I’m sitting here at my kitchen table just a few hours before Mother’s Day officially begins. Motherless Daughters Day – the day designated by motherless women nationwide to honor mother’s who are no longer with us – is about to draw to a close.
Today I spoke to a group of forty women in West Los Angeles where Irene Rubaum-Keller, the therapist who leads Motherless Daughters of Los Angeles, has been organizing annual Motherless Daughters Day luncheons for sixteen years. At the end all the women joined hands to create a Circle of Remembrance and we went around, one by one, and said our names and our mothers’ names out loud.
“Hope, daughter of Marcia.”
It’s been thirty one years since my mother died, and a lot of life stepped in to start filling the void. I’m married now, with two daughters of my own, and I don’t get to say my mother’s name out loud nearly as much as I’d like to. I very rarely say it in the same sentence as mine. Except, once a year, the Circle of Remembrance presents the opportunity again and I’m so thankful it does.
My mother died of breast cancer in 1981, when I was seventeen and she was 41. Ten years later I started writing Motherless Daughters, the kind of book I’d gone looking for when she first died. Since its publication in ‘94 I’ve traveled around the world speaking with groups of motherless women and hearing their stories. I’ve met extraordinary women, and heard phenomenal stories of loss, recovery and rebirth. This year, more than any other year—though I’m not sure why—I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned these past eighteen years, especially from the women I’ve met, and three truisms quickly come to mind:
1. Mourning takes a lifetime. This is hardly groundbreaking news today, but in 1994 when MD was first released it was a revelation to many readers who didn’t realize that Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief had been developed for those who had terminal illnesses rather than those who were grieving their deaths.
I remember saying to my editor when I first started writing Motherless Daughters, “I can’t tell readers that mourning lasts a lifetime. Nobody wants to hear that.” But then I thought, “Many of these women, as children, were denied the truths about their mother’s death, and about grieving. Even if they wind up resenting me for it, they deserve to be told the truth as adults.” What happened was exactly the opposite: readers appreciated learning that they weren’t abnormal. They thanked me for validating their feelings and giving them the facts. After a mother dies a new kind of “normal” settles in, one in which the mother is always missing and forever missed, and that’s okay. Only when we accept and make peace with this we will find this new equilibrium.
2. Healing comes through community and from sharing our stories with others. In 1995, the Motherless Daughters non-profit organization started to field the flood of requests for support groups for motherless women. To our knowledge, no such groups had ever been held before. We ran some trial groups in New York City before sending the template out to other sites. Today, dozens of groups are being led around the country, both therapeutic and social, including Motherless Daughters of Chicago; Motherless Daughters of Orange County, California; and Metro Detroit Motherless Daughters, as well as many others organized through Meetup.com, including Motherless Daughters of Washington, D.C., New York City, Denver, Miami, Charlotte, North Carolina; and the more than 200 women who belong to the Mamma Mia Sisterhood in Atlanta, Georgia. The long-term survival of these groups reveals that through community we can regain the very comfort, courage, and strength we once lost.
3. When bad things happen to good people, good things can nonetheless result. It’s so much easier to focus on what we don’t have than on what we do. But as individuals, we always have the power to reframe an experiences so that something negative can be seen as positive. A very smart therapist (who also happens to be my mother’s sister) once told me, “If you believe, ‘My life is difficult because my mother died,’ then your life is always going to be difficult, because your mother is always going to be dead.” But once we let that initial belief start to thaw, to melt down to “My life is difficult right now, but it won’t always be that way,” and then to “Not everything in my life is difficult” eventually leading to “Good things have come my way because my mother died,”—as unlikely as that may sound to some of you at the moment-- our perceptions start to take on a different hue. I would venture to bet that any motherless woman can identify three or four things in her life that make her feel fortunate, or that bring her joy, and if she traces them backwards through the series of life choices and events that made them possible, like a flow chart in reverse, I’d bet that at least one or two of them would relate back to circumstances surrounding a mother’s death.
In my case, my husband, my children, and my community all date back to that pivotal event when I was seventeen, because if I hadn’t felt the need to write Motherless Daughters I never would have joined with other women to start a national organization, which wouldn’t have needed to rent cheap office space in New York City, and then I never would have met the man who rented us a piece of his office suite in Times Square, the man who became my husband and whose job moved us out to Los Angeles, and who became the father of my two daughters, whom I can’t imagine living without. I could say it was the book brought them all into my life, but I never would have written the book if my mother hadn’t died.
All of this has taught me…well, what, exactly? Something so simple it feels almost glaringly obvious. It’s that I’ve learned how to practice gratitude for my loss. This may sound impossible to anyone who’s still actively grieving—and who is right where she should be, right now-- but over time it becomes apparent that the death of a mothers does, eventually, lead to blessings in a daughter’s life. She will be stronger, more empathetic, and more resilient than she otherwise may have been. She will find joy, often in unexpected places. Over time, she will help younger women cope with their losses as role model and mentor.
When I first saw the “It Gets Better” project for LBGT teens I wondered if we all should do something similar for motherless girls. Because I receive emails every week from teens whose losses are still very recent. They wonder how long this feeling will last and if it will ever go away, and ask me if they will ever be happy again.
It gets better. Truly, it does.
And so today, on Mother’s Day, I encourage everyone to take a moment to practice gratitude, and to identify just one thing in your life that is good, and that you can trace back to your early loss. Just one thing.
What I choose to be grateful for today is the opportunity to have been the one who got to write the book I needed to find so badly myself when I was seventeen. And also for all the readers (that’s two things to be grateful for, but who’s counting?) who’ve supported the book, and the motherless daughters movement, for the past eighteen years. You, more than anyone, have taught me that from shared experience comes solidarity, and from solidarity comes community, and from community comes a unique and special form of strength.
Many blessings to you all on this Mother’s Day, 2012.
With thanks and all best everything,
(adapted from a talk presented to Motherless Daughters of Los Angeles, May 21, 2012)
May 4, 2012
Are you a woman who lost her mother before age 16? Would you be willing to help a psychology trainee in Surrey, England, with her research? This quick online survey will help further research in parental bereavement. I took a look at it and it's designed very sensitively. I'd take it myself except I was 17 when my mother died. Please participate if you're interested!