Remembering our mothers who have died


By Kathy Berken
On Deck

It has been 50 years this month since my mother, Isabelle Marie Greif, died from a second bout of breast cancer on May 20, 1974 at the age of 66. I was only 24. We had just celebrated her last birthday on May 8 and her last Mother’s Day on May 12. I wrote a few stories about her in this space 11 years ago, about how she brought me home through her everyday acts of kindness, generosity, simplicity and humor.

Although neither of my children knew their grandma, my daughter and her husband named their daughter in her memory and so I created a scrapbook for Izzy with every photo I could find of my mom. I often remind Izzy about her great-grandma Isabelle through those pictures and stories. One day after telling her about her great-grandma’s humor, generosity and kindness, Izzy said, “She was a super hero!” She sure was, although that was the first time anyone ever called her that, so I have now added “Super Hero” to a long list of other attributes.

When someone we love dies, we want to remember that person in the best possible light. Isn’t that what the followers of Jesus did after his death? The disciple Paul never met the man and yet his letters are filled with praise for Jesus. The people who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus discussed with “the stranger” all the good things he did, so they could remember him. In my favorite scene in all of Scripture, they recognized him later when they broke bread together. We remember Jesus at Eucharist in the breaking of the bread.


I wonder how Jesus would have remembered his mother if he had outlived her? Jesus likely would have given her Super Hero qualities, such as loving, prayerful, patient, kind, generous, understanding, compassionate, forgiving, humble, faithful and wise. I imagine stories he might have told, such as going fishing with his mother or catching her as she was about to fall out of the boat. He would have recalled the time she and Joseph went looking for him and found him preaching in the Temple, a story that would have elicited knowing smiles and nods from his friends because they understood his mother’s concern and also his desire to do God’s will.

We look to Mary as a model of motherhood but, sadly, far too many people will never remember their mothers as having superhero virtues.  Although I would never have traded my mother for someone else who might have lived longer, I’m painfully aware that some adult children would have gladly traded places with me.

How do you remember a mother who was not a model parent, someone whose death caused a private sigh of relief rather than the expected sigh of grief?  When you tell me you don’t want to remember anything about her because your experience was so traumatic, my heart breaks. When you believe that the hole in your heart will never heal and you feel pressured to pretend to keep up with a social norm of placing mothers on an unreachable pedestal, I pray that you may find peace.

In this month of Mother’s Day, I pray for all of us whose mothers have died, that we may find goodness and joy in our lives because of or maybe in spite of our mothers. May we trust in God’s immeasurable mercy that goes beyond all human understanding that our mothers have returned to their Creator and are resting peacefully in the arms of love.

(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton  — The Arch from 1999-2009.)

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