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.
What About the Boys?
Resources for motherless boys pale in comparison. Why? "Men don't talk about it as frequently," Edelman says.
The men and boys who lost their mothers early may hurt as much as the girls, but are apt to be less verbal, says Arthur Kovacs, PhD, a psychologist in Santa Monica, Calif., who focuses on life transitions. "We're taught to be stoic."
Edelman believes mother-daughter bonds are typically closest, but not always.
"I believe we know a lot more about mother-daughter bonds," says Rando. "Maybe that is because women are more willing to talk about it than men are. Of course, boys can have powerful bonds with their mothers, too."
What Are the Issues?
For now at least, the spotlight is on the motherless daughters. And whatever age a girl or young woman is when she loses her mother, some issues seem universal, say experts. "The most important one is the longing and mourning never goes away [completely], and it will be retriggered," Edelman says. Common triggering events are life milestones or anniversaries of a mother's death.
"There's a sense of missing the role model, of not having someone to give you guidance on how to be a woman in today's society," says Rando, who lost her mother when she was 18 years old.
Often, Rando says, the mother passes on a variety of skills, work-related or family-related. Depending on how early a girl loses her mother, she may miss out on being taught about what it's like to be a woman, a wife, or a mother. It can be as simple as a girl learning how her mother applies lipstick so it stays on to finding out her mother's views about whether working mothers can devote enough time to their young children and how to do so.
"I remember one woman I saw saying, 'I didn't know how to hang curtains,'" Rando says. "She was setting up her first apartment and just started crying."
Reaching milestones without a mother is a huge issue, says Paige Tangney, MEd, a counselor in Seattle who lost her mom to suicide when she was 8. She now specializes in helping motherless daughters. "When you start your period, get married, graduate college, have your first baby ... It's all about those times you expect your mom to be there, and you didn't even know you had the expectation."
Losing a mother early in life can affect the woman's own parenting, too, finds Tangney. "Some are overprotective, driven by the fear something will happen to the child or themselves," she says. "Some keep a wall in place," she adds, afraid to get too close.
If the relationship was not a close one -- or if the death occurred during a period that's typically tumultuous between mother and daughter, such as the teen years -- the issues can be different and more difficult, Rando says. "Sometimes a daughter will feel as if there is unfinished business," Rando says.
If the death was traumatic, such as a car accident, it's more difficult to deal with, Rando says. And if a mother's death was by suicide, a daughter typically views it as "an incredible rejection," she says, unless it was painfully clear that the mother was mentally unstable.
In general, the younger the child is when a parent dies, the more difficult it is from a developmental point of view, says Kovacs. "Everyone will have a wound when they lose their mother," he says. "But if you lose her early, it does damage in addition."
Experts don't exactly agree on the "worst" age to lose a mother. "Losing a parent while you're age 6 months to 3 years possibly predicts the worst outcome," Kovacs says. That is the period "when kids are mastering the ritual of separation and attachment. That whole process needs a consistent person."
Kovacs would expect those who lost their mothers this early to have problems moving forward and difficulty in forming intimate adult relationships.
From her research, Edelman believes "the hardest age to lose a mom is between 7 and 11, because you are mature enough to understand what death is, and it's pretty scary."
Goals: Cope, Integrate, Thrive
For those who have lost their mothers, Rando has this advice: "Find a healthy way of mourning this woman and then find out how to have a healthy connection with that person in the present and the future."
For instance, she often talks about her mother to her children, now 13 and 15. "She is a presence in my life even though she is absent," she says.
Some motherless daughters maintain a sense of connection, Tangney says, by wearing a piece of their mother's jewelry. Others ask those who knew their mom to fill them in on who their mother was as a woman and a wife.
The goal, says Edelman, is to integrate the loss into your life and accept it "as part of what makes you the multidimensional person you are." For this, she believes support groups for motherless daughters, which have formed all over the country, can help. "There is one piece of you that always feels different," says Edelman, who serves on the board for Motherless Daughters of Orange County in California. Sitting at a table with women who feel the same is often a "normalizing" experience, she finds.
It can even help women who are adults when they lose their mothers, believes Alison Miller, who launched Tapestries of Hope, a New Jersey-based nonprofit organization that hosts workshops to help motherless daughters of all ages. The emphasis, she says, is on taking control of grief and moving on while still remembering their mothers.
For some women, finding a surrogate mother helps, experts say. "There are many women out there who will mother you if you are open," Tangney says.
Kovacs agrees, sometimes suggesting if motherless daughters admire something about another woman -- be it her parenting skills, her cooking, or her business sense -- to ask for advice and mentoring.
It's a Journey, Not a Passage
Like much of life, integrating a mother's loss has ups and downs. Motherless daughters shouldn't be hard on themselves as they navigate life without a mom, says Irene Rubaum-Keller, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles who leads the organization Motherless Daughters of Los Angeles.
In the traditional model of grief, she says, "acceptance used to be the last stage. Now, the goal is to understand it's an ongoing life process. There will be days when you are as sad as you were the day she died."
Edelman, for instance, says she has coped with her loss to the best of her ability. But after she breathed a sigh of relief about her upcoming 43rd birthday, a friend cautioned her: Wait until your oldest daughter turns 17.
Kovacs tells his grieving clients to think of the process as starting out with a tiny house and adding rooms. "When we are first born, we have a one-room shack," he says. "Every life experience adds a room to the house. The death of a parent adds a big room. What's important is to keep all the doors open to all the rooms. We will find ourselves visiting those rooms in our mind. Some rooms will have beautiful views. Some rooms you will need to go in, sit down, and cry occasionally."
Women who have lost their mothers early may need to "visit" the sad rooms more often during important life transitions. "'Expect to visit it, for instance, when you have a baby and your mom is not there to coach you," Kovacs says.
But as time goes on, he says, you'll go back to visiting the rooms with beautiful views.