I lost my mother to ovarian cancer when I was 11 years old. I’m 39 now. I’ve lived more years without my mother than with her. I’ve been through countless experiences without her by my side. When I was little people outside of my family didn’t speak to me about Mam. I’m sure they didn’t want to upset me, or themselves. They figured it was better to ignore the topic and move along. They didn’t know what to say. After so many years as a motherless daughter I’ve come to understand the ways in which we can be there for others who have lost. There are triggers that are upsetting to us, and there are ways in which a person can make a profound difference in our day. Recently somebody wrote to me and asked me how they could support a friend who had lost their mother. I responded immediately. I didn’t need to think about it because I’ve lived it.
1.Someone you know has lost their mother. There is nothing you or anybody can do to bring their mother back. What you can do is ask them how they are doing and be ready to listen. If your friend or loved one has recently lost their mother and isn’t ready to speak about it try again in a few days or a few weeks. It might take months for them to be ready but it makes a world of difference to know that there is someone who genuinely wants to be present for them. Perhaps they won’t talk, they just need to be comfortably silent with you. When they are ready to talk give them your full attention, take their hand if you feel inclined, and let them speak or cry. You don’t have to say anything. Just hear them out. Listen and don’t interrupt. Sometimes we think we must offer people answers or reassurances but we don’t. Being present is the key here.
I’m not suggesting you need to be a therapist for this person, or that you should neglect your own life or your own self-care. In some cases a person might need encouragement to see a therapist. Often all we need is a release and the comfort of knowing we have close friends who care. Some women have never had the chance to talk about losing their mothers. One of the most special things you can do for them is encourage them to talk about their moms. Just watch as their eyes light up!
2.Be aware of what you are saying. Over the years I’ve been reminded time and again what I’m missing out on when friends discuss going for pedicures with their mothers, lunching with moms or taking vacation with their moms. It always sparks a little something, but it’s unavoidable really, because so many women still have their mothers and like to do things with them. Honestly, it brings me joy to witness the blessings of others, even when I feel that twinge of sadness for myself. I wrote a blog specifically about this titled The Beauty Of Mothers.
When I’m in the company of strangers these people don’t know my circumstances. But maybe if people stopped assuming we all have our mothers it would be a start. My teachers in school would announce “Bring this note home to your mothers!” and they knew my mother was no longer alive! They never seemed to think! I was so young and yet I couldn’t fathom how these teachers of mine could be so insensitive, so careless and forgetful. When I was a teacher I made a very conscious decision to say to the children “Give this to your mom or dad or whoever is taking care of you!” According to the children’s personal circumstances I changed how I spoke.
If somebody in your circle has lost their mother, it might not be the best thing to start up a conversation about the blessings of having a mother, in their company. That might sound obvious, but it has happened to me on countless occasions. In college I had two friends discuss the blessings of having mothers who cared for them while they were sick the weekend prior. They spoke of how only a mother could pamper them as their moms had. They wondered aloud how they would survive without them. As my friends spoke I bit my lip and looked away.
3.Pay attention to dates. Your friend’s mother had a birthday. When was it? What date did the person’s mother die? This is huge! Mam died on March 2nd and the date is ingrained in my brain. I go to bed the night before in anticipation of the day ahead and I wake up with thoughts of Mam, how she died, how little I was, how uncertain everything was and my mind is just spinning. Some women spend the death anniversary in bed unwilling to get up and face the day because it’s too hard for them. Imagine the difference it would make to receive a text message or a kind phone call letting her know that you are thinking of them. Send a bunch of flowers. Flowers brighten everyone’s world. Perhaps ask what their mother’s favorite flowers were and send those.
The same goes for your friend’s mother’s birthday. What should be a celebration is now just a memory of past celebrations. Ask your friend if there is anything they would like to do on that date to help celebrate or remember their mother.
Mother’s Day is very tough. Please understand that while you might be celebrating your mother (and this is a wonderful thing) she is mourning hers. And if you are very close to that person, please don’t remain silent on the day, hoping nobody will remember. A motherless daughter never forgets those dates. Help her know that she is not alone.
4.Introduce her to other friends who have lost their mothers. This is another huge one! I wish I had known other motherless daughters growing up. I didn’t know any. I felt very alone in this. I felt different from everybody else. I was very fortunate to have a fantastic father and I got on very well with my older brother but if I had been introduced to another little girl like me it would have made a tremendous difference in my life.
Recently, through my author’s page I heard from a lady who lost her mother the year after I lost mine. We are close in age and lived in the same town. I remember seeing her around but I had no idea she was going through a similar devastating experience. When she reached out to me recently I wanted to do a time travel back to my past and throw my arms around that little girl. We could’ve been a team, the two of us, without our mothers but together, hand in hand.
It wasn’t until I moved to Portland, Oregon and discovered the Motherless Daughters’ group here, at the same time as I discovered Hope Edelman’s book, that I began to meet and form connections with other women who had lost their mothers. What a gift it has been!
5.Don’t compare having a bad relationship with your mother to someone whose mother has died. Certainly this is traumatic in its own way. I have friends who are estranged from their mothers and I listen to them speak about the rejection they felt growing up or the abuse they suffered. In some ways I feel that what they’ve been through may even be worse than what I went through because I had a very caring, devoted and nurturing mother. At the same time it’s not the same thing. One friend of mine would say “I may as well go with you to the Motherless Daughters group because all I do is fight with my mom. She may as well be dead!” This was very upsetting to hear. All I wanted was my mother and even though my friend wasn’t on good terms with hers she still had her at the other end of the phone line.
Everyone’s circumstances are different and some situations are so bad that the person’s mother is as good as dead to them. My point is acknowledging the differences. Death means gone forever and no opportunity whatsoever to change that, no chance of ever seeing that person in the flesh again and no possibility to discuss the past.
We have the potential to lift others in times of sadness. Often we want to help but we don’t know how.
The round sky goes on minding its business.
Your absence is inconspicuous;
Nobody can tell what I lack.
Parliament Hill Fields – by Sylvia Plath