I lost my mother to ovarian cancer when I was 11 years old. I’m 39 now. I’ve lived more years without my mother than with her. And I’ve been through countless experiences without her by my side. When I was little, people outside of my family didn’t speak to me about Mam. I’m sure they didn’t want to upset me, or themselves. They figured it was better to ignore the topic and move along. They didn’t know what to say.
After so many years as a motherless daughter, I’ve come to understand the ways in which we can be there for others who have lost. There are triggers that are upsetting to us, and there are ways in which a person can make a profound difference in our day. Recently somebody wrote to me and asked me how they could support a friend who had lost their mother. I responded immediately. I didn’t need to think about it because I’ve lived it.
When someone you know has lost their mother, there is nothing you or anybody can do to bring their mother back. But here’s what you can do:
1. Ask them how they are doing, and be ready to listen.
If your friend or loved one has recently lost their mother and isn’t ready to speak about it, try again in a few days or a few weeks. It might take months for them to be ready, but it makes a world of difference to know that there is someone who genuinely wants to be present for them. And when they are ready to talk, give them your full attention, take their hand if you feel inclined, and let them talk or cry. You don’t need to say anything. Just hear them out. Sometimes we think that we need to offer people answers, but we don’t. Being heard is the key here.
I’m not suggesting you need to be a therapist for this person, or that you should neglect your own life or your own self-care. In some cases a person might need encouragement to see a therapist. Often all we need is a quick release or just the knowing that we can talk to a close friend when we need to. Some women have never had the chance to talk about losing their mothers. One of the most special things you can do for them is encourage them to talk about their moms. Just watch as their eyes light up!
2. Be aware of what you are saying.
Over the years, I’ve been reminded time and again what I’m missing out on when I’m with friends, and they are talking about going for pedicures with their mothers or taking vacation with their moms. It always sparks a little something, but it’s unavoidable really, because so many women still have their mothers and like to do things with them. Honestly, it brings me joy to witness the blessings of others, even when I feel that twinge of sadness for myself.
And when I’m in the company of strangers, people don’t know my circumstances. Maybe if people stopped assuming we all had mothers, that would be a start. Even my teachers in school would tell us, “Bring this note home to your mothers!” and they knew my mother had died — they never seemed to think! When I was a teacher, I made a very conscious decision to always say to my children, “Give this to your mom or dad or whomever is taking care of you!” According to the children’s personal circumstances, I changed how I spoke.
If somebody in your circle has lost their mother, it might not be the best thing to start up a conversation about the blessings of having a mother, in their company. That might sound obvious, but it has happened to me. In college, I had two friends discuss the joys of having mothers who cared for them while I bit my lip and looked away. And I know I’m not the only one who has had this experience.
3. Pay attention to dates.
That person’s mother had a birthday. When was it? What date did that person’s mother die? This is huge! Mam died on March 2. That date is ingrained in my brain. I go to bed the night before in anticipation of the day ahead and I wake up with thoughts of Mam, how she died, how little I was, how uncertain everything was, and my mind is just spinning. Some women spend the day in bed, unwilling to get up and face the day because it’s too hard for them. Imagine the difference it would make to receive a text message or a kind phone call letting that person know that you are thinking of them. Send them a bunch of flowers. Flowers brighten everyone’s world. Perhaps ask what their mother’s favorite flowers were and send those.
The same goes for your friend’s mother’s birthday. What should be a celebration is now just a memory of past celebrations. Ask your friend if there is anything they would like to do on that date to help celebrate or remember their mother.
Mother’s Day is very tough. Please understand that while you might be celebrating your mother (and this is a wonderful thing), she is mourning hers. And if you are very close to that person, please don’t remain silent on the day, hoping nobody will remember. A motherless daughter never forgets those dates. Help her know that she is not alone.
4. Introduce her to other friends who have lost their mothers.
This is another huge one! I wish I had known other motherless daughters growing up. I didn’t know any. I felt very alone in this. I felt different from everybody else. I was very fortunate to have a fantastic father and I got on very well with my older brother, but if I had been introduced to another little girl like me it would have made a tremendous difference in my life.
Recently, on Facebook, I heard from a lady of similar age to me, who lost her mother around the same time as I did and lived in the same town. I remember the girl though I didn’t know her at the time and had no idea that she was motherless too. When she reached out to me, I wanted to do a time travel back into my past and throw my arms around that little girl. We could’ve been a team, the two of us, without our mothers but together, hand in hand.
It wasn’t until I moved to Portland, Oregon, and discovered the Motherless Daughters group here, at the same time as I discovered Hope Edelman’s Motherless Daughters book, that I began to meet and form connections with other women who had lost their mothers. What a gift it has been!
5. Don’t compare having a bad relationship with your mother to someone whose mother has died.
Certainly this is traumatic in its own way. I have friends who are estranged from their mothers, and I listen to them speak about the rejection they felt growing up or the abuse they suffered. In some ways I feel that what they’ve been through may even be worse than what I went through because I had a very caring, devoted, and nurturing mother. At the same time, it’s not the same thing. One friend of mine would say, “I may as well go with you to the Motherless Daughters group because all I do is fight with my mom. She may as well be dead!” This was very upsetting to hear. All I wanted was my mother, and even though my friend wasn’t on good terms with hers, she still had her at the other end of the phone line.
Everyone’s circumstances are different, and some situations are so bad that the person’s mother is as good as dead to them. But it is important to acknowledge the differences. Death means gone forever and with no opportunity whatsoever to change that. There is no chance of ever seeing that person in the flesh again, and no possibility to alter the past.
We have the potential to lift others in times of sadness. Often we want to help, but we don’t know how.
The round sky goes on minding its business.
Your absence is inconspicuous;
Nobody can tell what I lack.
–Sylvia Plath, “Parliament Hill Fields”
September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month (#30DaysofTeal). To learn more, visit the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance.