The loss of the daughter to the mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy – Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born.
The significant impact of parental loss on the children left behind is somewhat readily acknowledged and accepted within some communities due to the swaths of research and bereavement literature on and offline.
Plenty of research, books, and online resources speak to the universal experience of parental loss.
Death of a parent
Although “universal” is the operative word in this context, the literature on mother loss and how it affects children and adults of all ages and backgrounds are somewhat deficient.
However, if you were to get curious, in that case, you may find that the resources surrounding the long-term effects of mother loss on daughters are just as impoverished as the grief itself, unless you consider Hope Edelman’s book, Motherless Daughters, of course.
Losing a parent
The death of a parent has a profound impact on the entire family unit.
The siblings and surviving parent are given no other option but to navigate a strange new world that often feels dark and surreal, particularly in the early days of loss.
Platitudes following the death of a loved one
Platitudes seem to roll off the tongues of everyone you encounter – some helpful, others not. “You are SO strong!” is likely to be the most common phrase you hear following the death of a loved one, which is in reference to how well you appear to be holding it together.
You might be tempted to inform your well-meaning friends and family that being “strong” is not an option.
The word itself signifies some choice or alternative to the oceanic pain you feel in every cell of your body during every waking moment.
You and I know there is no other choice but to take each day as it comes after someone close dies.
If only there were something to compare the grief experience to, strength doesn’t come into the equation; it’s not like we are handed a fork in the road; we continue on the best we can as we contain our grief, or depending on the day, it contains us.
How mother loss affects daughters
Once a mother dies, it can be impossible to see beyond the dark void that seems to follow you everywhere you go; grief comes in waves, which can change how you feel from minute to minute.
Grief can also come in stages.
According to experts, grievers will likely experience anger, numbness, shock, intense sorrow, disbelief, and many other feelings and emotions after losing a loved one. This experience can make you want to bury your head in the sand.
Stages of grief
Many of us will agree that grief doesn’t follow a predictable trajectory, at least not in the clean-cut, neat fashion often portrayed in some bereavement communities.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s “five stages of grief” is perhaps the most popular bereavement paradigm where Ross developed five primary stages of grief, including denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
But, as Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters, points out, the five stages of grief were initially for terminally ill patients to help them come to terms with their diagnosis and were initially called the five stages of dying.
The problem came when the five stages of dying got transferred to mourners; it was a seductive idea to the culture at the time that grief was something we could work our way through and be done with; the media took this idea and ran with it, explains Edelman.
The narrative around the bereavement experience was disconcertingly clean-cut and tidy decades ago; a set of predictable grief stages gave people a guideline that could help them unpack their pain and loss and come out the other end “recovered.”
Although many people discovered that these stages resurfaced at various life phases, thus those who believed they had “finished” the grieving process thought they had done something wrong (or that something was wrong with them).
Many people thought they were “stuck” at a particular grief stage or suffering from mental health complications when in reality, they were profoundly misinformed.
Many mourners may get some relief from the current research on grief, and although some of us may pass through some specific stages, others may not, or at least not in a linear way.
“Grief doesn’t happen in these neat and tidy silos because it isn’t linear – it is cyclical” (Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman).
Effects of grief on daughters
A study conducted in 2007 suggests that mother loss has more negative effects on daughters than on sons (Motherless Daughters: Coping with Your Loss, PsychCentral, Hope Gillette, July 7, 2021).
The study posits that women who lose their mothers are more likely to:
- Experience challenges with self-esteem and personal growth
- Binge drink
- Have a lower level of personal mastery
Other studies showed that women have more profound grief responses and more difficulties adjusting to the loss of a parent than men.
A 2021 study found that parental loss is associated with a compromised sense of self and depression in young people.
For daughters, losing a mother can result in more clinical symptoms – such as lost family and cultural traditions and the profound loss of a support system.
Many women question their roles as mothers themselves; they may wonder how well they are functioning or if they are fulfilling their roles as nurturing mothers successfully.
Studies show that some bereaved women decide they no longer want children due to the fear and worry of losing another loved one and project the anxiety of losing a parent onto their children and other close relatives.
In addition to the challenges that many daughters encounter after losing a mother, studies show that other relationships can become strained due to the effects of the loss.
Siblings and other family figures may seem distant – they may need their own time to grieve or may not be as emotionally available as your mother once was (Motherless Daughters: Coping with Your Loss, PsychCentral, Hope Gillette, July 7, 2021).
Physical and mental health effects of grief
The research literature illustrates the various physical and mental health effects of grief. Mourners are at higher risk of:
- Cardiac health issues
- Immune disorders
- High blood pressure
What losing a parent feels like
Anything and everything can be expected after the death of a parent; forever losing the other half of your DNA can be impossible to come to terms with, especially initially.
What’s “normal” in the aftermath of loss is subjective. Still, if we look at the overall emotional experience of grief, some typical emotions tend to surface and oscillate back and forth, often against our will.
These emotions can include:
- Feeling as though nothing is “real” (derealisation)
- Hallucinations (seeing your deceased loved one in a crowd or elsewhere)
To speak or not to speak.
According to Edelman’s research, women who lost mothers during adolescence frequently speak of their inability to cry at the time of the loss or even for months or years afterward (Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman).
Such an experience serves as a black mark in their pasts, a point of self-recrimination when they look back as adults and discuss their mother’s death.
Why couldn’t I cry? What was wrong with me? They wonder (Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman).
Various things unite women who have lost their mothers regardless of their age at the time of the loss and other factors like background, ethnicity, etc.
A pervasive sense of loneliness and isolation tends to follow a daughter around for the rest of her life after a mother dies, an experience that appears to be universal.
Although her loneliness is often concealed by her need to “keep it together,” there’s an unspoken expectation for the daughter to carry on her mother’s legacy in the family – particularly with siblings and the surviving parent.
The daughter strives to continue with old family traditions after her mother dies.
Still, she often becomes stuck in the idea of wanting to maintain her identity while keeping her mother’s presence contained in everything she does.
Striking this balance in the depths of acute grief can be an impossible challenge for the daughter, leading to more isolation and withdrawal.
How grief evolves in time
Loss forever transforms us – but there is hope for a future that can be just as bright and promising as the one we thought we would have.
Ask any griever, and they’ll likely tell you that “change” is the most feared aspect of loss; what will life be like without my loved one? Will the world carry on spinning, and if so, how could it be when something so terrible has happened?
The changes that follow after the death of a parent can disrupt the entire family dynamic, where old traditions are all too quickly replaced with new ones.
The family home may look and smell different.
No one can cook as well as mum, and not one single person on earth can make the bath towels as soft and fragrant as she could.
The evening sunlight that seeps in through the curtains pulls you in, enveloping you in more profound loneliness that permeates the foundations of a home that used to beat and hum with warmth, laughter, and love.
While it’s true that we may never get over the death of a mother, grief does evolve with time, but the experience of her absence will never entirely disappear, nor should it.
“When a daughter loses a mother, the intervals between grief responses lengthen over time, but her longing never disappears.
It always hovers at the edge of her awareness, ready to surface at any time or place in the least expected ways.
This isn’t pathological. It’s normal.
It’s why you find yourself at twenty-four, or thirty-two, or forty-three, unwrapping a present, walking down the supermarket aisle, crossing a busy street, doubled over, and missing your mother because she died when you were seventeen” (Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman).
Grievers have many challenges to contend with – but having the space to grieve shouldn’t be one; following parental death, it can be impossible to experience life as you once did.
But there is always hope for a bright future that eventually leads to adjustment and a renewed connection to your loved one.
Although it can be impossible to see the wood for the trees in the early days, a new path awaits where joy, fulfillment, and grief integrate. Take it from someone who has been there.
If you want more information about this article, please get in touch with the Centres for Health and Healing team, who can help.