Losing your mother leaves a void in your heart and life which is never filled. No matter your age at the time of her death. I know this, because I lost my mother in 2002. I was 28.
A mother’s core role in a child’s life is to nurture, love and protect. Yet, for daughters there is the additional role of being an exemplar of all she can hope to be. For girl children, the loss, especially when young, can be crippling and stunt emotional maturity and security. When a child loses their mother, she often feels abandoned. A father’s love is often strong and steady, but a mother’s love is inimitable and irreplaceable.
For me, my loss has been felt for decades. And from conversations with others who have lost their mothers, I know that this feeling of loss lingers. The unconditional love of a mother surpasses reason, distance, time, change in appearance, sickness and disappointment. A mother’s love is unearned and the truest definition of agape love which exists. It is granted freely through birthright. Unlike romantic encounters or friendships, where you have to prove yourself to be loved, for most, all you have to do to receive a mother’s love is be born. Both mothers and children experience this unexplainable and inexplicable bond. So when on earth without it, there is often a searching…for something to fill the void.
I didn’t realize the impact of my mother’s death on my life until recently — like 2 months ago. Yes, 18 years later. Delayed processing of grief and full acceptance of the loss is common for many because there are few spaces and places to grieve. We’re told “time heals all wounds” by so many, and asked “how are you holding up?” by others. But in one of the biggest traumas of our lives, we’re never given a road map for processing or healing. Likely, because there isn’t one. But, when you sustain such a significant loss which only you fully know because only you and the deceased shared that one fragile umbilical cord, it is hard to imagine that in time the wound will heal or know how to answer how you’re holding up. The cord was cut. And now you’re left to figure out a path forward. Even if you have siblings, the loss of your mother is a deeply personal and transformative road which your inner self must travel alone.
Who wants to be pitied? Who wants to talk about death? Who wants to be sad? Who wants to be around sad people? No one. So, try to resume living life as if nothing happened. We go to work, we care for our children, we move cities, we make love to our partners, we pray to God. We try to fill the void of love lost with love present, but in time, if unprocessed, the grief lingers. Hence, why I am just getting around to processing my own loss, more fully.
I was visiting my hometown of Memphis, TN, sitting on a bench along the Mississippi River with a friend who asked “do you think you will ever return to Memphis, it seems like a nice place to live?” Out of nowhere, all the traumas experienced with my mother’s emotional pains & physical pains, the ultimate loss of her there came to surface. Before I knew it, I spoke with great distance and pain remembering the call at baggage claim that I’d missed my mother’s last breath by one hour on a plane from New York City, followed by the car ride to the hospital by my friend Niki. After signing the papers at the hospital, I recall thinking upon the turn on my childhood street on the ride from the hospital, “you’ve lost your mother and your home, at once.” Perhaps like me, your mother was your heart, your best friend and your home.
If we were of age, many of us remember the moment we learned our mother died. And my invocation to all who are grieving the loss of your mother, is to be brave in your quest of full acknowledgement of the loss and your healing. It is only in this awareness that you will be able to make conscious decisions. I was advised by my friend Rebecca not to make any decisions for 6 months post my mother’s death, and it was the best advice ever, which I didn’t know I needed. If your earthly balm and guide has transcended the earth plane, you need time to heal. If you know of someone who has lost their mother, give them the space to talk and grieve.
This loss leaves you at a loss. Of what to do, and how to be. The purported 5 stages of grief — denial & isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance do not always occur in this linear fashion AND there is no set amount of time for the completion of this process. Well-meaning others may misestimate where you are in the grieving process, and think you’re at acceptance, or should be.
But you’re not. Only you know, and that is ok. You may feel you’re too old to miss your mother. But you’re not. If the loss is unprocessed, you may still be still searching for how to feel. What to do. You may wonder if the void will ever go away or be seeking quick-fix replacements.
You never stop missing your mother. You never stop wanting to call the one who knew you before you knew yourself. You never stop desiring to ask her opinion about a job, a romantic partner, a new color of paint for your wall, or simply how she’s doing today.
I learned in Hope Edelman’s Motherless Daughters that for children and adolescents, not having a mother stunts your self-esteem. For children, not having a mommy to pick you up from school is embarrassing and makes you the odd one. I dated a widowed man with a beautiful 5-year old daughter who’d lost her mother at age 3. One day as we were going out for breakfast, she was extremely irritable and fussy that morning. I asked her father to go outside with his son and get the car so I could explore the situation. I asked her, “what’s wrong Danielle?” She began crying and said, “I’m sad….(tears)… because I don’t have a mommy.” Pause. I think to myself, “what do I say to this beautiful little girl?” During our relationship, I’d stepped in with homework, camp pickups, park visits, hair dos and bath time, but nothing would replace her core desire for HER mother to be there for her, every day, in every way. Even though she had a fantastic father, she didn’t have a mommy, and why? So, right then and there, I allowed her the space to grieve. And I corrected her telling her you do have a mommy. And asked that she say her name, her full name….twice. She’s just not here. We talked more, got a book, and exited the house that day holding hands as two motherless girls, one big and one small who understood what it feels like to be motherless on earth.
But, it’s not just the two of us. I witnessed a 44-year-old man sprawled across the floor cry that he missed his mother who’d died 20 years prior. So, whether you’re three or 53, the void persists. And when we look statistically at the number of deaths (AIDS claiming 690K globally in 2019, COVID claiming 250,000+ and Breast Cancer projected to claim 42K in the U.S. in 2020), being motherless on earth is an issue for many which threatens the livelihood and mental health of many.
How To Move Forward
Trusts, there will be triggers that may completely blindside you. It can be the birth of a child without your mother, a wedding without your mother on the first row, graduation or having a baby shower or home blessing without your mother. For me, like many, it is often Mother’s Day and Christmas. Acknowledge yours and give yourself permission to grieve.
Quite honestly, I’m grateful to have had the mother I did, and to have had her for as long as I did. I used the great foundation she laid for me to go on do the best that I could. But, what about other women who never knew their mothers? Billie Holiday sings ‘God bless the child who has his own.’ But, what if you don’t know what to do. Time continues to tick, with or without a mother. As time has gone on for me, the accolades, accomplishments and various indications of world success have accumulated, but the desire for unmerited love with complete and total acceptance for my still existing. My complete acknowledgment of the loss almost 20 years later helps me understand my detachment from society and people at times. Motherless children on earth often have a hard time reattaching to people because of the profundity of the loss. And if unprocessed, the loss of others will trigger remembrance of this most fundamental loss until you finally accept it and consciously channel your energy productively, while remaining grounded in the spirit connection to your mother.
Motherless, but not Unmothered
I acknowledge that I may be motherless, but I have chosen not to be unmothered. A psychotherapist I was visiting after the loss of my sister in 2019, said to me once as I expressed my emotions that I was “unmothered.” There was a sense of being lost in the world and ungrounded. Things I was doing that reflected needing a connection to a mother on earth. She was right. So, I found myself desiring to call my mother’s friends more. Or asking elder women in the grocery store and Walmart (on two separate occasions) how to do something beyond my years of living. I shifted from self-pity to self-love in seeking elder women. I had no expectation for a relationship with these women, so was surprised when the lady at Walmart surprised me while we were standing in line and asked for my number to be in touch. And she called me three weeks later to say, “I know you said you live in New Orleans with no family. And I just want you to know that I am a mother of 3 girls, and I would never want you to feel you don’t have someone you can call.” Who does that? Thanks, God.
Five recommendations if you are dealing with being motherless on earth:
1. Keep your mother alive by talking or writing about her. Don’t pretend she didn’t exist. If not everyone can tolerate this, find those who can. They exist. If you were too young when she died to have a memory of her, ask people who knew of her. Find people who knew her well to tell you stories of things she did. My mother has three very good friends who make a valiant effort to keep in touch with me. When they or my father remark of things she would say, or fun things she did, I eat it up. I did not know her as a woman or adult, so I get to see glimpses of her humanity and personality through their stories. We do tend to make martyrs out of the dead in our fantasies, so hearing real stories helps us know our mothers more.
2. Read Hope Edelman’s, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss.
3. Keep her picture visible to you every day. If you can find a photo of both of you (even if you were in her belly and she passed before you had photos with her), this is even better. This will ground you in the truth that you are not without a mother. We got a picture frame for Danielle and put a photo of her and her mom up to remind her always that she has a mother, and so do you.
4. Pause, and connect with her spirit every now and then. I often go to my mother’s grave when in Memphis or write to her. I even wrote a letter to myself from her congratulating me on an accomplishment. The return address was Heaven: Suite Lois.
5. Connect with other women without mothers. Community is comforting. And if you know of a young person without a mother, spend some time with them. Invite them into your fold.
Five recommendations if you have a daughter to prepare her for life without you:
- Show her your humanity now. Don’t keep sides of you hidden. Let her see the fullness of who you are now (maybe not the twerking in the club, but some lighter parts of you), she will want to know all of who her mother was later in life.
- Let her fail. I lost a job in Chicago at age 25. I asked my mom if I could move back home to Memphis. She said, “Nope. You can visit to get your mind back together, but you need to figure it out.” I was so upset. I couldn’t believe it. But she was serious and unrelenting. So, I found my way. She was getting me ready for life. I’m sure it was hard to see her child suffer, but it was for my ultimate good.
- Create community and let her be a part of a larger world than just you and her. If you are a part of any social organization, there will be other women with children. Cultivate relationships with those women and ensure your children spend time with their extended family. We never know our date with death. And your daughter being a part of a larger community will help her. I will never forget walking into the church at my mom’s funeral and seeing her social club ladies all dressed in black in the first 3 rows on the right side of the church, and the church mothers all dressed in white on the first 3 rows of the left side. My my my. That was a site to behold. And three of those women are in touch with me to this day. I find great joy when they tell me things she did.
- Love her. Cultivate her. Spend quality time with her. No screens. No devices. No one else. Just you and her. Get to know her. She needs you, just like you needed your mother.
- Show her positive interactions with men. This needs no explanation. But, I realized about a year ago that I honestly did not know how to interact with men in a healthy way, because I did not know how. It wasn’t modeled for me, and I didn’t have my mother anymore to ask how to “be.” So, I invite every mother of a girl-child to do your best show your daughter how to carry herself in a self-respecting manner as a young lady so she will choose a good partner to journey in life with her after you are gone.
And lastly, if your mother is still living, acknowledge her daily, love her, adore her, appreciate her.