Women and grief: Wives, mothers, sisters, daughters

Today is International Women’s Day and in another week it will be Mothering Sunday in the UK. In recognition, this post is dedicated to the particular issues that many women face as they grieve. I write this as a bereaved mother, sister and daughter.


Woman at work – an artisan who evidently takes pleasure in her tasks. When she isn’t painting, she is producing and selling the local speciality sweets. Picture taken January 2018 in Gerispokou, Cyprus.

When a baby is born, a mother has already had 9 months of close relationship – as close as it is possible to be, as our child lived inside of us. From the first hormonal changes of pregnancy, through our changing body shape, perhaps morning sickness or piles or any of the other physical consequences of the life growing within us, on through to the experience of childbirth, our baby has already had a massive impact on our lives.

The symbiosis of mother and baby is quite amazing when you think of it. Our baby was part of us. We’re not chickens who lay eggs or fish who lay multitudes of spawn. We carry the baby inside.

Our instinct is to nurture, to protect. Even without thinking, a pregnant woman may place a protective hand over her baby bump if she’s in a crowd.

A baby who does not survive until birth or is born sleeping (stillborn) is mourned by her mother to an extent that other people might not realise. It was worse in years gone by, as many older women can attest, but society has now progressed and there is more acknowledgement and support for this type of loss.

The instinct to protect, to nurture, to love and care for our baby continues after birth, often now with the involvement of others such as our partner. The “bump” is no longer inside of us, but on occasion held and soothed by other arms.

And so this individual unique life, with its tiny beginning, grows and matures, and in time he or she walks and talks, goes to school, grows up. There is a child, there is a teenager, there is a young adult, there is an older adult. At least, that’s the way it is supposed to be, but it doesn’t always work out like that.

Losing a child of any age is devastating for the parent and is widely acknowledged as one of the most difficult losses to cope with. It shatters your life. (For more, see: A story that is sad but true: The painful path of the bereaved parent. For a poignant fictional account of the impact of the death of a child, see A Song for Issie Bradley.)

If, as a mother, you have experienced the death of your only child or all of your children (sadly I am in this category), one of the hard things to figure out is your identity now. You are still a mother, but who do you ‘mother’?

Struggling to find our identity

The issue of identity also comes up in other contexts. It is the often case that women have the necessary caring roles within a family. (I won’t comment here on the reasons.) Caring for an aging or infirm parent is but one example.

If and when the person who has been cared for dies, what does the carer then do? How does she figure out the way forward, when until now the main focus of her days has been the care needed for the loved one?

For many widows, the last years of their husband’s or partner’s life might have seen them take on a caring role. But whether that was the case or not, a woman who has spent 30, 40, 50 or 60 years living side-by-side and now finds herself alone is going through a massive change.

Massive change is an understatement. I’ve met quite a few widows who have never lived alone before. From their parent’s home perhaps they went to university, living in dorms. They married, they had children, the children have grown up and left, and now their husband has died. For the first time, they wake up to an empty house. They come home from shopping to an empty house. They go to sleep in an empty room.

This is a change on many levels and that’s before we think about the emotional impact of their loss. Quite simply, there is heartbreak. (For more on this, see: One step at a time; life and grief after the loss of a partner.)

We are all individuals and have our own ways of coping with life’s difficulties. Many – but not all – women tend to be “intuitive grievers”, which means we need to find a way to express ourselves. We will often show our emotions and benefit from finding people to talk with.

Without delving into all of the reasons, it now starts to make sense that traditional church services on a Sunday morning and many charity or volunteer events are largely populated by women. Circumstances have changed, but women are still caring, still communicating, still interacting with others.

I hope if you are a woman reading this who is grieving or struggling in any way, that you will find some ways to take care of yourself today. If you need to talk, you will find someone to talk with. That you will give yourself a bit of self-pampering and love. Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself.

It’s “our” day today, yes, but it’s also our day every day.

More on this topic, from a Christian perspective:

I am not alone amongst bereaved mothers to have discovered there is something about Mary, mother of Jesus, that has become more real since the death of our child or children. She watched her son’s life unfold in its unique way, and then she was witness to his agonising death.

For many years of my Christian experience (I became a Christian as a teenager), I couldn’t relate to the statues and pictures of Mary with her infant child. After all, Jesus was an adult when he died. But now I see it differently. No matter the age of the child we grieve, he or she is always our ‘baby’.

Mary gently holding her baby; Mary weeping for her son. This is a picture of a mother’s love. It is something very special indeed.


At the feet of the sorrowful mother (in a church somewhere in the Isle of Wight)



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