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Motherless Daughters: Grief and Loss

Sandra Manessis

Psychologist, Counsellor & Psychotherapist
Perth, Western Australia

For a woman, the loss of a mother is a profound event. We share a belief that she, who is there from the beginning, will be there for all time. Mother represents comfort and security no matter what our age, and every-one carries into adulthood a child's fear of being left alone. Her death may be sudden and unexpected or prolonged and painful. Mother loss can also include several other types of maternal absence, the result of physical separation, mental illness, substance abuse, emotional abandonment, and neglect.

Mourning the loss of a mother is unique to every individual. A daughter's capacity to mourn for her mother is directly proportional to two factors: the response of her surviving or available parent or primary caregiver, and the availability of a supportive environment in which she feels safe to express her sadness, anger, blame, guilt or, indeed, ambivalence. Daughters without such an adult may suppress or deny their true feelings for years, burying them under layers of stoicism or false maturity. The daughter's age at the time of her separation from her mother and the cause of her death or separation are other relevant factors.

The acute, or crisis phase, is typically characterised by several of the following responses: heightened anger, anxiety, depression, restlessness, obsessive thoughts of reunion, bargaining (with the loved one or God), decreased energy and motivation, sleep disturbance, weight loss/gain, a fear of madness, a tendency to rely more on alcohol or drugs than usual, and physical problems like chest or stomach pains. Children dealing with grief may act out their feelings, experience changes in sleep and eating patterns, display child-like behaviours, or display anger or frustration.

The crisis period usually lasts between 6-8 months. After this time, the initial confusion and numbness typically begin to dissolve, although the mourner's task is far from complete. Rather, the bigger task of confronting the painful reality of her loss may become increasingly apparent. After several or even many years, when the shock and numbness have passed, daughters may become aware that they have been blocking or suppressing the emotions that were too painful or frightening to feel at the time of loss, especially if they were a child.

Daughters who were younger than 12 when their mother died enter, or even complete, adolescence without the presence of that person from whom they need to separate out emotionally. Some may act out against another member of her family, or turn her rebellion inward, acting out with alcohol, food or drugs. Some may bypass their rebellion phase altogether by taking on their mother's old role of caretaking, either out of necessity or 'choice' and perhaps resent others in their family for the missed opportunity to form their own identity.

A girl who loses her mother during childhood or adolescence, when her sense of self is still evolving, brings this loss to her emerging personality, where it then becomes a defining characteristic. She learns that relationships can be impermanent, security temporary, and family capable of being re-defined. The lingering effects of early mother loss may lead to a fear of subsequent loss. It may also lead a daughter to idealise a less than perfect mother, alter long term relationships with other family members, influence the decisions a wife makes about herself and her life style, and impact her role as partner, wife and mother.

The process of mourning is not only about detachment and the gradual relinquishment of the lost one, it is also about a confirmation of attachments. The full work of mourning encompasses the rebuilding of one's inner world and the restoration of the beloved in the form of an "inner presence", that might be held in an aspect of conscience, or as an ideal or passion. This inner presence may undergo further development and revision, and once formed, will never leave. It can be called on to guide and inspire us in making decisions and choices; in the absence of such a dialogue, we are lost. A daughter begins to move into this second stage of mourning when she starts to undertake the subtle and complex negotiations required for her to integrate the memory of her mother into her motherless life.

Many years after her mother died, Hope Edelman wrote a best-selling book called Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss (1994). She writes: "I didn't plan to be this person, for whom loss always hovers at the edge of my awareness... I have carried the remote ache of longing with me for long enough to understand it's part of who I am. I'm always going to be a motherless daughter." She came to understand that the way to keep her mother's death from being something so devastating and pervasive in her life was to slowly learn to live with the loss and not under it, and to let it become a companion and a guide. It is not just the loss, but the inability to speak of it, to find the words that enable reflection and containment, that causes the pain.

If you would like further information please contact Sandra Manessis on 0407 859 413 or

Mt Lawley Counselling
13 Alvan Street
Mt Lawley (Perth), WA 6050

Letters from Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman A Delta Book 1995 New York
Motherless Daughters The Legacy of Loss A Delta Book 1994 New York

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