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Help for Motherless Daughters

Experts say motherless daughters can cope by making a lifelong connection with their departed mom.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Turning 42 this year was difficult for Hope Edelman. What made it hard was not the usual stuff, such as living in a youth-obsessed culture or watching her daughters, 6 and 10, growing older and taller before her eyes.

Hope's own mother died at age 42, losing her battle with breast cancer. Edelman was just 17. As a pioneer in researching and writing about motherless daughters, Edelman knows now that many women who have lost their mothers begin to worry about their own life expectancy when they reach the age at which their mothers died. She wrote the groundbreaking book, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss, published in 1994 and reissued in paperback in 2006, as well as other books on the topic.

She knew exactly what to expect, and still this year was difficult. "Forty-two has been very emotional," she tells WebMD.

Getting over the birthday at which their mother died is not the only issue motherless daughters face as they navigate becoming an adult without a mother's help. Celebrating their graduation, wedding, and the arrival of their babies, in particular, leaves many with a gnawing sense of emptiness, because they naturally expected their mother to be a part of all that.

The good news: As writers like Edelman and growing numbers of therapists focus more intently on these women, they've discovered ways to help them not just cope, but thrive. Gone is the concept, for instance, of taking a year to grieve and then getting on with life. Instead, motherless daughters are encouraged to keep a lifelong connection with their departed mothers, whatever that means to them and in whatever way they are comfortable doing that.

Helping Motherless Daughters

When Edelman first talked about her book topic, it was novel. Since her first book was published, a few others with similar titles have been published, support groups for motherless daughters have mushroomed across the country, and more therapists and counselors have begun to focus on the issues.

"There have been motherless daughters since the beginning of time," says Therese Rando, PhD, a clinical psychologist who directs The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss in Warwick, R.I. "But Hope wrote about it in such a powerful way that she not only told her story, but identified the issues of growing up without a mother. She struck an extremely important chord."

Most books and other resources are aimed at helping women and girls who lost their mothers before adulthood. But there are now also groups aimed at helping women who lose their mothers as adults. They, too, may need help to pick up the pieces and resume their own roles, which often include mothering.

Scope of the Problem

Losing a mother before adulthood isn't the norm, of course, but its effect can be profound on a child, therapists say.

Exact statistics are difficult to come by, but in researching her books, Edelman calculates that about 330,000 girls under 18 years old in the U.S. today have lost their mothers. She figures about 1.1 million women now under age 60 lost their mothers during childhood or adolescence, before they turned 18. "That's a very conservative estimate," she says.

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