Childhood grief, Death, Grief, Grief stories, Grief Writing, Mother Loss, Motherless Daughter, Support groups

Talking Grief

I can’t overemphasize the value of finding somebody to talk to about your grief; somebody who understands, somebody who cares, somebody who listens without judgment. We are rarely totally alone on the path of mourning, although it does sometimes feel that way.

For years and years I didn’t talk about my loss. I was only eleven when Mam died, so I didn’t process her death as I would have had she died when I was an adult. I went about my days, playing with friends, getting into trouble at school (minor troubles like talking too much when I should have been listening or cracking up laughing with my BFF when we should have been paying attention to the teacher), spending hours on my homework and enjoying home-life with my dad and brother. But, there were times when things were hard for me. Hitting puberty without my mother caused anxiety and embarrassment. Meeting new friends who didn’t know about my loss caused anxiety and embarrassment. They would mention something about parents and as I’d quickly relate my situation I’d end up almost wanting to apologize for being the bearer of such bad news while hoping that this new fact could be ignored by the others and we could just move on. There were other things too. But, what really would have made a difference I believe is had I met another little girl who shared my experience at the time.

There was no little girl who ever said “My mother died too.”

I didn’t hear those words ever. And in that way I was alone in my loss. My dad was, and is, always willing and open to talking about Mam. I am blessed in that regard. Dad was there for me every step of the way. But in social circles there was nobody who understood.

And that is why, when in my late twenties I found Hope Edelman’s book ‘Motherless Daughters, that I found a tribe of women who were like me. I couldn’t believe there were so many of us because I had never met another young woman who was without her mother. Many blessings come with finding your tribe. We don’t all share the exact same feelings and experiences and that is okay. We understand the power of sharing our stories and the value of having people there to listen.

Here in Portland, Oregon we are fortunate to have the Grief Rites Foundation which provides awareness, advocacy and education to the grieving community. On a monthly basis storytellers come together and share their stories of life, loss and love in a safe space. Grief Rites says they are about “Taking back our right to grieve. Our right to mourn. Our right to live. Our right to love. Our right to remember.” I just love those words, especially ‘Our right to remember’, because often when we lose someone we don’t feel that we have the right, or the safe place, to remember those dear loved ones we miss so much.

People don’t know what to say when I tell them that I’m writing a memoir about losing my mother to cancer when I was a child. When the conversation comes up about mother loss people try to say the right thing with good intention but unless they really get it, clichés are usually offered. I’m used to it after all of these years and I don’t take it to heart. A listening ear, or a kind word is often all that is needed.

What hurts is when people say something without putting thought into it, something that is said to invalidate your grief. A few years ago I was reading Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Wild is a gorgeous book about bravery and loss, self-discovery and healing, love and heart-ache. My friend had also read Wild just a few months before me. We were sitting together having lunch, looking out over a beautiful lake; Wild beside me on the wooden bench. “Her heartache, her loss, her grief is so huge,” my friend said to me. I was only a few chapters in but I was already familiar with Cheryl’s aching heart, and I related to her words in a way that was not only powerful but refreshing. Cheryl had experienced the loss of her mother, one I experienced as a child, and although our experiences were quite different, we both loved so resolutely the woman who had birthed us, and we both felt all those emotions that came following her death; anger, frustration, bitterness, guilt, emptiness and on and on. I was connecting in a deep and meaningful way with the author when my friend said, in between bites of her sandwich, “I know you lost your mother when you were a child, but she (the author) was so close to hers, they were like best friends! Her loss was felt at such a deep level because she grew up feeling so close to her.” She went on to say a few things about why Cheryl’s loss was more harrowing than mine while I sat dumbfounded, hurting and in disbelief that anyone, let alone a kind, smart friend of mine would compare mother loss like that. What hurt me most was that she didn’t know what I had lost. I didn’t know what I had lost when I lost it! But nobody else can possibly know anything so personal, and nobody should be the judge of that.

We can all make comparisons. I met with the wonderfully smart author of The Mercy Papers, Robin Romm, at Powell’s recently and when I told her of my loss she was very sympathetic. She said it was difficult for her to lose her mother when she was a young adult but that it was another thing to lose Mam when I was a child. I appreciated her sentiments but said that it was difficult either way. In Robin’s gut-wrenching book she shows us how difficult losing her mother was for her.

What happened in my life is of course very sad. I didn’t get to have my mother for long and she was a kind, devoted, intelligent woman who could’ve taught me so much. But there are friends of mine who lost their moms at an even younger age than me. I get messages from women who lost their mothers when they were only babies. These stories break my heart in two. I’m broken for the sweet mother who had to leave her baby and I’m broken for the baby who will grow into childhood without her mother and into adulthood yearning to know their momma. Losing the person we love so deeply rips us apart at any age.

It’s not kind or valuable in any way to use our stories to undermine somebody else’s story, or to seek to accrue more sympathy than somebody else. What we need to do is deepen our understanding of one another by hearing what the person is saying, asking questions and really listening to the response, reading about other people’s experiences and thinking before we speak. If we can increase our powers of empathy and emerge from our experiences as new people we can tear down the artificial wall that stands between us and the other. We can grow as humans. We can support one another. We can create safe places for those who need to grieve, share, laugh and love. This goes for anybody’s story, whatever it is. Let’s reach for one another, use our voices and connect with love.

“When we share our stories, what it does is, it opens up our hearts for other people to share their stories. And it gives us the sense that we are not alone on this journey.” Janine Shepherd

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10 Books For Motherless Daughters, Death, Grief stories, Memoir, Mother Loss, Motherless Daughter, On Writing

10 Books I Recommend for Motherless Daughters

Beverly Cleary said “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.” I didn’t see the book I wanted. I didn’t see the book I needed, so I decided to write it. It took years. I haven’t found an agent for A LOVELY WOMAN, but I won’t give up. There are many, many motherless daughters out there who need to know that they are not alone. There are grieving children, devastated dads, inexperienced teachers, hurting grandparents and concerned friends who desperately want to read as much as they can on grief and loss so that they may learn and grow through other people’s traumatic experiences. There are people struggling to cope with a profound loss who want to move forward and take healthy children along with them. Books help. Through shared experiences we can heal. It took me years to believe that I had a story worth sharing.

My mother died when I was 11. She got sick when I was very young. I was, and am, blessed to have a supportive, loving, devoted father who raised me with care and kindness. I didn’t however have any friends who lost their mother and so I felt very alone in this. I longed to meet another little girl whose mother had died. And I didn’t find these ‘friends’ in books either. I’ve always been a reader but it wasn’t until my twenties that I found a book on mother loss that I could relate to.

Since then I’ve discovered several wonderful books written by women about the death of their mothers. These books have meant the world to me. Each one is unique, every story so personal, but as human beings we relate to the emotions and what tugs at our heart strings. The ability of the author/character to push through the pain empowers us. We read on. I’ve put together a list of my favorite books on mother loss. All but one are non-fiction and memoir. My list is in no particular order but I will begin with the ‘mother’ of all motherless daughters books.

1.MOTHERLESS DAUGHTERS: THE LEGACY OF LOSS by Hope Edelman

This book had a major impact on me. I hadn’t heard of MOTHERLESS DAUGHTERS until I moved to the USA in my late twenties and discovered the Portland Motherless Daughters group through meetup. This book deeply examines all aspects of mother loss and in reading it I immediately felt less alone. In amazement I read the shared experiences and feelings of other motherless daughters and learned that contrary to what I believed it is natural for a daughter to continue grieving for her mother. This was a breakthrough for me. Missing my mother was not only natural but also universal.

“When a mother dies, a daughter grieves. And then her life moves on. She does, thankfully, feel happiness again. But the missing her, the wanting her, the wishing she were still here – I will not lie to you, although you probably already know. That part never ends.” -Hope Edelman

I’m forever grateful to Hope for the time and love that she put into writing this book.

2.THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd

It has been six years since I read this book but what I remember most about it is 1. I loved it and couldn’t put it down. 2. This was the first fictional book I read, other than the gorgeous TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, that featured a young motherless girl as the protagonist. I loved Lily and I related to her deep musings about her dead mother.

“My mother died…but if I brought it up, people would suddenly get interested in their hangnails and cuticles.”

“The bag contained a pair of white cotton gloves stained the color of age. When I pulled them out I thought, Her very hands were inside here.”

At times this book pierced my heart. How was it that Lily could articulate some of my exact thoughts? But this is what books do best. They generate feelings, enhance our lives and give us words for what we already know deep down inside.

3.WILD by Cheryl Strayed

WILD is a beautifully written book by author Cheryl Strayed who lives here in Portland, Oregon. Cheryl’s memoir addresses the themes of mother loss and grief, and the demons the author faces as a result of her mother’s death. I didn’t personally relate to the drug use or some of the ways in which Cheryl deals with her mother’s death, and the challenging Pacific Crest Trail hike is way out of my league, but I did relate to Cheryl’s pain. Everyone reacts differently in the face of grief and trauma and Cheryl’s gut-wrenching story drew me in with the first lines. This author is one brave and beautiful human. I couldn’t put this memoir down.

“My mother used to say something that drove me nuts. There is a sunrise and a sunset every day and you can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty.” -Cheryl Strayed

This book is filled with encouraging, beautiful quotes. I’m a huge fan of Cheryl Strayed.

4.THE LONG GOODBYE by Meghan O’Rourke

In this intensely personal memoir, spot on with the grief a Mother’s death brings, the author examines her own relationships and reactions to death. Meghan has a beautiful way with words and although the book is a tough read due to the heavy subject matter I highly recommend it to motherless daughters. Meghan addresses America’s lack of traditions and rituals around death and I related deeply to her writing on societal expectations on the grieving process.

“It is human to want our friends and family to recover from pain, to look for a silver lining – or so I reminded myself. But when people stop mentioning the dead person’s name to you, the silence can seem worse than the pain of hearing those familiar, beloved syllables.” -Meghan O’Rourke

This book is an important contribution to a culture struggling to confront death and deal with grief.

5.THE RULES OF INHERITANCE by Claire Bidwell Smith

This is a raw, brutal and touching memoir about Claire’s struggle with life following the death of her beloved mother. Both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer when she was fourteen. Claire takes us on a heartbreaking journey. Powerful and emotional it was Claire’s recounting of the suffering and subsequent death of her father towards the book’s end that really got me. I sat sobbing quietly in a local coffee shop, the book held close to my face, unable to cease my flow of tears. Claire is a talented writer with a bounty of wisdom to share.

“In all my years of grief, and in my years as a bereavement counselor, the single most powerful healing mechanism I’ve found is simple presence. The opportunity for a person to feel seen and heard in the middle of one of the loneliest experiences in their life can have a profound effect.” -Claire Bidwell Smith

 

6.AFTER THIS: WHEN LIFE IS OVER WHERE DO WE GO? by Claire Bidwell Smith

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Claire has experienced several losses in her life, including the death of her mother, her father and several close friends. These losses coupled with her profession as a grief counselor set her on the path to exploring the afterlife. In this book Claire takes us along with her as she works to understand grief and find ways to connect and stay connected with loved ones in the afterlife. This exploratory journey is engrossing and thought-provoking and Claire’s findings were extremely comforting to me. I highly recommend this beautiful book. It left me with a strong sense of peace.

“If there’s one message that comes through more than any other, it’s this one. They want you to know they’re still here, they’re still connected to you. They want you to go on, to live your life. ” -Claire Bidwell Smith

 

7.BLACKBIRD by Jennifer Lauck

This book drew me in from the very beginning. An engrossing memoir BLACKBIRD rocked me, crushed me and left me shaking and in awe. BLACKBIRD is a memoir about mother loss, grief, adoption, love and family. Jennifer uses the voice of the child to relate her story and I love that she does because I also use my child’s voice in my memoir A LOVELY WOMAN. I relate to the author’s confusion, acceptance and sorrow over her mother’s illness as portrayed when she was a little girl.

“Without Momma, it’s like being lost without a reason, and inside my body is an empty space that can’t get filled up.” -Jennifer Lauck

Jennifer suffers terribly in this book and it is a tough read for that reason. However, her story is a testimony to survival and one of the best memoirs I have ever read.

8.LETTERS FROM MOTHERLESS DAUGHTERS: WORDS OF COURAGE, GRIEF AND HEALING by Hope Edelman

I loved this book which is made up of letters written by motherless daughters aged thirteen years and into their seventies. There are also many insightful offerings from Hope throughout. Motherless daughters share the same feelings and emotions, similar fears and anxieties and an intense loneliness for the mother we’ve lost. It’s comforting to read the stories of other women and young girls. We are not alone. This book helps remind us of that.

9.THE MERCY PAPERS: A MEMOIR OF THREE WEEKS by Robin Romm

I’m currently reading this book after learning about it on a Dear Sugar podcast recently. I’m about three quarters of the way through and what I can say about it is this. Robin tells it as it is and it’s not pretty. She is bravely sharing her experiences of three agonizing weeks leading to her mother’s death. It’s mostly very heavy reading but humor is sprinkled in there among the sadness and chaos. Robin’s writing is absolutely brilliant.

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“We could get a cup of coffee. But who wants coffee? Who wants to see anyone in the outside world? The outside world has gotten increasingly foreign. People smile for no reason, purchase sugary snacks, worry over leaky roofs out loud to strangers. Who needs this?” -Robin Romm

 

10. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT  by The Welch family

Okay, this one is a little different. A compelling memoir told from the perspectives of four Welch children, orphaned in their youth after their wealthy father dies in a mysterious car accident, and their loving mother loses her battle with cancer. This is an authentic, heart-wrenching story of family, loss and grief.

The kids are alright

“If his scent was still alive, how could he be dead?” -THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

I know that there are other books written about mother loss out there, and many beautiful books about grief. I haven’t gotten to them yet, but I hope to someday. Please feel free to share your favorites in the comments section below. Books mean different things to different people. Determined and brave enough to share their valuable stories with us, I have the utmost respect for each of the authors above. It is my dream to publish A LOVELY WOMAN, my own story of mother loss, in the near future. Sharing our heart stories is not easy, but it is important. We can lift each other up with our words and find ourselves in the pages of someone else’s story.

“We read to know we’re not alone.”
William Nicholson, Shadowlands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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