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The Loss That Lingers

updated 08/08/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/08/1994 01:00AM

Hope Edelman was 17 when her mother, Marcia, died of breast cancer at 42. Edelman and her sister, brother and father, all living at home in northern New Jersey at the time, never shared their pain and feelings of abandonment. "We could meet each other's physical needs but not the emotional ones," she says, "and we all suffered for it."

Seven years later, after graduating from Northwestern University and while working as an editor at Whittle Communications, Edelman was at a crossroads in her life and allowed herself to miss her mother desperately for the first time. Now 30 and a writer in New York City, Edelman has written a best-selling book, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss (Addison-Wesley), about the process of grief and recovery, especially for women who lose their mothers early in life. While interviewing some 250 women for the book, she found that for most daughters—including herself—mourning a lost mother is an unpredictable journey that can take a lifetime. It was while working on the book that Edelman was finally able to begin healing discussions with her own family. She spoke recently with reporter Lisa Kay Greissinger:

Did you write Motherless Daughters as a personal catharsis?

Since my mom died, I had been looking for a book about women who had lost their mothers, but there were only books about losing fathers. When I decided to write this book, it was going to be my quick fix—I would research it, write it, and my grieving would be over. It was clear after the first 10 interviews that this would not be the case. Virtually all the women I contacted—women between 17 and 85—continued to miss their moms decades after their loss. Their experiences were like mine—no one in the family talked with them about their mothers' deaths, and consequently they were never able to mourn.

What are the consequences of silence?

If a death isn't talked about, it indicates there isn't a supportive environment for expressing feelings of loss. The daughter's mourning gets ignored or blocked. If grieving isn't supported by family members, children can get stuck in the emotional state they were in when their moms died—partly because she isn't there to help them mature, partly as a way of keeping her memory alive.

Is the impact of such a loss greatest on young girls?

It depends. The girl who loses her mother loses her point of reference for femininity and womanhood. Children under 6—who usually don't understand death and are dependent on their parents for information and support—will, as adults, often seek romantic partners who will give them back the nurturing they've lost. Adolescents may try to hide behind whirlwind activity because they worry about losing control and looking like babies if they cry. As adults, many feel they weren't attentive enough and didn't make their mothers' lives easier—and so feel guilty until they realize it was just normal adolescence.

Losing a mother won't affect women in their 20s in the same way. Their mother may have been a friend and a mother. All women will feel a deep sadness when they reach a number of life markers—such as marriage, childbirth or menopause—and, having outlived their mothers, cannot ask them about their experiences.

Sudden, violent deaths—like that of Nicole Simpson—must be especially traumatic.

They are harder to cope with because the family must go through numbness and shock before they can mourn. How do you explain a mother's being hit by a car? It's difficult to attach meaning to such a random loss, so children often blame themselves as a way of giving meaning to the death. It's especially difficult if it involves homicide or suicide. With the latter, children feel abandoned and rejected and are plagued by feelings of guilt—"If only I had been a better child"—and unworthiness.

In Nicole Simpson's case, her children effectively lost both parents as of this point, so they have to deal with the murder of the mother and the absence of the father. Since the Simpsons' daughter Sydney is 8, and the son Justin is 5, neither will have a full grasp of what death or murder mean. The adults in their life must reassure them that Mommy didn't want to leave. I have read that the children are with Nicole's parents. That is ideal: The family can speak to them of their mother, so that they are not cut off from any mention or memory.

Do daughters of celebrities face special problems that complicate their mourning?

Yes. When Jane Fonda lost her mother, Frances Seymour Brokaw, to suicide at 12, the family was well-known. So first you suffer the loss of a parent, then you cope with the media attention. Your private experience becomes public. The daughter has to cope with the attention surrounding the death and surrounding her as her mother's survivor.

You say the best-case scenario is when a mother can help prepare her children for her death. Was that the case with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis?

She wanted to die at home, and both Caroline and John Jr. were at her bedside. They will always have the memory of being able to say goodbye and possibly to thank her for what she had given them. Whatever the child's age, when a mother can formulate a goodbye, there is an end to the earthly relationship. The child will have a sense of completion and fewer feelings of guilt and can let go.

What happens to the motherless daughter when she becomes a parent?

Many women are able to relive the mother-daughter relationship and feel that being a parent gives them a little bit of what they lost; it's second best, they say, but better than nothing. Some women—especially those who had to care for their mothers through a terminal illness—have babies thinking the child will grow up and take care of them the way their own mothers couldn't. And those who didn't have the opportunity to mourn as girls often pass attachment anxieties onto their children and fear more for their safety. On the other hand, women who adequately mourned are less overprotective and can raise children who are more secure.

What should be done to help a child after a mother's death?

A child should have a stable caregiver who can provide a supportive environment that makes children feel comfortable about expressing their feelings. If the family can't provide that, support groups are essential. If everyone around you tells you not to talk about something that has affected you profoundly, you develop a sense of shame. Families should be encouraged to talk about Mom that first Christmas, birthday or holiday without her and to keep her as a part of them. They should let the children know she was important to them and can remain so. A daughter's longing for her mother never disappears, but you don't have to shut the door on the past.

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