May 13, 2012

An Open Letter to Motherless Daughters on Mother's Day

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, 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)


The Dose of Reality said...

A beautiful post Hope, so thank you. I just forwarded part of it to my sister, who I think is floundering far more than me after 15 months without our mother. She feels much more undone by this loss, and I believe it is because she has not yet found the good things that have come and will come from the loss.
And you are so right, grief is for a lifetime.

Mo said...

God Bless you for writing your beautiful book....from the bottom of my heart. Thanks for this post. I agree with you, about trying to see the positive that came after the loss. I too, married a man that has been a huge blessing in my life, and have two wonderful children. I don't know if we would have connected the same, had it not been for losing my mother, when I was 16, and she was 49 of pancreatic cancer. Hugs!

Shannon Nistico said...

You are such a beautiful person and I read your book all the time. My Mom was 41 when she was murdered 23yrs ago by my stepfather when I was just 15. A horribly traumatic time. I have few words still.
Just wanted to say thank you for all you do.

Mel Graham said...

Thanks Hope. You always manage to turn my negativity into positivity again. Tomorrow I will discuss the good things that have come from my losses with my therapist. Many many thanks for your openness and honesty

Kristie said...

This is so very true. There is so much good stuff happening now that would not have otherwise happened if my mom were alive. It has taken me and my family years and years to come to grips with it being OK to be happy about where we are instead of sad about where we are not. Thanks for writing this :)

Kathryn said...

Thank you so much. For EVERYthing. My mother died the year after yours. The last day I saw her was Mother's Day. Your book made what I kept to myself seem okay and healthy. Weeping endures for the night but joy comes in the morning (Ps 30). Joy is what they wanted for us after all, right?

Nabila Usman said...

May God bless you for writing this post. I just realized how little support is available to motherless daughters and how cruel it is of the society to expect such girls to compare with those who have grown under the loving tender care of a devoted mother.

I'm really looking forward to your upcoming talk this November in Dubai.

Nicole Zimmer said...

Nicole Zimmer said...
I lost my mother when I was 20 and now that my own daughter is 20, I am feeling the grief now that I was never encouraged or allowed to feel at the time. I had to make sure my father was ok, and I didn't have any siblings to commiserate with. I felt truly alone, but decided blindly that my mother would have wanted me to go on and have a good life. So I got up every day and soldiered on. I saw you on a talk show in late 1994 or early 1995, and knew immediately that I HAD to get your book. I still remember where I was living, what I was doing when I heard you talking about your loss and that there was no information out there to help us motherless daughters navigate through this new world. Once I read it (several times), I saw my own thoughts leaping off the page. It truly changed my life. The biggest fact being that my father would never be my mother. Sounds obvious now, but at the time was not. I can not thank you enough or tell you enough just how much your writing and sharing meant to me. Instead of being alone, I was part of a group. A group that function, flourished even. It was possible. Later, I reunited with a birth sister (I am adopted) who had lost our mom, when she was 15. I passed on the book to her. I know for sure that I am braver, stronger, a more compassionate person because of my mother's passing. I used to feel guilty about that, but I now celebrate and hope that somewhere, she would be proud. Thank you again from the bottom of my heart.

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