Advice to Newly Motherless Daughters… and Anyone Who Grieves

Two years ago, a good friend and admired colleague suffered the unexpected death of his wife – a vibrant, intelligent woman in her 50s. I was devastated for his entire family, but my thoughts turned to his 18-year-old daughter. I, too, lost my mom when I was in college. And, while I’d never met my colleague’s daughter, I felt compelled to share with her my learnings and advice. My friend recently asked my permission to share a copy of my note with yet  another young woman who was grieving the recent loss of a mother. In the interest of helping others more broadly, I decided to post the letter here. With the exception of the recipient’s name, little is changed.

Dear Jane,

You don’t know me but I’ve worked with and admire your dad.

My mom, Betsy Paterson May

My mom, Betsy Paterson May

My mom died suddenly between my third and fourth year of college. I was 21. She was three days shy of 48. She died of complications related to a rare benign brain tumor. She was healthy her whole life. She was sick (surgeries) for about a month and a half.

When she died, she was the person I loved most in the world and the person from whom I received the most love. Like your mom, she was a rare and exceptional woman. I see my mom in pictures of yours. This summer I turn 42 and will have spent half my life without her.

Hope Edelman wrote a book called “Motherless Daughters.” It came out about three or four years after my mom died. I was given no less than four copies and, while it was an interesting read, I didn’t find it particularly helpful. Then she released this one [book was enclosed] – letters that “Motherless Daughters” had written her. And it remains the only helpful thing I ever read about joining the “Dead Mom Club.” So here’s a copy.

Here are some things I learned on my own that may be helpful to you:

  • It’s her. If you think something is your mom (a song, a butterfly, a coincidence), especially over the next few months, you are right. So don’t even question those things. It’s her.
  • Why? There is no answer to the question “Why?” It took me about a year to figure that out. Someone told me in the last year that “Why?” is a human question, not a spiritual question. I thought that was interesting and maybe you too will ponder that one day. Regardless, you will never, ever, ever be able to make sense of why this happened. Maybe it will be helpful to know that now because things become a lot more peaceful when you stop asking that question.
  • Write. You come from writers. If you don’t have a journal, get one and try writing about this. The first entry is the hardest. I found that when I wrote things down about my mom – things I would miss about her, things I wish could be different, things I wish the doctors had done, a dream I’d had about her, whatever – the buzz in my head about that particular topic would be quieted. Something about writing it down allowed me to turn that subject off in my head. It gave me great peace and it also gave me something to do at night besides sobbing when I had a roommate in the freakin’ dorm room with me. I filled two books with grief. What therapy that was. And it made me a better writer. Big time.
  • Be gentle to yourself. You have internal bleeding right now, honey. For the next year, offload needy friends, reduce the volunteer stuff, take on only a bare minimum of responsibilities. Seriously. For a year.
  • Get a therapist. This summer – about three months from now – when people stop asking you daily or weekly how you are and start to go about their lives and when all your good friends have cried with you and heard your most horrid tales of anguish, get a grief counselor or join a grief group or just talk to someone with fresh ears once a week. After two consecutive weeks of visits with that person/group where you don’t cry, you’re done with that. But as long as you are crying weekly in someone’s presence, keep going and keep crying. I learned I needed therapy when I had an anxiety attack – out of nowhere – at about three months in. Save yourself that mess and get pre-emptive help. I saw a crappy free college therapist for three months, and it was really good for me. I ditched him when he couldn’t make me cry anymore. This was the first and only time I ever used a therapist. It did me a world of good.
  • She’s there. After you cry and beg for a sign from her and hope that she will make a book fall off a shelf or turn a lightbulb on and off… after you plead for her to show you anything to demonstrate that she’s still there with you, you’ll end up bawling. And after you do, resignation and exhaustion will wash over you. That’s her, honey. She’s holding you then. That’s her. And she’ll give you peace after your tempest. So just exhale and know that she’s got her arms wrapped around you and she’s kissing your lovely cheek and wiping off your tears with the back of her finger.
  • You will be happy again. The Greeks have a great word – palimpsest. It refers to a piece of parchment (a manuscript page from a scroll or book) from which the text has been scraped off or erased in order that the precious paper could be used again. For the next nine months to a year, every experience you have will be written on the same parchment that documented your mother’s tragic death. So previously joyous experiences will not be joyous. And you will question, through false smiles in social settings, if you will ever experience true joy again. Please know that you will. You absolutely will. You will be soaringly happy again. But it takes time. Time is a wonderful gift. Nine months after my mom died, I was so relieved and even shocked to experience a taste of joy again – on clean parchment. Not on palimpsest. It occurred to me then that it takes nine months to bring someone into the world. Maybe it takes nine months to let them out of it.
  • She will inhabit you. After you stop wanting to call her. After you stop wanting to tell her about the childhood friend you ran into. After you almost don’t even think to miss her because you’re so used to not having her there, you gradually will realize that she inhabits you. You will see her face in the mirror. You won’t miss that she didn’t “meet” your husband or see your kids because you will have a very certain knowledge that she inhabits you. Her love never, ever leaves you, and she is part of everything you do – not watching from above, but watching from within. She’s in you, honey. The love, her love, never leaves. That deep, deep wonderful love will be with you forever. She will be a part of your life forever and ever. Sincerely. My mother is with me all day, every day. She is in me. She knows my husband, she treasures my kids, she sees everything I do, she is proud of me still. She’s in me. I don’t even miss her these days. I just adore her.
  • Don’t sweat the thank-you notes. People will understand if you don’t write them. Your mom just died.

If you ever want to talk to someone, absolutely call me. It would be an honor to speak with or correspond with you. I am so deeply sorry this happened to your lovely, exquisite mom.

(As always, I welcome comments… about this post or on this topic.)


16 responses to “Advice to Newly Motherless Daughters… and Anyone Who Grieves

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. Would you mind if I re-blog it? Being that my blog is essentially about being a ‘Motherless Daughter’ it is so incredibly relevant.
    I can appreciate and relate to every one of these comments, but the last has to be my very favourite. My mother was a stickler for Thank You notes and I have inherited the ‘thank you’ gene, enjoying this last true form of written correspondence. But in the wake of her death, I am stuck, clammed with guilt at not having thank you’d every person who has done so much much to help me through this difficult time. It is so nice to be reminded in writing, that yes ‘my mum did just die’ and accept the permission to ignore any sense of guilt at missing this one batch of Thank You Cards.

    But I will Thank YOU for posting this letter – it has really moved me.


    • Kx: I’m so sorry for your loss, and I thank you for your kind comment and request. How funny… I nearly deleted the “thank-you note” comment at the end, knowing a specific person in my life would be appalled to learn that a) I didn’t send many thank-you notes in the wake of my mom’s death and b) I was actually endorse the practice of not doing so, under the circumstances. For me, forgoing thank-you notes and their associated guilt falls squarely under my recommendation to “Be gentle to yourself.” If you don’t have it in you to write them, just let it go. Anyone who loves you enough to deserve a note, also loves you enough to forgive the absence of formal acknowledgement of their kindness. As for re-blogging my post: I posted this in the interest of helping others who grieve deeply, as I did two decades ago. You seem uniquely qualified to help me do that. When you re-blog, please credit me as the author and offer a link back to this original post, with my thanks.

  2. This is so lovely. I am sobbing while I read it and agreeing with everything you said. Love you!

  3. Pingback: Re-Blog of Wonderful Post by Wendy Martin! | The Grief Diaries

  4. I love this blog. I think it is very insightful and up lifting. I am also a motherless daughter and I lost my mother when I was only 3; she died of a brain aneurysm at 26. It has been a hard journey for my family. And now that I am her age it is especially hard. I have developed my own blog of support and to share my mother’s story so her memory will never die. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Reblogged this on hollysdaughter and commented:
    This is fantastic advice for any young females that are searching for answers. Great job!

  6. Catherine hampton

    Hi my name is catherine. April 27th 2015 my life changed for ever. My mom and I did everything together. WE went to lunch we went shopping. I took her to doctor appointments. She would drive me nuts some times you know like mom’s do. It didn’t matter I love her so much.
    Well one day she went in to the hospital to have a hernia surgery. IT went ok or so we thought. After a week she got an infection so they put a wound vacuum in her tummy. Well she stayed in rehabilitation for awhile so they could get her up and moving. So after a little while she finally got to go home she was so happy to be in her own bed. SO she was home for part of the day. She was walking from the bathroom to the bedroom and she stepped on the clip that holds her tube for her wound vac. She fell and broke her hip. IT took the paramedics 2 hours to put her in the ambulance because they were trying to pick her up with hurting her to much.
    so the doctors at the hospital said she broke her hip. So the did surgery the next day. It went well but as time went on it was harder for her to get up she was tired. Then she got phnamonia and was put on oxygen. She didn’t want me or my daughter to get sick so she told us to stay away for about a week. SHE told me after a week are you gonna come see me. So I did I showed her pictures of my daughter in her prom dress. THEN she got sleepy so I left. THE next day the rehabilitation center called and said she stopped breathing. THEY did cpr but she was gone. THEY found out she died of a blood clot to her lung. AFTER she died I flew to england and took my mom home . Then on may 11 my dad went south. HE had been going down hill fast since mom died. He fell broke his shoulder and ribs. He got bad and got phnamonia. I left the hospital at midnight cause he told me to go home cause I was tired. 15 minutes later the hospital called and said they put a breathing tube in. 2 days later he was gone. IT’S been a rough two years. Thank you for listening.

    • Dear Catherine, I’m so very sorry to learn that you lost both of your parents so suddenly. You are wise to share your story and your grief. It’s so important to let people know you are hurting and gain comfort from others. As I said in this blog, I found therapy very helpful and I wonder if you could speak to someone or join a grief group to let some of your pain out. There is no way around grief. By going through it, as you so clearly are, you will find your way back to joy. Time is your friend here. In time, your body and your mind learn to protect themselves from this tremendous pain. Take heart because it really does get better. Sending you love and hope. — Wendy

  7. Stephanie Roberts

    I’m 48 years old and it is going on 10 months now for me since my mom died. Thank you for sharing this letter that you wrote – I found a lot of it to be very helpful. I am going to start a journal. There are times when I think I’m doing great and then, even the thought of “I’m doing great” will then trigger me to break down crying. I was just laying down to go to sleep tonight and my mom’s face popped into my mind and I have been crying/sobbing ever since. It’s now 12:30pm. I am also going to take your advice and get in touch with a therapist. My younger brother, our older sister & I took care of our mother when she was dying (we used in-home hospice) and the last night she was alive was a nightmare. My brother & I sent our sister to bed so she could get some sleep while we cared for her and I have never cried so much in my entire life. I thank God that my brother was with me, but I feel like we both have PTSD from the experience. My heart goes out to Catherine Hampton, too. My mom was also my best friend. Anyhow, thank you again, Wendy, for sharing the letter you wrote. I know it has already helped me. The tears have subsided a bit for now and I will go blow my nose while heading back to bed; this time knowing that, as I’m drifting off to sleep, my mom is with me, cradling me in her arms.

    • Stephanie: I only just approved your comment. I had not seen it until yesterday (6/3/17). I hope the memories of your mom’s agonizing last days have become gauzy and vague. I’m so glad this letter brought you some comfort. That was my very intent in sharing it. Since you wrote this, you’ve experienced some milestones and anniversaries. I hope time and distance from your loss continues to bring you peace. Time truly is a great healer.

  8. This was beautiful. Ia there anyway we can talk? My mom just passed away 2 days ago, and im falling apart.

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