The motherless daughters club

Today's guest writer, Nancy Hicks

I was incredibly moved by a recent post on All Things Caregiver on being a “motherless daughter” and having read her post, I suddenly remembered Nancy had kindly written me a guest blog which I still hadn’t posted (sorry Nancy!) Well, better late than never and for all of us who are part of this motherless daughters club, read on… 

Hope Edelman was 17 years old when her mom died — of breast cancer — at age 42. In her bestselling book Motherless Daughters, she writes about how at 17, she was no longer a child but not quite a woman.

One of the first things she did after her mom died was start researching — how to feel when your mom dies, how to talk about it, how to find happiness again. No such resource existed, not at the library or the bookstore, so she wrote it herself.

Edelman was in college, she read a column by Anna Quindlen from the Chicago Tribune that changed everything for her in her grief. Said Quindlen:

My mother died when I was nineteen. For a long time, it was all you needed to know about me, a kind of vest-pocket description of my emotional complexion: ‘Meet you in the lobby in ten minutes — I have long brown hair, am on the short side, have on a red coat, and my mom died when I was nineteen.

Edelman read the column repeatedly, and carried in her wallet for years. She says:

Later, much later, would I learn how many other motherless women around the country had saved that same syndicated column, and how many, like me, had felt as if someone had discovered a secret portal into their innermost thoughts.

I have a newspaper column, too. It’s not by Anna Quindlen, but it serves the same purpose for me that Quindlen’s column served for Edelman. Just as having cancer does, losing your mom inducts you into a club for which you never wanted to become a member. Edelman writes that “it’s like we share a secret handshake.” I hate that handshake.

Also like having cancer, losing one’s mother turns an ordinary woman into a survivor. Edelman puts it like this:

The adversity [of losing your mom] gives women a toughness, a resilience, a power of will that came from facing a profound loss and nevertheless finding the desire and the hope to press on. They’re saying, in effect, that they’ve acquired the kind of personal strength and indomitability our culture normally ascribes to men.

It’s a strange sort of girl power, and one gained in the most tragic of ways, but perhaps a positive aftereffect of a tragic event.

Famed author Virginia Woolf lost her mother, Julia Stephen, to rheumatic fever when Woolf was 13. She says she was obsessed by the memory of her mother, and some speculate that loss fueled Woolf’s troubled emotional state. Woolf reported feeling as if her mother was an “invisible presence” in her life. She remembers thinking of a book idea, which became To the Lighthouse, while walking one day.

One thing burst into another…I wrote the book very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed with my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her. I suppose I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it, I explained it and then laid it to rest.

Much is written about how motherless daughters can bond, even as total strangers. Edelman writes:

When four or five motherless women sit in a room together, the camaraderie is nearly instantaneous. Finally, they say, others who understand. Like veterans of the same war, the unmothered are drawn to each other. They can detect the subtlest inflection in each other’s behaviors, the tiniest insinuation in a gaze, the inaudible frequency of spirit that reveals: you are one of me.

Edelman speaks to the issue of mourning, and I really like that she says that grief doesn’t have to follow a set, predictable series of stages; it’s not something that has to be overcome or fixed. It is “a lifetime process of accommodation and acceptance.” She says that grief is not linear or predictable. She’s right. It stops and starts, waxes and wanes, but it is permanent. It hurts. And it hurts for a long, long time.

A lot goes into the study of loss and grieving. Edelman introduced me to a study done in 1996 by Phyllis Silverman, Ph.D., and William Worden, Ph.D., called the Harvard Child Bereavement Study. The most interesting findings are that “mother loss” is harder than “father loss” (the mere fact that there’s a term for “mother loss” is sad enough) simply because it means more changes to daily life. Children whose mothers have died are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems than kids whose dads die, and kids whose moms have died remain more emotionally connected to mothers who have died than to fathers who have died.

I’m not suggesting that losing one’s father isn’t devastating, and it’s certainly not a contest to see whose loss is greatest. Just an interesting study that gave me some insight on why 6 years later, I still miss my mom every single day.

I try to find her sometimes, in other people. Perhaps a woman with her same build in the grocery store, or the sound of a total stranger’s laugh. Edelman does that too.

I’ve tried to find my mom over the years but she’s remained elusive. If I had to pinpoint my mother’s location I’d say she’s nowhere and everywhere, at the same time. She’s a foggy memory I can’t quite bring into focus and a gentle spirit that infuses all my days. She exists in the background of my life now, hovering, suspended, shapeless, like familiar air.

Edelman puts it:
There is a huge hole in my life where a mother — and now a maternal grandmother for my children — should be. I still wish I had a mother to call when something good happens, when something bad happens, or when nothing at all has happened, just to talk about the day.
When asked how much of her life her mom’s death affected, Edelman says all of it. Everything. It affects everything. When a mother dies, a daughter grieves, and then her life moves on. She will feel happiness again. But the missing her, the wanting her, the wishing she were still here — that part never ends.

Losing your mom is a terrible, terrible thing. No matter what stage in life, no matter what the circumstances of her death. Whether taken suddenly in an accident or after a prolonged illness, there’s little preparation. One of my friends lost her mom unexpectedly to a heart attack, while my mom died after a long battle with uterine cancer. We talk often about which of us had it easier: I think she does because she didn’t watch her mom suffer. She thinks I had it easier because I had time to wrap  my mind around it and say my good-byes. We both know that there’s no easy answer, that neither of us had it easier. Hope Edelman explains it perfectly by saying that:

to be a motherless daughter is to be riddled with paradoxes and contradictions, to live with an eternally unresolved longing, but it is also to know the grit of survival, to hold an insight and maturity others did not know so young, and to understand the power of renewal and rebirth.


Today’s wonderful guest post was written by Nancy Hicks, and is another treasured, precious gift to me during this time of grieving and finding a new way to be in the world without my mother. 

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