Motherless Daughters


By 1996 I was certain sure I had made peace with grief.  Sorrow was a sealed file with the words RESOLVED stamped on the front.  I had been “moving on”, as they say, for decades.

Suddenly, with the stealth of a B-2 bomber, grief pounced and hijacked me.  While I was held hostage, facing my familiar adversary, I had the sense of confusion and disbelief: This cannot be happening to me.  It seemed surreal, disconnected, in short, unbelievable.

It was in that context of confused ongoing mourning that I first read Motherless Daughters.

My mother-in-law wanted to help; she gave me this book with the hesitant hope that it might give me something she herself couldn’t give.  I planted myself in the small bathroom at 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night and started reading.  By 4:00 a.m. I had finished the book, exhausted, soggy,  numb, and emotionally done-in.

When Hope Edelman wrote about experiences, emotions and situations that I knew firsthand in my soul but had never spoken aloud, it could only be described as cathartic.  Edelman gave me words to articulate the sorrow and, more than anything, helped me to understand the nature of grief.  The first chapter, The Seasons of Grieving, is the best concise summary of grief that I have ever read.

I recently revisited Hope’s narrative.  I was surprised to see statements I’ve been saying so long that I thought they were my very own.  The words of the first chapter are still powerful and continue to resonate in my soul.  Back in 1996, they reassured me that I wasn’t some freak of nature who refused to “get over it.”

Having said that, I found the predominant value of this book much more in its diagnosis than in its therapy.

Quotes to copy:

Like most other families that lose a mother, mine coped as best it could, which meant, essentially, that we avoided all discussion of the loss and pretended to pick up exactly where we’d left off.

“My mother died when I was nineteen,” [Anna] Quindlen wrote. “For a long time, it was all you needed to know about me, a kind of vest-pocket description of my emotional complexion:  ‘Meet you in the lobby in ten minutes–I have long brown hair, am on the short side, have on a red coat, and my mother died when I was nineteen.'”

Ten years ago I was convinced I’d finished mourning my mother.  The truth was, I’d barely begun.

Edelman describes a random incident years after her mother’s death where she is balled up in physical pain, clutching her stomach.  She had thought she had sailed through the five stages of death and moved on.  I had a similar moment when, as if lightening from heaven, I was struck, pierced, skewered, with overwhelming grief.  I thought I was well-adjusted, “normal” and that everything was copacetic.  For no discernable reason (I mean the timing of the episode) I was brought to my knees, in tears, and incapable of articulating anything but deep, deep pain.  I ended up in a seldom-used restroom in our church, gasping for air, howling in anguish.  Someone got my husband and told him to go in and check on me.

Here’s what I’ve learned about grief since then: It’s not linear.  It’s not predictable.  It’s anything but smooth and self-contained.  Someone did us all a grave injustice by first implying that mourning has a distinct beginning, middle, and end.  That’s the stuff of short fiction.  It’s not real life.

Grief goes in cycles, like the seasons, like the moon.  No one is better created to understand this than a woman, whose bodily existence is marked by a monthly rhythm for more than half her life.