Slow to Grieve

one daughter’s journey of loss

Dennett
Dennett
Mar 24 · 6 min read
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I am 66 years old. At this age, many women can say their mothers have passed on. Their losses may have come yesterday, last year, ten years ago, or more. Few can say their loss was 66 years ago.

My mother died when I was not quite three months old. Massive heart attack at the age of 39. She left behind me, two other daughters, and my dad — a man who would never have wanted children if he knew the future required him to be both father and mother. He wasn’t very good at either.

I grew up independent and proud of it. In my mind, my mother’s passing had nothing to do with me or who I would grow to be. After all, I never “knew” her and had no memories of her. I felt sorry for my older sisters who did. The loss of our mother was surely much harder for them. But, me? I was okay — better than okay — I was motherlessly okay.

But, I wasn’t.

It took years of depression, a crumbling marriage, and therapy for me to realize my mother and the loss of her were etched in my cells, swam through my veins, and dictated my life.

In a deep depression that I blamed on my marriage and my father, I started therapy. Sitting primly on a pale blue sofa, I listed all the facts that comprised my book of life for the previous 45 years. Then, I wanted to quickly move on to my real problems — my narcissistic father and my hoarding, self-consumed husband.

But, my doctor kept circling back to the dead-mother part of my story.

Irritated, I said: Why do you keep returning to my mother? She has nothing to do with me. I never knew her, have no memories of her, she doesn’t matter.

Doc gave me the book Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman to read. I balked. She insisted: Read it before our next session.

Image Credit: Amazon

If anything, I was obedient. I reluctantly read the book and cried through the whole damn thing. Gasping, gushing cries that lasted for hours. I cried for the woman who died so young. I cried for the little girl who never knew her. I cried for the grown woman who would never know her. I cried for every mother/daughter moment that didn’t exist, would never exist. I cried because I didn’t know how to be her daughter and because I didn’t know how to be anyone’s mother.

“When a daughter loses a mother, she learns early that human relationships are temporary, that terminations are beyond her control, and her feelings of basic trust and security are shattered. The result? A sense of inner fragility and overriding vulnerability. She discovers she’s not immune to unfortunate events, and the fear of subsequent similar losses may become a defining characteristic of her personality.”
Hope Edelman, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss

That’s when my therapy truly started. That’s when I learned that I suffocated people because I feared losing them. I held too tight, demanded too much. I wanted everyone in my life to provide the security I never received from a mother, and I tried to provide them with the same level of security, even when they didn’t want it.

I despised change. Clung to the status quo, even when it was unhealthy for me and for others. Nothing could change — ever — change was bad.

I invited grief into my life through others because I never grieved my mother. I wallowed in everyone else’s sadness, taking on their sorrow as though it were my own. Why? Because I didn’t own my sorrow. Didn’t acknowledge it. Lived in denial that I’d lost the most important person in my life before I had the opportunity to know and love her — before she had the opportunity to be the mother I needed. The tears were for both of us.

“When a mother dies too young, something inside her daughter always feels incomplete. There’s a missing piece she continues to look for, an emptiness she keeps trying to fill.”
Hope Edelman, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss

I was controlling because I thought as an adult I could control that which was out of my control as a child. Surely, I had the power now to keep my world in check, to protect myself and those I thought I loved.

And, love? I didn’t really know it. I didn’t know how to give or receive it in healthy ways. Didn’t know how to be love.

Mentally and emotionally unhealthy people were drawn to me, looking to have their needs met. I was dependable, empathetic, and comforting. They saw me as an answer when I was actually a gigantic question.

I returned to my therapist’s couch. Our work had just begun. When she asked about the book, I opened my mouth to speak but couldn’t. I cried for the better part of our hour together. Apologizing at the end of the session for wasting her time, she replied: This past hour is the most productive one you’ll experience with me.

And, she was right.

Many years have passed. Therapy didn’t save my marriage or my relationship with my father because neither deserved to be saved. Letting go was the healthiest outcome for me.

Once I grieved my mother — truly, deeply grieved — I was able to stand back and see my life for the train wreck it was. Getting back on the tracks meant pushing some boulders out of the way — my husband and my father, as well as other family members and a few friends. It was daunting to realize I surrounded myself with people who not only were incapable of giving me what I needed but were also detrimental to my well-being.

“The degree to which a surviving parent copes is the most important indicator of the child’s long-term adaptation. Kids whose surviving parents are unable to function effectively in the parenting role show more anxiety and depression, as well as sleep and health problems, than those whose parents have a strong support network and solid inner resources to rely on.”
Hope Edelman, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss

For the first time in my life, I put my needs and wants first. No longer was I content with surviving; I wanted to thrive.

At 49, long past my opportunity of conception, I adopted a teenager. If I never grieved my mother, I wouldn’t have become one. Through that deep, cellular grief, I began to learn how to be a mother — an imperfect mother but a loving one and one who would try unceasingly to be the mother she never had.

Becoming a mother eventually gave me the gift of grandchildren — an amazing experience my mother never knew. I grieve that she didn’t know the children my sisters bore. I grieve that she didn’t know my adopted daughter and her kids.

Grief is tough. And, complicated. And, never-ending.

Losing a mother, especially in childhood, is one of the most difficult experiences anyone will know.

I was late in my grieving, and I’ll never be over it because grief is a pool, deep in some places and shallow in others. For a long period, I was drowning in that pool. Now, I’m able to swim through both the shallow and deep parts, keeping my head above water.

“When a daughter loses a mother, the intervals between grief responses lengthen over time, but her longing never disappears. It always hovers at the edge of her awareness, ready to surface at any time, in any place, in the least expected ways. This isn’t pathological. It’s normal.”
Hope Edelman, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss

~All quotes above are from Goodreads.

© Dennett 2021

I dedicate this to Ann Litts who knows the grief of losing a mother while still a child and who gave me the gift of her story.

And, I am grateful to Alan Asnen for providing a safe and welcoming space for our true stories.

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Dennett

Written by

Dennett

I was always a writer but lived in a bookkeeper’s body before I found Medium and broke free — well, almost. Working to work less and write more.

In My Life

Personal memoirs. Few restrictions but some. All welcome as long as your stories are true and in non-fiction form.

Dennett

Written by

Dennett

I was always a writer but lived in a bookkeeper’s body before I found Medium and broke free — well, almost. Working to work less and write more.

In My Life

Personal memoirs. Few restrictions but some. All welcome as long as your stories are true and in non-fiction form.

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