My mother, Marcia Edelman, 1938-1981
Dear Friends, Dear Readers, Dear Sisters of the Heart,
It’s been quite a year, hasn’t it, women? As I sat down in Los Angeles to write this annual letter to motherless daughters on Mothers Day, it’s been impossible to do that without situating it in the larger context of losses we’ve all experienced since Mother’s Day last year. People, jobs, incomes, social interactions, freedom of travel…already, May 2020 feels like half a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?
So many of us have lost loved ones in the past year, and as a result, a number of you are experiencing your first Mother’s Day without your mom. My heart goes out to you in particular. Others have lost your moms in the past, many in the distant past. You know what it’s like to encounter this day on the calendar year after year. You know the adjustments that continue over a lifetime, and that we never stop missing our moms.
This July – July 12, to be exact — will mark 40 years since my mother, Marcia, died of breast cancer at the age of 42. I was 17, my sister was 14, and our brother was 9. Forty years. That’s a very long time. And yet there are still moments when I think of her early death in a new and different way, and the tears come again.
I’ve never stopped missing my mom, never stopped wishing she were here. She’d be 83 now, if she were still alive. But in my mind she’s an eternal 42. The best way I’ve discovered, over the years, to honor the years she did get to live is to be as engaged and attentive a mother, sister, and friend as I can be, and to be of service to the larger world. My mother was a professional volunteer. She always put herself out there to help others. That was her greatest gift to me.
Motherless daughters have a shared base of knowledge: we all understand that losing a mother isn’t a time-limited or linear experience. It’s a lifelong process of inner adjustments. While researching my most recent book, The AfterGrief, I discovered this was true for virtually everyone who has lost a close loved one in the past. We don’t “get over”, “get past”, “move on” or “put down” our attachment to that person after they die. We continue to love and miss them forever. Of course we do.
Therapist and author Megan Devine, the author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK and the founder of Refuge in Grief, says that some things are not to be put down or gotten over. They’re meant to be carried, instead. If I have learned anything in the past 40 years, it is this: That we may not have a choice about when or how a loved one dies, but we do have a choice about how to carry that loss forward. We may have felt helpless or powerless before, during and after a mother died or left, but as adults we now have agency. And we all have, within us, the ability to alchemize our sadness into something different, something stronger, something inspiring and helpful and enduring.
Some of us can do or have done this on our own. Some of us find hope in doing this in community. That’s why we continue to gather together, in person and online. Every year for the past 25 years, group of motherless women in cities around the globe have gathered to honor mothers no longer living. In this second Covid year, six of the largest groups decided to turn crisis into opportunity and all come together for the first time. Yesterday, nearly 500 women from 30 countries toasted our mothers together, honored their memories, and said our names and their names out loud. It was a phenomenally powerful experience. If you weren’t able to join us this year, please put us on the calendar for Mother’s Day weekend 2022. I’m pretty sure we’ll all want to do it again.
But more immediately, for our purposes, is Mother’s Day 2021. Every year, I’m asked how a motherless daughter can spend Mother’s Day. The answer to that question is as individual as the person. We all had different relationships with our moms, and we all have different personalities, desires, and needs. But one suggestion I can make is to think of which of your mother’s qualities you admired most, and which one you’d most like to emulate and carry forward, making it part of your own life story. Then put this quality into action on Mother’s Day in some way, however small.
Because my mother was a professional volunteer, I try to spend at least a small part of the day being of service to others. Because she loved to bake apple pie, I also try to bake one on Mother’s Day. Or to eat a piece in her honor, which is just as good for me.
My hope for all of us this Mother’s Day, as always, is that those of us further along on the path continue be role models, cheerleaders, and supporters for those who are just stepping onto it. The ethos of the Motherless Daughters community has always been about women helping women. At in-person Motherless Daughters Retreats, and in our weekly Tuesday Community Calls, we often quote the brilliant Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who said, “There is no competition in suffering.” Losing a mother is difficult at any age, and to any cause. Some of you may have experienced mother loss as a result of mental illness, addiction, abandonment, incarceration, or some other cause. There is no easy way to lose a mom, no story that is better or worse than another’s. They’re all difficult. Just for different reasons.
It’s tempting to focus on the emotional pain of mother loss, on what has been taken away and can never be replaced. But I’d like, just for a moment, to acknowledge the benefits we can derive over time, if we give ourselves permission to do so. These are what I call the Missing Elements of Grief, because they don’t get nearly as much attention as the difficult ones. I know you’re familiar with at least some. The Missing Elements include Gratitude, Appreciation, Wisdom, Humility, Compassion, Empathy, Faith, Meaning, Perspective, Purpose, Resilience, Grace, Hope, Wonder, and Awe.
I want to tell you that it’s all right to feel these things after a mother dies. Feeling a strong sense of gratitude for the life you have doesn’t mean you’re grateful that your mother died. The human heart and brain are amazingly complex organisms. They’re capable of feeling and thinking more than one thing at a time. We can be sad that our mothers aren’t here, and grateful for what her death eventually set into motion. As we say at Motherless Daughters Retreats, two things can be true.
Two things can always be true.
If your loss is very recent, you may not yet be thinking this way. That’s okay. Let the rest of us be models for you of what can be. For now, please be kind and gentle with yourself. I’d like to share with you a quote by author and speaker Mary Anne Radmacher that a friend sent to me just the other day: “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’
This makes me think of my dear friend and mentor, Liz Perle. She was the editor who acquired and helped me write the first edition of Motherless Daughters. Liz died in 2015 and she is profoundly missed. The AfterGrief is dedicated to her. Liz herself was a motherless daughter, and when I interviewed her for Motherless Daughters she shared with me that every night before she went to bed, she thanked God for giving her that day. Then she asked for one more. Every night, she did this. She felt that one day wasn’t too much to ask for. And that eventually, one day plus one day plus one day plus one day would add up to a lifetime. She taught me to make each day matter, and that each one can be a thing of beauty if commit to making seeing it so.
At the end of yesterday’s Day of Remembrance online, Christine Friberg, the founder of the nonprofit She Climbs Mountains in Minneapolis/St. Paul, led us in a worldwide Circle of Remembrance. She called out different age groups that indicated age at time of loss, (zero to five, six to twelve, thirteen to eighteen, etc.) and then all the women who’d in that age range when their mother died unmuted, lit a candle, and said their names and their mothers names out loud (“Christine, daughter of Laura Lee”). What we didn’t realize was that boxes on the Zoom screen would light up like blinking Christmas lights when so many women spoke at once.
It was a beautiful sight. Again, it made me think of Liz. And how each daughter was a light on the screen, and how one light plus one light plus one light can eventually illuminate the world.
Wishing you a peaceful and meaningful Mother’s Day – and sending big love to you all.
Xo Hope, daughter of Marcia