Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

A Mother's Day...when mother is gone

By Hope Edelman
May 8, 2014 -- Updated 1913 GMT (0313 HKT)
Hope Edelman says mourning is a lifelong process, especially for those who lost their mothers when they were young children.
Hope Edelman says mourning is a lifelong process, especially for those who lost their mothers when they were young children.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hope Edelman's mother died when she was 17. She still grieves her 33 years later
  • She says kids mature quick when mom dies; life's milestones renew mourning cycle
  • She says Mother's Day can be disorienting; she's comforted by people who've lost moms
  • Edelman: Recall your mom by life-affirming acts, cooking what she cooked, honoring her memory

Editor's note: Hope Edelman is the author of six nonfiction books, including the bestsellers "Motherless Daughters" and "Motherless Mothers." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- I was 17 when my mother died of breast cancer. She was 42. It seemed old to me then. As a middle-aged mother myself now, I see it differently. Forty-two was impossibly young.

I've spent more than half my life without my mother. Does it sound odd to hear that I still miss her, even after 33 years? I used to think that feeling sad two years, five years, even 10 years after her death meant I'd somehow grieved wrong. But now I know differently. Mourning is a lifelong process, especially for children who lose a mother young.

Hope Edelman
Hope Edelman

When a child loses a mother, maturity often follows quickly. "Normal" is irrevocably redefined. Over the years, milestones that bring joy to others may trigger a range of mixed emotions in the motherless. Graduations, weddings, childbirth, new jobs: These are all times of transition when we long for a mother's support, encouragement or celebration. But when we look over our shoulders for reassurance, a mother isn't there.

This can lead to a new mourning cycle, where the pain feels fresh and raw. It explains why, upon the birth of my first child, I was relieved to have a healthy child, overjoyed to have a daughter; and also terribly, terribly sad, because my mother would never meet her.

Some transitions are one-time events, like reaching a mother's age at time of death. This is a profound turning point for a motherless woman, who often carries the fear that she'll die at the same age. Forty-two was an emotionally charged year for me, but 43 was even stranger. I'm now seven years older than my mother got to be. How does an adult daughter even begin to make sense of that?

In the 20 years since the publication of "Motherless Daughters" I've met thousands of motherless women, all around the globe. Many of them have found mother substitutes in grandmothers, aunts, sisters or good friends. That was never true for me. My greatest source of comfort has come from other women like myself. We "get" each other, right away. We cry in the back of school concerts because we're equally proud and sad.

Mothers ask for changes from GM
Tyler Perry on single moms

We raise our children to be independent just in case we, too, die young. And we understand, whether we're mothers or not, how Mother's Day weekend can be a double-edged sword.

Motherless women -- as well as daughters who have estranged or difficult relationships with their mothers -- really have no culturally sanctioned way to recognize their mothers on Mother's Day.

So we're free to create our own. Here are some ideas from two decades of interviews with motherless women and 33 years of spending Mother's Day without my own:

Attend a local Motherless Daughters Day luncheon. More than two dozen groups of women throughout the country, from Orange County, California, to Chicago to New Orleans plan luncheons on the day before Mother's Day (or soon after) to honor mothers no longer living. During a Circle of Remembrance women say their names and their mothers' names out loud.

Make your mother part of the day. If she liked to cook, make one of her recipes. Put her picture on your mantel. Tell your children or nieces and nephews a story about her. Recognizing her will feel better than trying to push the memory away.

If you have a strained or nonexistent relationship with your mother, use the day to celebrate life instead, in honor of the life she gave you. Get your hands into the earth and plant seedlings. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Do what nurtures and inspires you most.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Mother's Day as an official, national holiday. Let's remember, too, Anna Jarvis, the woman responsible for lobbying President Wilson to create the national holiday -- and herself a motherless daughter.

I'll be celebrating the same as usual: having brunch with my husband and daughters, enjoying a low-key afternoon at home and searching for a way to honor my mother, as I've done every Mother's Day since 1982, the first I spent without her.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT