Women who lost their mothers early on in life know how this painful loss can profoundly affect their lives. Many say without a mother's support and mentoring, they had to mature faster than their peers. Many learned to be mothers for themselves and often for their younger siblings as well.
Hope Edelman was 17, the oldest of her siblings, when her mother died of breast cancer.
"I was very much in the rebellion phase, trying to push away from her and spend more time with my friends," she says. "My sister at 14 was still very attached to my mother and very emotionally close to her. My brother, at 9, was completely dependant on her."
Each of the siblings felt the loss of their mother differently. Their father couldn't seem to address this huge emotional loss at all. "My father was a very typical father of the 1970s, early 1980s," she says. "He went to work in the morning, he came home at night and he left the child raising to my mother. So after she died, we were left with a father who barely knew us, and he was a man who we barely knew. He was very much there for us in terms of providing food, shelter, clothing and the necessities of life, but emotionally, he wasn't very connected to us."
As a result, Edelman says, she and her brother and sister were left to take care of themselves emotionally from that point forward. There was no one to help them process their loss. "I knew it was a traumatic loss, but somehow I absorbed the message of everyone around me, which is, 'this is a terrible thing but we have to get it over, get beyond it, get on with life,'" she says.
But, like many other women who lost mothers in childhood and adolescence, she never did that fully. "I think it's something that we learn to live with, something that we can learn to accommodate and integrate into the selves that we have become," she says. "I think also it's possible to mourn to the best of your ability, at any point in time. There are very predictable and sometimes unpredictable points in a woman's life where mourning for her mother may be re-activated, where she feels sad and misses her mother all over again. It doesn't mean that she had done it wrong the first time. That, in fact, is quite common and even normal for this group of women."
Mourning a lost mother is a life-long process, and Edelman says understanding that can help young girls deal with their emotions. "I'd encourage young girls not to reject her mother or push the memory of the lost mother aside because it's painful," she says. "But to find ways to incorporate her mother into her daily life, whether it's wearing a piece of her mother's jewelry, or just having a photo of her in the house to recognize that her mother was an important part of her past and embrace whatever relationship she can have with her mother in the present."
In 1994, Hope Edelman shared her experiences, and others', in her book, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss. An updated edition includes findings from a new study of loss. "The Harvard Child Bereavement Study, which was published in 1996, tracked children for two years after the loss of a parent ," she says. "It found that children who lost their mothers were much likely to be sad, depressed or acting out, two years after the loss. And usually that's because they were not getting help right after the time of loss."
Such a study highlights the importance of helping kids open up and deal with their emotional loss… and, Edelman notes, that's happening. "I was pleasantly surprised to see just how many bereavement centers have sprung up like mushrooms and how much support was out there for grieving children," she says. "Many of the bereavement centers, camps and programs were begun by adults who had lost parents during childhood and hadn't gotten the help they needed. As adults they are now turning around and trying to give children what they didn't receive themselves."
Lynne Hughes is one of those adults. She lost her mother when she was nine. Three years later, her father died. Like Hope Edelman, she chronicled her experiences in a book titled, You Are Not Alone: Teens Talk about Life after the Loss of a Loved One. And, with her husband, she founded a place where kids can talk, and grieve. "We started holding camps for 7 to 12 year-olds, it started just for kids in Virginia," she says. "Now we've held 53 camps. We had over 2000 children from across the country attend. We've become the largest bereavement program in the country."
Comfort Zone Camp is free for children - girls and boys - who have lost a loved one. It offers a weekend full of activities such as swimming, fishing, games… and healing.
"We break the kids down by age," she says. "Each 'Healing Circle' has a theme, whether it's talking about emotions or feelings, how things have changed at home, coping skills. The kids have the ability to tell their stories and get their feelings and emotions validated." There is also an arts and crafts program, Hughes says because some of the children express themselves better visually than verbally.
Lynne Hughes says these few days can be a life-changing experience. Parents have told her " they drop off one child and pick up a different child on Sunday," she says. "Usually the child they drop off is grumbling, not really wanting to go to camp. They are afraid that they are going to cry all the weekend, or talk about who died all the weekend. But when they get there, they realize that most of it is fun. They are making these connections and getting their feelings validated."
author, Hope Eldelman says it's always helpful for children who lose a parent, especially a mother, to know that they are not alone. They also have to get the support they need, and surround themselves with loving friends and family members. She says many adults who grew up without their mother, especially women, find comfort when they become parents themselves. Others find consolation in helping others deal with their mother loss.