Holidays like Mother's Day aren't celebratory for everyone — and for many people, they can be a particularly painful time of year.
That can be true for those who are grieving the loss of loved ones, are estranged from family members or facing fertility issues, among other circumstances.
And the weeks leading up to Mother's Day can be especially fraught with reminders urging people to shop and celebrate. A growing number of companies are offering subscribers the chance to opt out of such marketing emails, a trend seemingly accelerated by the grief wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
"Mothers' Day is for many people the mother of all trigger days with regard to Hallmark holidays, because it's seemingly the one day of the year that every single company on Earth ... is screaming at you that Mother's Day is coming up," says Rebecca Soffer.
Soffer is the co-founder of the Modern Loss community and author of The Modern Loss Handbook: An Interactive Guide to Moving Through Grief and Building Your Resilience, out May 17.
She finds Mother's Day and Father's Day to be bittersweet — she lost both of her parents when she was in her 30s but now has children of her own. And she recognizes that living with loss is personal: People can struggle with these holidays for all sorts of reasons, she says, and their mindset and coping strategies may vary year to year.
"I want to make it clear to anybody that if it feels like a trigger for you then it really is, and it's worth sitting with and honoring and examining and figuring out what you can do to make yourself feel better," Soffer says.
Here are some of her suggestions for navigating a tough day and supporting loved ones who may be struggling, too.
Give yourself permission to make — and cancel — plans
Soffer says she personally likes to make plans for such occasions in advance, whether they're social or solitary. But she also gives herself full permission to call them off if she's not feeling up to it when the day arrives.
She encourages others to do the same, with no apologies necessary.
"No one can ever anticipate fully how they're going to feel when a day actually comes or an event actually comes," she adds. "And you need to be kind to yourself and let the day be the day."
That said, Soffer notes there are certain things you can do to plan ahead for the holiday, like managing your social media intake and unsubscribing from those marketing emails.
But she also stresses that every year will feel different, and encourages people to take it one day at a time.
"If this time is really, really hard, I promise you that that doesn't mean that every single time, without fail, is going to be that level of hard," Soffer says, adding that some years will be more emotionally charged than others. "Don't worry yourself with wondering how you're going to get through every single one of these days for the rest of your life. Just get through this one, and make it to Monday."
Do something for yourself — and maybe a loved one or even a stranger
When it comes to the day itself, Soffer's advice is to "think about where you're at emotionally in the moment, and try to make a plan around it."
There are many different ways to make Mother's Day and Father's Day bearable and even meaningful, she says.
For example: If gratitude and gift-giving are important to you, you can still buy a nice present and write a card for yourself, or donate a gift to someone else (especially if they are also grieving, or play an important role in your life).
The Modern Loss movement that Soffer helped create does a gift swap on Mother's Day and other occasions, in which people who find the holiday triggering can sign up to be matched with another person, with whom they'll exchange cards or presents.
People can set up similar swaps of their own with friends either in person or using social media, Soffer says.
"Living with loss is always so hard, but when you feel like you're not the only one living with loss in your life, and you feel like you have somebody who is giving you an ongoing invitation to talk about this stuff whenever you need to, that's when you can feel even just a little bit less alone," she says.
Another way to mark the holiday is by asking people — on social media or over email, for example — to share memories and anecdotes of your loved one so that you can learn new things about them.
You can also bake your loved one a cake or cook their favorite meal, which Soffer says is an especially great way to get kids involved, pass down stories and celebrate the person.
You might also want to do something in this person's name, like performing an act of kindness, such as volunteering, in their honor.
What to say to a grieving friend or colleague
Perhaps you want to let a friend know that you're thinking of them on these holidays, but are worried about bringing up something upsetting.
Soffer believes that it's better to reach out than let their loss be the elephant in the room. She says even if this person doesn't want to talk, they'll remember that you showed up for them.
So what exactly should that text say?
Soffer suggests acknowledging that the day might be hard, telling them they're in your thoughts and letting them know you're here to talk, to listen, to drink or whatever they may need. The closer you are to someone, the more specific your offer can be.
If they want to talk, you could ask them whether there are memories or a specific story they would like to share about that person.
If they don't, and if you're really not sure what to say, Soffer says you could always lead with that.
"The easiest thing to say is 'I wish I knew the perfect thing to say, and I don't ... but I really care about you, and I'm so upset that you have to go through this. And I'm here,' " she adds. "Make it clear that you're not scared off by this stuff, you're not going anywhere. And that's what people need, more than anything."