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Finding Serenity: Navigating Mother's Day Without Mom

May 13, 2024

If you are reading this, you have probably heard of the Serenity prayer in some way, shape, or form. It is most well known for its use in the addiction and recovery community. For me, though, this prayer (original writing attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr) has been part of my life since the age of 7, when my Mother died from Ovarian Cancer and this was the prayer she chose to have engraved on the back of her headstone.

Headstone of Kaela Vance's mother.
The rear side of my mother's headstone.

Mother’s Day, along with other Holiday’s have historically been harder days in my family, especially in the years following my Mom’s death. I still remember that first Mother’s day in 2nd grade when the class was working on a project to give our mom’s. “What do I do?” and Grandma was the next best choice. Although it was always hard, I knew that there were other “Moms” in my life to honor and care about. Another person we would honor, was my Father on Mother’s Day as he took on the role of both Mom and Dad, which must not have been easy. At the time, it was easy to take this for granted, but as a Mom myself now, I know how hard it is to parent, and to think about doing so after losing the love of your life, I can image this made it exponentially more difficult.

As a family that experienced the loss of someone so important in our lives, we managed to handle this loss pretty well, all things considered, due to the truly amazing support of our family, friends, and community. It is through this help and growth that I have been able to experience the depths of the Serenity Prayer first hand.

As a young child, I didn’t understand this poem as I do today. To me, it was a poem that represented the death of my Mom and that there was nothing I could do about it. To this day, you won’t find me reciting this prayer without crying (like I am right now writing this article), but it carries additional meaning and those are in the 4 virtues expressed in this prayer: Serenity, Acceptance, Courage, and Wisdom.

To start, Serenity is defined as: “a state of utter calm and unruffled repose or quietude” (Merriam Webster Dictionary).

If you know anything about loss, you know that it is anything BUT serene. It took me a long time to find peace with the death of my Mom. Peace doesn’t mean that I am okay with it or that I am happy about it, but it is a general sense of calm. Most days, I can think about my Mom and not feel sad, but given the right circumstances a wave of sadness will roll over me as I think about what I am missing. Over time, it has been easier to find my Mom at different moments in my life. Some of those have been with help.

I am lucky to have 7 years of memories with my Mom, which get harder to remember as time goes on. For example, I no longer remember her voice and we have very few recordings of her where I can hear her voice, and I have photos which bring that sense of peace and calm when I look at and share them on special days. To be honest, I am surprised that my wedding day and the birth of my children was not as hard as I had expected they would be. I was able to feel at peace and know that she was with me. My husband was and has always been the one to remember and make sure that my Mom is present in every important moment from conserving old home videos of her, to incorporating her photos in slide shows at important events, to bringing her photograph to the birth of our children (something I had not considered).

Fun fact: My daughter was born on the same date that my mother died, just 22 years later (also on the 22nd).

Acceptance is defined as: “to receive willingly; to endure without protest or reaction; or to recognize as true: to BELIEVE (Merriam Webster Dictionary).

Over the years, I have grown to accept my Mom’s death in different ways. One of the more obvious ways that I can recall was in using the label “Mom”. For the longest time, I absolutely refused to call anyone “Mom” because that term was reserved for HER and she was no longer here. I would not call friend’s parents Mom even though my siblings would. Then, in high school, I had a theatre teacher whom everyone called “Mom” because she truly was like a Mom to everyone who had her. I resisted using this term for her, until one day, I decided that it was okay; that using this term did not negate my Mom in any way, and could be used to show respect and love for someone else who elicited these characteristics. Today, I still call my old Theatre teacher “Mom” except she is also now my Mother-In-Law. Maybe it was fate, or maybe it was growth. Either way, I grew to accept that my Mom would always be my Mom, no one would replace her, and in fact, the love I had for others and that others had for me, could continue to grow despite this loss. The hole my Mom left will never go away and yet all of life’s experiences have been able to fill the space around the hole so that it is not as distressing anymore. It takes courage to open your heart, and I am so glad that I did.

Courage is defined as: “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty” (Merriam Webster Dictionary).

Death and courage look different as you age. I can distinctly remember as a teenager, multiple occasions where peers would make “Mom jokes” and I would quite literally run away crying. In most instances, my peers didn’t know that my Mom had died, and when they did, they were less likely to make those jokes around me. In those instances, I want to say that I was not being very courageous, except for the fact that expressing emotions is not an easy thing to do, and to cry and be vulnerable is quite courageous. However, over time, I grew to find these jokes funny and be able to use them myself. That did not happen overnight; this took time and healing on my part to accept the loss of my mom and grow to change the part of me that was hurting.

I knew from an early age that I wanted to do something to help people like my Mom, so I determined at the age of 10, that I wanted to be a “Gynecologic Oncologist”. This changed with time and experience. I eventually found my footing and decided on Counseling as a means to help people who were more like ME. I cannot say that I know what it’s like for everyone to lose a loved one, but I do know what it is like to experience loss, and hope to use this everyday in my therapy practice to help those LIKE me to navigate this difficult terrain.

Wisdom is defined as: “ability to discern inner qualities and relationships: INSIGHT; good sense: JUDGMENT” (Merriam Webster Dictionary).

I continue to gain wisdom in loss. The wisdom I have gained has come from my experiences with personal loss, observation of others’ loss, and the lessons learned from the lens of my adult life. As a child, I spent many after school days at my Aunt and Uncle’s home doing homework and living life; I would spend summer vacation with another Aunt; I spent most other days with both sets of grandparents watching my siblings and I. I didn’t know it at the time, but today I know that among the many reasons these things happened, the biggest was love. Love for my Mom and Dad, and love for us as kids. Each adult in our lives had different rules and different ways of “parenting”. Sometimes we thought these were “mean”; today, it is because I know that they were trying to teach us valuable lessons on life and love. Today, I can look back and appreciate the rules we had, the punishment given, and the lessons learned, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

One particular lesson I learned, from a parenting perspective, was that Children still need to be parented (consequences and rewards) especially when a parent dies, not despite their parent dying. It is not uncommon (and this happened in my family, too) for people to want to treat children experiencing loss with “delicate gloves” because they have had something terrible happen. Children want and need structure, and although you may feel it is mean (and your kids may express their dissatisfaction with your rules) they will appreciate them later (as I do now). Structure is important, but so is love.

Time doesn’t necessarily “heal all wounds”, though it does allow you the opportunity to learn to accept your circumstances, to courageously grow and experience life differently, to find peace in all circumstances, and to learn from all of it to pass on life lessons to those you care about. The Serenity Prayer continues to shape my life as I am always learning and working on change. I miss my mom everyday, and will continue to do so until the day that I die, but I do know that I carry her with me in all that I am and all that I ever will be. I am forever grateful for the role each of my family members played in my life and I know that I would not be the person I am today without them, or the wisdom they have shared with me over time.

On this Mother’s Day, my hope is that you, too, will be Granted the Serenity to Accept the things you cannot change, the Courage to change the things that you can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.

Holistic Wellness


Holistic Health







Mental Wellness

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