Ungiftables Series – Feat. Debbie Starr

We live by two words here at afloat: Celebrate Everything. Those two words are our north star – but what do they really mean? You pop the champagne and celebrate the good times. You send some love on a random Tuesday, just because.  But what happens when someone close to you is going through a hard and messy time? What do you do then? Those “ungiftable” moments are why afloat was started in the first place. To take the guesswork out of gifting and to make it as easy as possible to celebrate the people you love whenever they need it the most. 

Welcome to the latest edition of the Ungiftables: what to do, say or give in those hard situations with the experts who have been through it themselves or have helped others.  In this edition, we sit down with clinical social worker and licensed family therapist Debbie Starr to chat Mother’s Day and the heaviness it brings to those who may have lost their mom, have a strained relationship with their mother, may have lost a child or have a strained relationship with their own children. 

afloat team: Thank you so much for joining us as a guest contributor for our Ungiftable series. Please tell us a little bit about yourself! 

Debbie: I am so happy to be here. Thank you for inviting me to share my passion for what I do! I am a clinical social worker with a private practice in Prairie Village, and I am the Director of Clinical and Social Services at Operation Breakthrough, a wrap-around services agency in the urban core. My husband, John, and I have three grown children, each on their own path. John’s mom lives across the street! My mom still lives where I grew up, a little town called Cucamonga in Southern California. 

afloat team: What prompted you to become a social worker and therapist and help others navigate through their own hard times

Debbie: When our oldest was in middle school, she had a life-threatening medical issue. She recovered – she’s now in her final year of vet school – but we needed some help managing the fear and uncertainty that unexpectedly smacked us straight in the face. A therapist helped us through the rough spots, and then he suggested that I go back to school and become a therapist. Social work focuses on systems, and how the whole is an incredibly complex dance that cannot be easily explained by just looking at the discreet parts. Families are systems, and we each impact each other in complicated ways. I have the privilege of supporting people and families through the tough times, and I get to highlight the beauty and uniqueness of their dance.

afloat team: The whole world seems to celebrate, but Mother’s Day isn’t always the cheery holiday that social media and the outside world portrays. In your opinion, what are some ways to lend support to someone who may be experiencing extra grief this Mother’s Day? 

Debbie: I suspect we have all felt profound grief and loss in the past two years. And it’s been a loss exacerbated by enforced isolation. Our well-being and sense of safety is rooted in community. John Donne wrote nearly four hundred years ago that we are not islands, separate from the continent of humanity. It’s bred in the bone — our earliest experiences are of being held within the safety of our mother’s body. Human babies are about the most helpless creatures in the world. We need the care of another to survive, and this caring happens through safe physical touch, through the gentle rhythm of a caregiver’s reassuring voice, through having our physical and emotional needs noticed and attended to by, what Winnicott called, “the good-enough” mother. Not too overbearing, not too neglectful. Just enough to help the baby begin to form a sense of connection and independence to feel safe and capable.

It’s easy to idealize this relationship – and things can happen that make it hard to recover. Mothers leave us – through death, memory changes, family conflict, and whatever other ways that we lose people. There is a gift in having someone sit with us in our pain. Holding a place, without words, for another person to feel deeply, with no push to change or to move on before they are ready, provides comfort beyond words. Noticing how the other is breathing, and mirroring that breath, and then slowing it down, can create a calm and connection that resembles what our mothers, at times, could do for us. A warm hand, a soft gaze, an attuned noticing, can remind us that we are not alone. Even breathing with someone on the phone, or over zoom, can help us regain a sense of wholeness. 

afloat team: What is one thing to avoid doing or saying to someone who is overwhelmed and sad on Mother’s Day?

Debbie: “You’ll get over this.” There is so much wrapped up in these words. So much judgment and impatience. Maybe we are struggling with helping someone who seems stuck in negative emotions. It can bring up our own unresolved feelings of sadness. But dismissing the feelings creates such shame and can push someone back into isolation, which can have life and death consequences for some. 

Sylvan Tomkins has a blueprint for good mental health – maximize positive emotions, minimize negative emotions, and allow for the expression of all emotions. We can’t manage the negative emotions until we actually feel them and express them. Then they can shift. It’s what makes the services of psychotherapists so sought after these days! It’s a place to have emotions without judgment and shame.

afloat team: Mother’s Day is to honor all who nurture, support and love us. What is one word that you’d use to describe someone close to you who is like a mother?

Debbie: Hearth