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. I haven’t yet found an agent for Briefly I Knew My Mother, but I won’t give up. Motherless daughters need to know that they are not alone. Grieving children, devastated fathers and anxious teens search for themselves in other people’s stories of grief and loss. Memoir often provides comfort and hope because when we find ourselves on the page of somebody else’s book we do not feel so alone. In search of understanding an experience they are unfamiliar with, teachers, grandparents and concerned friends will often turn to memoir. Books help us in so many ways. Through shared experiences we can connect, and in turn, 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 am blessed to have a supportive and devoted father who raised me with care and kindness. I didn’t however have any friends who lost their mother early and so in this way I felt alone. I longed to meet another little girl whose mother had died. 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 I could relate to.
Since then I’ve discovered several wonderful books about mother loss by female authors, a few of whom live in Portland, Oregon. These books have meant the world to me. Every story here is unique but the struggles, pain & courage portrayed in these beautiful stories are relatable. The author’s/character’s ability to push through pain and adapt to circumstances empowers us. I’ve put together a list of my favorite books on the topic of mother loss. All but one are non-fiction/memoir. My list is in no particular order but I must 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. The 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. For me this was a breakthrough. Missing my mother was not only natural but 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’ve had the pleasure of meeting Hope on a few occasions, at motherless daughter’s retreats and writing workshops. Hope continues to write on the topic of grief and I appreciate the time and love she puts into this meaningful work.
2.THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd
It has been years since I read this gorgeous book but what moved me most about The Secret Life of Bees was its portrayal of Lily as a young motherless child attempting to come to grips with her loss and grief. The Secret Life Of Bees was the first fictional book I read, other than the stunning novel TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, to feature 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 Portland author Cheryl Strayed. Cheryl’s memoir addresses the themes of mother loss and grief and the challenges the author faces as a result of her mother’s death. I didn’t personally relate to some of the ways in which Cheryl deals with her mother’s death but I did relate to Cheryl’s enormous sense of loss. Everyone reacts differently in the face of grief and trauma and Cheryl’s gut-wrenching story drew me in with the first lines. I couldn’t put this gripping 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 quotes, some of which now appear in her book Brave Enough. As Cheryl lives here in Portland, Oregon I’ve had the joy of meeting her on several occasions. She is a beautiful human.
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 surrounding 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
A raw, brutal and touching memoir about Claire’s struggle with life following the death of her beloved mother. Both of the author’s parents were diagnosed with cancer when she was fourteen and Claire takes us on a heartbreaking journey of loss and grief. 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
Another one by Claire who 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. I had the pleasure of attending the first Motherless Daughter’s Retreat with Claire and Hope a few years ago and I took the opportunity to tell Claire how much I love this particular book of hers. In it she works to understand grief and find ways to connect and stay connected with loved ones in the afterlife. Her 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 the child’s voice in my memoir-in-progress Briefly I Knew My Mother. In reading the thoughts and emotions of the little girl I was able to relate to the author’s confusion, sorrow and acceptance of her mother’s illness.
“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 tremendously as a young child and BLACKBIRD 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. A few years ago I took part in a weekend writing workshop here in Portland, with Jennifer and Hope at Jennifer’s writing studio. I highly recommend checking out her classes if you live locally.
8.LETTERS FROM MOTHERLESS DAUGHTERS: WORDS OF COURAGE, GRIEF AND HEALING by Hope Edelman
This book is composed of letters written by motherless daughters aged from thirteen years into their seventies. We, motherless daughters, find ourselves in the lines of some of these letters and realize we’re not alone in our anger, sorrow and loneliness. Also included are insightful offerings from Hope. Motherless daughters experience profound sorrow and an enormous sense of loss. In the letters shared I met others who get what it feels like. This book is deeply comforting.
9.THE MERCY PAPERS: A MEMOIR OF THREE WEEKS by Robin Romm
I’m currently reading Robin’s heart-wrenching book after learning about it on a Dear Sugar podcast. At about three quarters of the way in I’m completely taken with Robin’s story of love and loss. With bravery this loving daughter shares her experience of three agonizing weeks leading to her mother’s death. Robin tells it as it is; it’s tough and scary to witness one’s mother’s failing health. Sprinkled with humor THE MERCY PAPERS is thoroughly absorbing. Robin is a brilliant writer.
“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. The children in this story lose both parents and it is gut-wrenching to witness such sorrow. The Kids Are All Right is an authentic, heartbreaking story of family, loss and grief.
“If his scent was still alive, how could he be dead?” -THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
Other books on the topic of mother loss exist and there are, of course, several on the subject of grief. In the future I will post a blog about these but for now please feel free to share your favorites in the comments section below. Books mean different things to different people and it is not easy to write and share such personal stories. I have the utmost respect for each of the authors above. My goal is to publish BRIEFLY I KNEW MY MOTHER, my personal 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 generate healing and connection by finding ourselves in the pages of someone else’s story.
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