It’s Mother’s Day, and while I celebrate my own motherhood, I also think about my mom, who died almost 22 years ago. On the late-summer day when she gave up her brief-but-valiant battle against breast cancer, I prayed the crystalline skies would swallow my shock, that my sorrow would float away on the warm breezes of early September. But they didn’t. My shock and sorrow ultimately morphed into a grief I’ve carried with me, in one form or another, for my entire adult life. Until I became a mom a few years ago, Mother’s Day was a dark time, a raw reminder of all I had lost.
A TIME TO DIE
I was 15 when my mom passed on, and her death made the discomfort of adolescence more, well, uncomfortable. None of my friends had experienced death first-hand, and most of my family members were ill-prepared for the severity of the loss we experienced. Though they offered me some solace, they had their own grief to confront. Without a mother–a child’s ultimate protector–I soon realized I was on my own, and subconsciously began mothering myself. On one hand I developed a great sense of resolve and determination, to survive at any cost. On the other, I constructed iron-clad emotional walls in hopes of protecting myself from the grief that results from loss.
About a year later, my mom’s mom bought me a book called “Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss,” by Hope Edelman. The book gave me new hope. Reading Edelman’s story and those of the women in her book, I realized there were others familiar with my particular brands of anguish, fear, frustration and emptiness.
In the introduction of “Motherless Daughters,” Edelman sets the cultural context for mother loss:
This cultural resistance to mother loss actually is a symptom of a much deeper psychological denial, which originates from the place in our psyches where mother represents comfort and security no matter what our age, and where the mother-child bond is so primal that we equate its severing with a child’s emotional death. Because everyone carries into adulthood a child’s fear of being left alone and unprovided for, the motherless child symbolizes a darker, less fortunate self. Her plight is everyone’s nightmare, at once impossible to imagine and impossible to ignore.
Emotionally, part of me died with my mom. As a teenager, I didn’t have enough life experience to help me make sense of her death, so I carved out a new life for myself. There were two eras in my existence: the with-mom years, and the post-mom years. I learned to live without her–to live happily, even–but it didn’t get easier with time, especially not when I confronted major milestones; it was during those times that she seemed to die all over again. Graduating from high school, college and graduate school, all were bittersweet, and I wondered what she would say or do if she had lived to see those days.
Getting engaged, planning my wedding and ultimately getting married were the most difficult times without her. Initially I wanted to elope because planning a wedding without a mom felt so strange–a reality underscored by the many vendors expecting a bride-to-be to show up with her mom. I remember crying when I visited our florist, feeling second-rate because I brought my fiancé, not my mom, to help with decisions.
A TIME TO BE BORN
Before getting pregnant with my son, I was hesitant–to even try to have children. Though I wanted a family, I was entirely unsure of my ability to mother; after all, my model had been gone for years. As a product of a divorced family, I didn’t know a happy childhood, and recreating one for some innocent little beings seemed beyond my reach. Why not just get a dog and a cat, and call that our family? That would’ve been the easy way out, though, and I know God called me to at least try to have children.
During my pregnancy with my son, I feared new motherhood would force me to wade through a new swamp of mucky grief. I believed I would struggle more than most women who have their mothers, that I’d feel awkward and generally sad. I did struggle–hitting rock bottom physically–largely due to severe complications I sustained during childbirth and later, from my thyroid gland failing. I also reached the end of myself spiritually. I was empty, at the very time a woman is supposed to be brimming with love and joy. The self-reliance, the independence I thought I had perfected for the past two decades now meant nothing.
Hope Edelman’s writing again proved a big help to me as I tried to make sense of my experiences. As she writes in her book, “Motherless Mothers: How Losing A Mother Shapes the Parent You Become,” new motherhood can be both a time of incredible healing and intense emotional pain for motherless women. Edelman explains this time of extreme grief as a “STUG reaction”–a Subsequent, Temporary Upsurge of Grief. In adulthood, big events like motherhood can take a woman to a new level of awareness for what she’s lost in her mother, a level she never reached previously:
Instead of being labeled pathological, as they once were, STUGs are now considered universal bereaved persons, especially those who lost a parent at an early age. They’re also considered beneficial in the long term. Because STUGs allow women to work on the loss from new and different angles over time, they’re considered a healthy mechanism for working through grief.
Over time I was surprised to find that, as a mother, I felt more connected to my mom. Certain behaviors and phrases suddenly surfaced, those I can only attribute to how she must have mothered me when I was young. The gaping hole created by her death had nearly closed. As Edelman points out in “Motherless Mothers”:
“Most people are not confronted on a regular basis with the kinds of triggers that allow memories to surface,” Maxine Harris says. “So, the time you had with your mother sometimes feels very lost. One thing that happens when you parent a child is that you’re immersed in a world of triggers, where lots of things call up little fragments of memory. It becomes a way for a woman to realize she still has much more connection to her mother than she imagined.”
So while my sorrow seemed immense just after my son was born, I now see it as a natural part of my grieving process. Having a child has helped heal me, and I believe God is using it to complete the good works he began in my mom and extend her legacy of faith.