Holidays bring out the best and the worst in us. They can be joyful, full of laughter and love. Or they can leave us emotionally drained, trapped in our own memories and regrets.

For most, Mother’s Day is an occasion to celebrate. Children will surprise their parents with homemade cards, boxes of chocolates and dozens of red roses. They will be treated to dinner or a day at the spa. If nothing else, moms of all ages are guaranteed a phone call from family and friends thanking them for years of hard work and affection.

But for others, Mother’s Day is a painful reminder of loved ones lost.

Those without people to dote on -- the motherless, the childless -- often feel left out of this global holiday. Instead of celebrating, they grieve and remember the people that passed away.

“It’s a day of reflection,” Paula Garceau told in a telephone interview from her home in Cambridge, Ont.

Garceau’s 55-year-old mother passed away in March, 2012 after a battle with lung cancer.

“It was a really quick, aggressive battle,” she said. “It was really hard.”

Garceau didn’t do anything to celebrate Mother’s Day that year, even though she has a child of her own. She visited the cemetery and brought her mom flowers -- sunflowers, her favourite -- an experience she describes as being “extremely difficult.”

Afterwards, she visited with her grandmother. These two events have been a tradition every Mother’s Day since.

It has gotten a bit easier. Garceau is the owner of the Kitchener-Waterloo chapter of, an organization that offers support and programming for mothers, and finds that the work is therapeutic.

Even though it can bring up some unsettling feelings, Garceau makes a point to celebrate Mother’s Day because it was something she took for granted while her mom was alive. She would usually rush out to get a card for fear not doing so would make her upset, something many are guilty of.

“I always took advantage of the fact that she would be there.”

The week leading up to Mother’s Day can be almost as difficult as the day itself. Ajax, Ont. resident Sarah Cooley, 25, lost her mom when she was 11 years old, and fondly remembers bringing home crafts she made at school or making her mom breakfast on those special Sundays. Since then, she hasn’t done much to celebrate.

“It was tough,” she said of her first Mother’s Day without her mom. “I was in Grade 6 so all [my] friends are celebrating and I was sort of that awkward person. From what I remember we may have gone over to my grandma’s house, but no one really mentioned it or made a big deal out of it.”

She often volunteers to work this weekend, because it gives others the opportunity to spend time with their own mothers. It also keeps her mind off the holiday. But it doesn’t help that she is constantly bombarded with commercials or flyers promoting mother-daughter specials.

“It’s never going to be easy, because there will always be reminders,” she said. “There will always be advertisements and emails to my inbox reminding me: don’t forget about mom this year.”

While Mother’s Day can be difficult for those who have lost their moms, the passing of a child also makes the holiday heartbreaking.

Heather Hamilton lost her four-year old son, Zack, in 2011. He was born with a heart condition and had a number of medical problems that complicated his short existence.

“Even though he had a tough life … it wasn’t his time in my eyes. His death was a surprise on our end.”

Hamilton wanted to stay at home on that first Mother’s Day without Zack. “I did not want to celebrate with my mom. I did not want to acknowledge it.”

She has two other children, and says it can be difficult to mourn and grieve when simultaneously she wants to enjoy the celebration with her kids.

“I want to celebrate and honour my own mom, and I have two boys who want a happy mom and do things and celebrate and do special things with me, yet at the same time I have this overwhelming sadness.”

This Sunday she will be spending lots of time with her family. Whether they go for ice cream or take a trip to the park, Hamilton is looking forward to a low-key, relaxing day. She will also be going to the cemetery where her son is buried, as she does every Mother’s Day, and says it is one of the busiest days of the year.

“We drive through the gates to the cemetery and most people are there for their moms. But I am there as a mom,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

International Bereavement Day was celebrated quietly last Sunday in honour of all the mothers who have lost babies or who have experienced stillbirths or miscarriages. Mothers gathered, shared photographs of their ultrasounds, and lay flowers on the graves of their children. It’s a lesser-known holiday that, for some, capture the true essence of Mother’s Day -- to celebrate motherhood in its various forms without commercialization or societal pressures.

While there are those who will celebrate in quiet reflection, many will choose to honour their loved ones by celebrating their lives, no matter how short it may be. They will play their mother’s favourite song, bake a family recipe, or visit a favourite vacationing destination.

But, it takes time to adjust to loss and feel comfortable celebrating rather than mourning.

“I wouldn’t say this year is any easier, but it is different. Maybe a little less intense,” Hamilton said. “Only a day or two before I get stomach-aches in anticipation of the day where a couple of years ago I would have been really upset and distracted.”

It helps to talk about it. Hamilton began working with as their director of media about a year after Zack passed, and has found that speaking with others who were going through the same pain and heartbreak was crucial to surviving what should be a light-hearted holiday.

“The online community is always thinking about you. They know what it is like,” she said. “Not only do I want to remember (Zack), I want to share him with people.”