(Hope Edelman, "Motherless Daughters, The Legacy of Loss," 1994, 2014)
"For a child, the death of a parent shatters assumptions even more basic than the order of how a life should proceed. It shatters core beliefs about the world itself. A child believes in a safe and secure world, a world in which events are predictable and orderly, a world that can be understood. When death is sudden and unexpected, the world and everything in it seem less safe and more precarious. If a loved mother or father can disappear overnight, then who knows what other disasters lie ahead."
(Maxine Harris, "The Loss That Is Forever, The Lifelong Impact of the Early Death of a Mother or Father," 1995)
A woman who has grown up lacking a "good enough" mother and "secure base" (due to mental illness or personality disorders) endures loss of a nurturing, supportive mother. Often she also had ongoing trauma from psychological abuse and sometimes physical abuse. Daughters can be cast into a parentified child role, with role-reversal and taking care of mom, an impossible task and burden for a child. These daughters are also those I have the privilege to know and work with as they share many commonalities with women who have lost their mothers through death.
What are Common Experiences of Motherless Daughters?
Many women who have lost their mothers also report that a part of themselves feels the age they were when their mothers died, or a part of them seems developmentally "stuck." . Many find that they have unconsciously carried an inaccurate belief of not surviving beyond the age of their mothers when she died, or they may live in a state of fear about the worst that could happen. Living past the age at which one's mother died has been reported by women to seem like moving into "uncharted territory" .
Motherless Daughters also disclose their appreciation of life and its momentary treasures, unlike others their age who may not have experienced a major loss or on-going trauma.
- Shock and Disbelief (feeling in a "fog"; on "automatic"; numb)
- Anger (at the loss; the illness and the toll it took on mother and daughter; "Why don't I have a 'normal' life?!" "Why me?!" "Why did this happen to my mother?!");
- Depression (sadness, crying, difficulty getting out of bed, loss of enjoyment in usually pleasureable activities, changes in eating or sleeping);
- Denial ("I'm OK"..."I'll avoid thinking about mom and what happened".."I won't connect with the pain I feel"..."I'll just stay busy";
- Bargaining ("What could I have done differently that could have resulted in my mother still living or providing adequate mothering?"..."If only I had....");
- Acceptance in facing the realities and understanding the consequences of mother loss, integrating it into one's life, taking care of oneself, finding post-loss and post-trauma growth.
Another conception of grief and four basic tasks of grieving are articulated by William Worden (2009) which I've adapted from his book, "Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy." These are as follows:
- To accept the reality of the loss
- To process the pain of grief (anger, sadness, fear, loneliness, etc.)
- To adjust to the world without the deceased or living mother
- To find an enduring connection with the deceased or estranged mother in the midst of embarking upon a new life.
Some situations, person, place, time, or activity can trigger painful feelings from the past regarding the loss of a woman's mother, mother substitute, father, on-going loss and trauma. Indications of healing are that painful feelings become less frequent and less intense and when deep feelings do emerge, one learns how to navigate through them. In my understanding, the process of healing and recovery involves facing the reality of one's loss, accepting and observing emerging feelings and associations that come and go, awareness of current and past situations, and learning how to navigate through deep feelings and responses.
Our major challenges can be transformative, opening a way for finding new meaning in life. Motherless daughters often find they gain a deepened appreciation for the basic experiences of life, death, and growth...Often, I've been told, the part of themselves that feels empty, begins to fill with warmth.
How Did I Get Started In This Field?
The term "motherless daughters" and the common consequences of mother loss detailed in "Motherless Daughters" helped me put together missing pieces of my and other women's common and unique responses to loss and trauma. Subsequent to publication, Hope led an organization in New York City to help hundreds of women understand and navigate through their experiences. In coordination with Hope's NYC organization, I began facilitating time-limited, structured support groups from lists of women who wanted to participate in them, locally. From these groups I developed and facilitated on-going, supportive/exploratory Groups for Motherless Daughters in Mill Valley, San Anselmo, and currently, Kentfield, CA, Marin County.
I am also the founder of MOTHERLESS DAUGHTERS OF MARIN.
Many motherless daughters comment that the group for motherless daughters becomes a primary support in their lives, more than a grief group, in which they can address issues they are facing, current and past. Some have called the group "life-changing". Women often comment about their perception of the group-as-a-whole as a nurturing mother presence in some ways, that helps fill up the longing for a "good enough" mother, and provides a safe place to learn about self , gain acknowledgement and validation, and reach individual goals. Women honestly discuss their experiences with others who understand...they follow and care about each other's lives, challenges and successes. The warm, generous mutual support women provide to each other is touching to observe. These safe Motherless Daughters Support Groups continue to be an important part of of my life and practice. I am grateful to Hope Edelman for her major contributions in this field and honored that she acknowledged me in her books, "Motherless Mothers, How Losing A Mother Shapes the Parent You Become," (2007) and "Motherless Daughters, The legacy of Loss" (2014) , the expanded 20th anniversary edition.
I've written a few articles for motherless daughters, one of which is "When Mom Dies, More Than a Piece of Us Dies, Too" published in the Marin Independent Journal, Mother's Day, 1997. You can find it on my website devoted solely to Motherless Daughters.
I was grateful to attend and be part of a panel with motherless daughter Cheryl Strayed, author of "Wild" and others at the first Motherless Daughters Conference in Marina Del Rey, California, 2014, celebrating the 25th anniversary edition of "Motherless Daughters, hosted by Hope Edelman, and Irene Rubaum-Keller.
If you would like to support with other motherless daughters, consider participating in a safe and successful Motherless Daughters Group. Or, you can work with me individually in office or by phone.
In our Motherless Daughters Group, women make connections between past and current patterns and beliefs, share successful life strategies; pursue individual goals, and integrate mother loss into their current lives. The safe group environment is one in which women find a place to grieve, learn they are not alone in their struggles, and understand that their responses to loss and trauma are "normal." Issues women commonly address include: relationship challenges; family of origin experience; inaccurate, self-limiting beliefs and their disconfirmation; surviving mother's illness; connecting with self and mothering self; dads; step-mothers; motherless mothers; unresolved longings; self-identity and meaning of life issues; personal goals; successes; and helpful coping strategies.
Facilitating the Motherless Daughters Groups is a deeply enriching, collaborative experience. I appreciate the wisdom, compassion, resilience, vulnerabilities, and strengths I observe in motherless daughters and I learn so much from them!
Call 415-785-3513 or email: [email protected] if interested or with questions.