Help for Motherless Daughters

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Turning 42 this year was difficult for Hope Edelman. What made it hard was not the usual stuff, such as living in a youth-obsessed culture or watching her daughters, 6 and 10, growing older and taller before her suicide, a daughter typically views it as “an incredible rejection,” she says, unless it was painfully clear that the mother was mentally unstable.

Age-Related Issues

In general, the younger the child is when a parent dies, the more difficult it is from a developmental point of view, says Kovacs. “Everyone will have a wound when they lose their mother,” he says. “But if you lose her early, it does damage in addition.”

Experts don’t exactly agree on the “worst” age to lose a mother. “Losing a parent while you’re age 6 months to 3 years possibly predicts the worst outcome,” Kovacs says. That is the period “when kids are mastering the ritual of separation and attachment. That whole process needs a consistent person.”

Kovacs would expect those who lost their mothers this early to have problems moving forward and difficulty in forming intimate adult relationships.

From her research, Edelman believes “the hardest age to lose a mom is between 7 and 11, because you are mature enough to understand what death is, and it’s pretty scary.”

Goals: Cope, Integrate, Thrive

For those who have lost their mothers, Rando has this advice: “Find a healthy way of mourning this woman and then find out how to have a healthy connection with that person in the present and the future.”

For instance, she often talks about her mother to her children, now 13 and 15. “She is a presence in my life even though she is absent,” she says.

Some motherless daughters maintain a sense of connection, Tangney says, by wearing a piece of their mother’s jewelry. Others ask those who knew their mom to fill them in on who their mother was as a woman and a wife.

The goal, says Edelman, is to integrate the loss into your life and accept it “as part of what makes you the multidimensional person you are.” For this, she believes support groups for motherless daughters, which have formed all over the country, can help. “There is one piece of you that always feels different,” says Edelman, who serves on the board for Motherless Daughters of Orange County in California. Sitting at a table with women who feel the same is often a “normalizing” experience, she finds.

It can even help women who are adults when they lose their mothers, believes Alison Miller, who launched Tapestries of Hope, a New Jersey-based nonprofit organization that hosts workshops to help motherless daughters of all ages. The emphasis, she says, is on taking control of surrogate mother helps, experts say. “There are many women out there who will mother you if you are open,” Tangney says.

Kovacs agrees, sometimes suggesting if motherless daughters admire something about another woman — be it her parenting skills, her cooking, or her business sense — to ask for advice and mentoring.

It’s a Journey, Not a Passage

Like much of life, integrating a mother’s loss has ups and downs. Motherless daughters shouldn’t be hard on themselves as they navigate life without a mom, says Irene Rubaum-Keller, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles who leads the organization Motherless Daughters of Los Angeles.

In the traditional model of grief, she says, “acceptance used to be the last stage. Now, the goal is to understand it’s an ongoing life process. There will be days when you are as sad as you were the day she died.”

Edelman, for instance, says she has coped with her loss to the best of her ability. But after she breathed a sigh of relief about her upcoming 43rd birthday, a friend cautioned her: Wait until your oldest daughter turns 17.

Kovacs tells his grieving clients to think of the process as starting out with a tiny house and adding rooms. “When we are first born, we have a one-room shack,” he says. “Every life experience adds a room to the house. The death of a parent adds a big room. What’s important is to keep all the doors open to all the rooms. We will find ourselves visiting those rooms in our mind. Some rooms will have beautiful views. Some rooms you will need to go in, sit down, and cry occasionally.”

Women who have lost their mothers early may need to “visit” the sad rooms more often during important life transitions. “‘Expect to visit it, for instance, when you have a baby and your mom is not there to coach you,” Kovacs says.

But as time goes on, he says, you’ll go back to visiting the rooms with beautiful views.