think helped me on the day of. I was prepared for the feelings that could come up so I wasn’t caught off guard. They were still difficult, but the mental preparation and grace I gave myself helped me get through it.

The hardest day so far was such an unexpected one. It was about two and a half months after my mom passed, and I was a bridesmaid in my sister-in-law’s wedding party. I didn’t expect any emotions to come up, which I think contributed to how difficult it was for me. The day started out fine with typical wedding party things, getting ready with the bride and bridal party and helping ensure things were going smoothly. Weddings are such a beautiful time with so many special moments between the bride and others. The last wedding I attended prior to this one was my own, which of course, was tied to so many moments of my mom’s diagnosis and death, which likely increased my emotions. 

Watching my sister-in-law and mother-in-law have so many special moments together on that day made me so happy. I wish I could go back to my wedding day and do things differently with my mom, and make more memories like they were making. I love seeing moms and daughters bonding and enjoying time together even more now that I’m unable to do so. However, witnessing all those beautiful moments between mother and daughter on such a special day reminded me that I would never have special moments like that with my mom anymore, and really amplified my loss and grief. I sat with my husband at the dinner table, unable to hold back my pain and tears of grief anymore, and against my will, tears came. I tried my best to stop it and put a smile on my face. It was such a beautiful day and wedding, and not about me, but I hadn’t prepared myself for the feelings that could come up at a time like this, so it took me by surprise.

I am no expert in how to handle holidays without a mom after loss; I am still fairly new to this. I miss going to visit her on holidays or picking out just the right gift for her. I loved getting her sentimental gifts that I knew she would treasure, or getting her something she not-so-subtly told me she wished she could have. Gift-giving is my most prominent love language, so it’s something I have missed. However, I think sometimes it is all about mindset. Being sad, angry, and grief-filled is completely okay and expected. But just because you can’t still spend time with your loved one physically or send them gifts doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish that in other ways. 

Here are a few ways to consider honoring your loved one after loss:

  • Bring them flowers/gifts to a cemetery plot

  • Pour out a drink for them (or enjoy their favorite – doesn’t have to be alcohol)

  • Treat yourself to something that reminds you of them

  • Visit a place you enjoyed together (or their favorite place)

  • Cook a meal they liked (or one you have fond memories of making together)

  • Create a funny video about how you wish you could spend the day with them

  • Do their favorite activity

  • Sit at home and think of them

  • Create a craft that reminds you of them

  • Talk about them with someone you love

  • Go for a walk in nature and appreciate the sounds, sights, and scents

  • Look at photos/videos of them

  • Engage in a self-care activity

Olivia and her mom, Michelle, in Michelle’s beloved convertible.

All this to say, I don’t believe there is a right or wrong way to spend those difficult dates or holidays, but the most healing way is to remember them, think about them, and let yourself feel the emotions that come up. Many say that grief is all your love with nowhere to go. Give yourself some grace for how heavy this feeling may be, and be proud of yourself for getting through another hard day after loss. Different holidays or dates have hit me in different ways, and there are many more to come.

If you are searching for someone who understands or have questions, feel free to reach out to me at @gingers_breasties on Instagram or at

Read More:

On the Podcast: Breast Cancer Conversations

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