"When Mom Dies More Than a Piece of Us Dies Too," by Colleen Russell, Published in Marin IJ, 1997

For Motherless Daughters... Marin Voice, "When Mom Dies, More Than a Piece of Us Dies Too" by Colleen Russell, LMFT, CGP",  Marin Independent Journal, Mother’s Day, 1997, Reprinted for Mother's Day, 2024

 Many women such as I reflect on what it’s like to be a motherless daughter on this Mother’s Day, having lost our mothers in childhood, adolescence or adulthood. My mother died when I was 15. As a result of my own therapeutic process and counseling other motherless daughters, I understand the consequences of surviving this traumatic loss and the circumstances subsequent to it. 

 A daughter who loses her mother, whether through death or abandonment, undergoes a profound change on many levels which affects her identity, her expectations, her relationships with an intimate partner, her children, and her basic feelings of trust and safety throughout the course of her life. This is a process which women tell me they haven’t really spoken of to anyone else in depth as a child or adult, often harboring a secret belief that “something must be basically wrong with me” regarding their thoughts and behavior. 

 After their mothers have died, women of all ages speak of feeling like orphans, sometimes strangers in their own families. The initial stage of grief is shock, disbelief, numbness and disequilibrium. Many children and adolescents may deny their own feelings in compliance with their father’s avoidance of facing his pain. Not until years later, when their cognitive and emotional resources have matured, do women proceed to integrate the loss of their mother. Sometimes a traumatic, inaccurate belief of a calamity about to happen intrudes on the happiness and contentment a daughter well deserves, because in her experience as a child, the most feared event occurred.

  Following the stage of shock, women must come to terms with the meaning of the loss of their mother or mother substitute who held for them that wondrous place of unconditional love. Often there is the awareness of having longed for this "idealized mother” one’s entire life, trying to heal the emptiness inside in other relationships. 

 The absence of a mother who is often the center of family life creates a void which results in family chaos and disorganization until a new family homeostasis is achieved. As children or adults, daughters are often pulled into the role their mothers left behind, overextending themselves, becoming surrogate mothers to their siblings and caregivers to their fathers. This challenges their own identity, forcing new personal limits or risking self-collapse. 

 Many adult daughters report a lack of support as children from their fathers or extended family members who did not openly talk to them about their mother’s terminal illness or death. Others were sent away to relatives, thereby not getting a chance to say goodbye. Many daughters not only lost their mothers, they quickly lost their lifestyles as they knew them – their rooms, and/or their mother’s possessions. No wonder that meaningful objects and/or personal relationships are closely held in the daughter’s adult life. 

 Adult daughters are suddenly shifted to the “older generation,” and they experience role changes and divided loyalties with their families of origin and nuclear families. As each member experiences loss in his or her own way, family conflicts often emerge. 

 Although the mother-daughter relationship is ongoing, the physical separation of a mother in death or abandonment forces a daughter to confront both the impermanence and abundance of life, not taking for granted any other close, intimate, nurturing relationship. Encountering each feeling and not ignoring any is essential for full healing. Understanding our behavior is also important to self-respect and value. Healthy adaptation to the changes mother loss necessitates – learning new skills and behavior, appreciating love and kindness as valued treasures, having compassion for others and acknowledging the courage it takes for a motherless daughter to confront her fears and thrive in the world – are all part of the process of integrating the consequences of our loss into newly discovered gains. 

 Take time out, motherless daughters, for self love and appreciation as well as for remembering and acknowledging our mothers.

Quietness Rose - Hardy - Moderately Fragrant Rose

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