May 11, 2019
Dear Motherless Daughter,
Here we find ourselves again, on the brink of another second Sunday in May. It’s easier in some years than in others, isn’t it? For many years after my mother died, this Sunday was all about missing her on a day that seemed culturally sanctioned to remind girls like me of what we no longer had. Later, it became a day to spend with my daughters and celebrate our bond. Now it’s also the day that caps off a month of Motherless Daughters Luncheons all over the US, Canada and Australia, bringing women together worldwide to honor mothers who are no longer living.
Many of the women who participate in these luncheons lost their mothers when they were children and teens. In other words, five, ten, twenty, even forty years ago. There aren’t many occasions to acknowledge the profound effect such a loss has had on us, or how long the ripple effects last.
Grief books and bereavement programs tend to focus on the first year or two after a loss, to help mourners move from a phase of intense grief back to optimal functioning. To receive this kind of support immediately after a loss can be invaluable. To need it ten or twenty years later is a different story entirely. We don’t have a framework or even a language to adequately talk about historical losses. So we often find ourselves unprepared, after the intense phase passes, to understand what comes next.
When someone close to us dies, we need to figure out how to continue without that person’s living presence. At the same time, we’re struggling to create and maintain a new, inner relationship with the person who died. So much of the pain I used to feel around Mother’s Day, I realize now, came from a disruption in that inner relationship. When my family stopped talking about my mother dying, we also stopped talking about her life. As a result, my mother and I became disconnected. I felt no bond with her in the present, only in the past, until my daughter was born/ That’s when a need to feel close to my mom came rushing in like a forceful, rogue wave.
There’s nothing new about visualizing grief as an ocean. grief does have properties that seem to advance and retreat, ebb and flow. But the metaphor positions mourners as powerless to the mercy of nature, and I’m not sure that part is true. Waiting for a wave to recede is a very active process. It requires a commitment to patience, an agreement to delay gratification, and faith that the water will eventually return to a calmer, more predictable state and we’ll stand on dry sand again. We have agency here.
Every spring for the past 25 years, I’ve been asked, “What’s the best way for a motherless daughter to spend Mother’s Day?” Over the years I’ve talked about doing an activity your mother once enjoyed; about being kind and patient with your grief; and about taking time for self-care.
This year, I’ve been thinking more about how to translate growth into action, and so I’ve been answering the question differently. Because as contradictory as it may sound, forming new connections to a mother who died is, I believe, what best helps us cope with our mothers being dead.
This Mother’s Day, I invite you to think about which of your mother’s qualities you admire most. Did she appreciate beauty? Work hard at everything she did? Always show kindness to your friends? Then ask yourself, Which of these qualities would she most have liked to see carried forward in me? (If you had a difficult or disconnected relationship with your mother, which qualities do you hope to avoid? What are their opposites?)
Now pick one of the qualities that you’d like to carry forward. In what way, small or large, can you translate it into action on Mother’s Day? Can you rope off part of the day so you can appreciate something beautiful, or work hard at a task, or help a friend in need? Can you think of a way to make someone’s else’s life happier on this day, or to improve your own, using a memory or story about your mother as your inspiration and guide?
If this weekend is easier than usual for you, please extend your hand to another woman in need. If you’re having a tough time yourself, especially if your loss is very recent, I promise the water will eventually recede. You’ll walk on a dry shoreline again.
The sand is soft there. The sun is warm. Keep walking. So much is waiting for you, just around the next bend.
Sending big love to you for this coming weekend and beyond,