Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

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

By Hope Edelman
updated 3:13 PM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
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
updated 12:48 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 11:42 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT