When your mother dies
Around the time my mother died, the tender words of other women enveloped me like a quilt stitched by many pairs of hands. Longtime friends, mothers of friends and friends of colleagues, these women had one thing in common: their mothers had died. ("It was 40 years ago," one said, "and I still think of her every day.")
My mentors prepared me for the passage rite ahead. In my mother's deserted house, as I stuffed endless garbage bags with bric-a-brac that she had treasured and no one else would want, I knew other daughters had faced the same heart-piercing duty. I belonged to a sisterhood now--one every woman must eventually join unless her mother outlives her.
Baby showers herald the transition to motherhood. Roses, greeting cards and invitations to lunch celebrate mothers every May. Yet, despite out culture's motherhood mystique, no rituals mark the psychological journey we daughters begin when our mothers die.
The loss of either parent cuts deep, but mothers shape most women's lives like no one else. What your mother served for dinner (or didn't), whom she married (or divorced), the work she chose (or had forced upon her)--things like these tell a daughter what it means to be a woman. Whether you model your choices on hers or cringe at the very thought, whether she nurtured or neglected the girl you really were (as opposed to the one she thought you would be), your mother is your North Star.
And while she lights your way, she also links you to the past. In most families, it's Mom who keeps the baby book and hands down Grandma's stories along with the heirloom china. As Hope Edelman points out in her book, Motherless Daughters, such family legends "transform the experiences of [a woman's] female ancestors into maps she can follow for warning or encouragement."
Bereaved daughters talk about the void a friend of mine calls "mother hunger"--the wish that a wise older friend would adopt you, the pang of envy at the sight of a mother and daughter laughing together over lunch. I have a cousin who, the first year after her mother's death, couldn't fall asleep without hugging a pillow, and a friend who still keeps the silk robe her dying mother wore in the hospital a decade ago. And in my own bottom drawer sits my mother's flannel nightgown, which I wear on the coldest nights. More than six years after her death, it takes me back to her cinnamon-scented kitchen, where my triumphs and tragedies achieved a sense of completion as she gave me her perspective.
If your mother still plants trees and runs fund-raising drives, you may wonder how much longer you'll have her and what you'll do when she is gone. You'll do what we all do: mourn hard and slowly. You'll come to accept the yearning that blindsides you when something wonderful happens--a baby's birth, a promotion--and your mother cannot share it. But don't be surprised if you find yourself breaking new ground.
I know a woman who married for the first time, in her 50s, after the death of a sickly and demanding mother. Then there's the long-time homemaker who didn't seek a job until her mother died--and is now at the top of a cutthroat profession. Such things happen because a motherless woman need not fear her mother's disapproval or domination. Psychologically speaking, she sits at the head of the table.
When I see women my age chatting with their mothers over lunch, I wish them many more outings together. And when I hear that a woman I know has lost her mother, I do what other women did for me. I write a note, share a memory, offer whatever help I can on her path to her mother's empty house. A gift for supporting each other is part of our inheritance as women. There's no better way to honour our mothers.
P.S. If you found "When your mother dies" helpful, you might also appreciate what other women have to say about losing their mothers. Click the Mother/Daughter gallery tab, and you'll find a wealth of stories to touch and inspire you. Do you ever feel troubled by what your mother didn't say before she died (like "I'm sorry" or "I'm proud of you?" I know the feeling and I've overcome it. Click here to learn more.
By Rona Maynard. First published June, 1996, as "Honour our mothers." Copyright Rogers Media Publishing. Reprinted by permission.
Posted by Rona August 14, 2007 @ 11:22 AM. File in Published in Chatelaine