A Motherless Tribe
I’m a strong believer in sharing our hearts,
sharing our love,
sharing our thoughts,
and to my motherless sisters
who have lost as I,
our precious sweet mothers
who are no longer close by,
we can guide one another
and share our hearts,
share our grief
as we fall apart.
We can speak our sorrows,
make time to meet,
help each other
get back on our feet.
What we’ve lost
can never be replaced,
we long for our mother,
just to see her face.
I like to imagine my mother with me in spirit,
she’s in nature and beauty
and a bird’s song when I hear it.
Some of us sense our mothers close by;
some of us lose her completely when she dies.
Our experiences differ,
our beliefs aren’t the same,
but because we long for our mothers,
we know each other’s pain.
We are motherless daughters,
a tribe of our own;
let’s connect and share our stories,
we are not alone.
by Carmel Breathnach 2017
A spiritual healer once gave me this advice: “Close your eyes and visualize yourself as a young child when you were feeling anxious.You didn’t even realize you were scared. Now hold that child close to you and whisper to her that she will be okay. Tell her that she is not alone. Hold her. Let her rest against you. Visualize it. She’ll hear you.”
I performed the visualization. I hope it helped little me. It helps me now just to imagine that I am holding my five year old self tight, hugging me close, running my fingers through my soft, clean hair.
Love is really the only thing that counts, isn’t it? We all crave it. Everybody wants to be loved. And if we are fortunate enough to have love in our lives, we do everything we can to hold on to it. When somebody we love loves us back, wants to hold us, hear what we have to say and spend time with us, it is a gift like no other. When we lose that somebody, the grief we experience feels unbearable.
But grief is love that is stored inside of us with no place to go. We grieve because we have loved. And to love is a beautiful thing.
This past week I read a very sad story. I read that a beautiful family has been ripped apart suddenly and tragically, a young nursing mother left to raise her newborn baby in the wake of losing her four year old daughter. The young woman’s husband sustained serious brain injuries and is fighting for his life. This story choked me up. There is so much sadness and tragedy in our world. I find it hard to take sometimes. I’m a highly sensitive person which according to Susan Cain, author of ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking‘ means that I ‘feel exceptionally strong emotions-sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear.’ I also believe that I have a deeper empathy and compassion for those suffering as a result of the years I spent watching my mother battle cancer. I know what it feels like to be afraid of losing someone you love, to feel helpless as you watch them suffer, to lose that person and never see them again. It’s a pain so cutting and deep that it can take your breath away.
This Sunday, March 26, is Mother’s Day in Ireland where I grew up. It is Mother’s Day in the UK and in other parts of the world. I’ve already planned an escape for our USA Mother’s Day in May. Everyone will celebrate their mothers, as they should, but it’s really, really hard for those of us who have lost ours. We are forced to remember exactly what we live without.
I’m reading a book called ‘The Happiness Project‘ at the moment. It’s a great book by Gretchen Rubin about finding happiness in everyday places and things. I’m generally a happy person. I’m full of gratitude for many aspects of my life but I wanted to see what I could learn from this happiness project of hers. Only a few pages in the author needs advice so she calls her mother for a ‘pep talk.’ Then she casually mentions that throughout her life her mother made her feel ‘that nothing was insurmountable.’ There it is! That jolt of awareness! That sadness in my chest because I didn’t have that. There were no phone calls to my mother for pep talks. She wasn’t there after my eleventh year.
Mother’s Day during my school years were the worst. Teachers encouraged us all to create cards or dedicate art projects to our mothers. None of my teachers ever addressed the fact that I no longer had a mother. I felt awkward, different, sad, bewildered. I probably doodled on a page or drew a picture for Dad. I don’t remember exactly what I did, but I remember the pain in my heart on those occasions and just feeling so left out.
This coming Mother’s Day I want to visualize eleven year old me. I want to hold her close and whisper that she is loved and that she will be okay. I got this. I am strong. My mother is with me always. I am part of her and she is part of me. Blessed to still have my dad, I carry his love with me everyday, and I carry the strength of my ancestors who have gone before us.
I know that there are people around the world suffering great sadness and injustices as I write. Their pain is my pain. Their joy is my joy. For those people fortunate enough to still have their mothers and to be mothers, I wish them all a day filled with love and happiness. And for those of us who have loved and lost, I hear you and I see you. We understand each other’s sorrow. Let’s lift each other up in whatever ways we can. Let’s honor the mothers in all of us, every day. The world needs more mothering and more love.
March 2, 1988 my mother, Kathleen, died quietly in her bed as Dad sat watching over her. In bedrooms on either side of my parent’s room, my brother and I slept soundly, my aunt asleep in the bed next to mine. Just writing this, recalling the moment my mother took her last breath, has me choking back tears. I imagine my kind father, his heart tortured from years of watching my mother suffer and helping her however he could, realize that my mother has left us, forever.
Right now, this is the hardest thing for me. Knowing the loss my father suffered much too early in his married life. He didn’t deserve this blow. None of us did. Mam should have been allowed to live. She was one of the kindest, most thoughtful, nurturing and capable people I’ve ever had the chance to know. And I only knew her for eleven years.
Last August I attended the first ever Motherless Daughters Retreat with Hope Edelman and Claire Bidwell Smith whose books I have devoured and cherished. I had just finished reading Claire’s second book After This when I decided to look her up on social media. The timing was immaculate. The first post of hers that I saw was in reference to the Ojai Motherless Daughters Retreat and I really wanted to go. It was to be held in August and I was getting married in September. Preparing for our wedding without my mother was proving challenging. I was missing Mam in a whole new way. The prospect of spending a weekend with Hope, Claire and a group of motherless daughters who lost their mothers early in life comforted me. I was terribly disappointed to learn that the retreat was booked to capacity, but within days of contacting Hope there was a cancellation and after several others on the cancellation list had been contacted I was offered the spot. I literally jumped out of my office chair with joy.
The weekend I spent in Ojai with twenty three beautiful, strong, vibrant, inspiring ladies was truly a gift. Twenty four of us, from diverse backgrounds, arrived from across the USA, Canada and Australia. We sat together and shared our deeply personal stories of mother loss. We nodded, cried, laughed, sighed. We understood each other’s pain. Our stories were different, but the same. Our mothers were taken from us way too soon and we continue to miss them every single day.
What a powerful and comforting experience for me to be in a space with twenty four women who understood my grief, why some days were so hard and others so good. Why, after so many years, we still long for the mother who loved and cared for us as nobody else can. We worked through things together. We held space for each other. We talked and we listened. The most valuable piece of this experience, for me personally, is the sisterhood I gained. I found my tribe in Ojai. We continue to connect online regularly and when we’re feeling anxious, down or confused about something we have a safe place to share our thoughts. We celebrate happy times, like weddings and birthdays, and we hold a special place in our hearts for each other.
When I was in Ojai I saw a beautiful grey purse that I thought might be a nice addition on my wedding day. It was a little pricey so I didn’t purchase it. But after I left I was sorry I didn’t get it. Not only was the purse perfect for my gown, but I could carry a little piece of Ojai around with me on my special day. I rang the store and ordered it over the phone. On September 24 when I got married I had my Ojai purse with me all day. This purse was a reminder that out there in the world was a community of ladies who understood the challenges and delights this important day would bring. Their messages, sent on the morning of our wedding, meant so much.
And so, on the anniversary of my mother’s passing-I’m typing this around the time that she left our world- I feel a strong sense of community now that I have my Ojai sisters. I’ll share with them that today is my mother’s anniversary. They’ll know exactly what that means.
Growing up I didn’t know anyone who lost their mother early in life. I met some very special ladies in Portland, Oregon through the Motherless Daughters group and I remain close to some of them. It’s life-changing to have these connections. It’s necessary for healing to occur. There are others who will hold us and love us and be there for us, but the connection between motherless daughters is a special one. The heaviness in our hearts is truly shared. At least that is my experience. I’ve achieved this in my writing because motherless daughters have reached out to me with their stories. We need to build more bridges and connect with each other. It’s important to weave these invisible nets of love. Today I will hold space for Mam’s beautiful memory. I’ll hold space for my dad and my brother and eleven year old me. And grown up me, well, I’ll be okay. I’m surrounded by love and I can feel it.
My mother was born on February 18th. She’s not alive anymore but that special date, February 18th, whispers to me like a soft little hum in my ear all year round until February lands and I anticipate her birthday in all of its painful glory.
I asked Mam once what her favorite number was and she told me it was 18. So I know one of her favorite things. I don’t know her favorite color although I suspect it may have been a shade of purple, like lavender perhaps? I don’t know what her favorite food was or her favorite drink. I never asked her if she had a favorite book or a favorite friend? She had so many friends and was such a sweet person that I don’t think she would have admitted to having a favorite, but I’d like to hear her responses. I like the number 18 too. It’s probably my favorite number although before Mam told me hers, my favorite number was 8.
I was born in January, Mam’s birthday is in February and my dad’s birthday is in March. Three consecutive months of family birthdays beginning with mine at the very start of each new year. And we’ve been without Mam now since I was 11 years old. Yes, this time of year is trying for me emotionally.
Mam died in March, just three days before my dad’s birthday, and followed quickly by the hullabaloo of Mother’s Day which in Ireland, where I was born and raised, is celebrated a mere few weeks after the date she died.
Mam’s birthday and the anniversary of her death are quietly remembered by those who were closest to my mother. Dad and I call each other on those dates and some family members call my father on March 2nd which we appreciate. It’s a nice thing to do. But in the years since Mam died rarely does anybody else mention her to me on these sad but significant occasions. I understand that many people forget dates. People don’t want to bring it up, don’t want to upset me. But, guess what? I know what date it is and I’m well aware of what I’m missing. I haven’t forgotten. It is always nice to know that someone is thinking of you. To know that the person who meant the world to you is being thought of, that their death did not cancel out their memory, that your loss is recognized by those who love you is one of the greatest, most meaningful gifts you can give anybody.
Today, as always on Mam’s birthday, I’ll speak silently to her. I’ll wish her a happy birthday wherever she may be, and I’ll tell her I miss her and wish she hadn’t been taken from us so soon. This year I have a book written in her honor and it is ready to be sent out into the world when the time is right. I hope and pray that the time will soon be right. A LOVELY WOMAN is a story of mother loss. It is Mam’s story and my story, and it explores the universal experience of love, mother loss and grief. My memoir sheds light on early childhood anxiety and the ways we learn to cope and is a testament to family, resilience, compassion and truth-telling. I’ve poured my heart into this book.
Happy Birthday, Mam, wherever you are! You were born on this day many, many years ago and it is a special, wonderful, magical day. I’ll light a candle in your honor and browse through some photographs of us while sipping a cup of hot tea. Come sit with me while I browse? I have a feeling you will.
“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…”
When a friend of mine posted this photograph of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher I could not take my eyes from it as my heart filled with awe, envy and love for these two women. Now, I’m not a Star Wars fan. I have only ever seen one of the films and I remember nothing about it. And I don’t watch many movies so I haven’t seen Debbie or Carrie in anything. I didn’t know either of them until social media went on fire following Carrie’s death. So the emotions I felt on seeing this beautiful image did not arise out of devotion to these actors or their film roles, but from a place deep inside myself where a little girl is longing to be held and have her hair stroked by her mother and to feel an ounce of what these ladies were feeling when this photograph was snapped.
The feelings that rushed over me on seeing this photograph came from a deep place. I love to watch mothers and daughters together, enjoying each other’s company, showing their affection towards each other, being supportive and laughing in tandem. I smile when mothers kindly offer advice to their grown children, even when that advice is waved away. I’ve written about my appreciation of the mother-daughter bond in my blog post The Beauty of Mothers. It truly is a unique and special bond.
I am in awe of this bond because my mother died when I was 11 years old. I have no experience of Mam from my adult perspective. As a grown woman I never got to sit down with her and ask her grown up things. There is so much I’d love to discuss with her now. For most of my life I’ve been without my mother. And isn’t our mother supposed to be with us always, guiding us along, protecting us on our journey, teaching us things like her recipe for drop scones that I’ve never been able to replicate? Holding my hand, hearing my words when nobody else quite understands because she’s my mother and she would always understand!
And why was my mother taken when so many others were allowed to keep theirs? At 11 years old I silently asked this question because I knew nobody else who was without their mother. Enter envy. Every motherless daughter I’ve connected with who lost their mother early in life feels this envy too. We want our mothers with us. There’s an empty hole in our hearts that cannot be filled since losing the person who brought us into this world.
I remember spending a lot of time in my friend’s house during secondary school in Ireland. My friend and her mother did not get on, but I loved both of them. My friend was fun, out-going, creative and wild. Her mother was younger than many of my other pal’s mothers and much more open to talking about things. She spoke candidly to my friend and I about alcohol, boyfriends, puberty and birth control. I enjoyed talking with her but my friend just wanted to avoid her mother. They fought like cats and dogs, banging doors and yelling at each other. I wanted to say to my friend “She’s your mother, please at least give her a chance,” and I did sometimes say things like that, but rarely did it work. My friend was a blossoming teenager, strong-willed and stubborn. She didn’t need any motherly advice. And yet she’d say to me, “I can’t imagine not having my mother.” She had sincere compassion for me.
“The relationship between parents and children, but especially between mothers and daughters, is tremendously powerful, scarcely to be comprehended in any rational way.” Joyce Carol Oates
The above photograph moved me. I felt a sincere appreciation for this mother-daughter moment. Even if it was fleeting. I don’t know. But this precious captured moment is one that I and many other women who lost their moms early in life will never have. It brings joy to my heart to see it.
I since read that Debbie Reynolds wrote in her 2013 autobiography, Unsinkable:
“It’s not natural to outlive your child. This has always been my greatest fear. I don’t know if I could survive that. Carrie is my child and I love her with every ounce of strength I possess.”
It is likely that the death of her daughter led to Debbie Reynolds’ stroke as she sat at home making arrangements for Carrie’s funeral. It is likely that this woman could not imagine life without her daughter. I can believe that because I am certain of the love that exists between a mother and daughter. Not everyone is blessed to have this loving bond but many are.
A friend of mine blurted on hearing of Debbie’s death, “I need to call my mother more often!” What a gift it is to have your mother at the end of that phone line.