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Transition to Being Motherless

November is a month of transition in Wisconsin. Mother Nature is deciding if she is ready to let go of fall and welcome in winter. One day the thermometer reads sixty-five degrees and the next day it’s thirty degrees colder. (or more!) The trees are bare. The crops are harvested. The horizon seems to look gray many days and the weathermen start teasing us about impending drizzle and snow flurries. Even our wardrobes must go through transition as we dig out warmer sweaters, coats, hats and gloves from dark dusty closets.

This month of weather transition causes me to think about other more monumental transitions as well.

For example, recently I heard a portion of a news broadcast segment that stated some human development “experts” are trying to redefine the third decade of our lives as the one that really transitions a person into adulthood. It seems some such experts believe the brain is not yet fully developed during our twenties and therefore we are not yet fully mature during that decade. They want to relabel the twenties as another stage in human development, much like toddlerhood or adolescence.

 I wish I had heard the whole story because I found it pretty interesting, especially since I have two children in their twenties and one almost there. The skeptic in me says, wait a minute; this is just another excuse for people to blame bad behavior of the twenties on not being grown up yet. Or on the other end of the spectrum, give us “older people” a false sense of being younger somehow. After all, we’ve been grownups a whole decade less if this idea holds any water!

Regardless, life is one series of transitions. Puberty, graduation, entering the work force, marriage, parenthood, divorce and retirement are just a few major life transitions experienced by many. Some transitions bring joy and happiness, but some are devastatingly difficult and cause considerable upheaval, confusion and even trauma. Two of the hardest transitions for me have been losing my mother and my breast cancer diagnosis.

November takes me back to three years ago when my mother was really ill. Her health was declining rapidly before my eyes and I felt helpless. She was transitioning between life and death and we all knew it. During those months I felt as if I was standing on a bridge between two time periods of my life just waiting to be pushed off.  

Even though I had a few months to prepare, I still wasn’t ready when the end came. Some people would say I was lucky to have had those final months to prepare, say goodbye and well, transition. I guess I was. If you lose a loved one instantly in a tragic accident, you aren’t given those final moments to say goodbye or just be together.

When my mother died in 2008, I had no idea how to be a daughter without a mother. On the day she died, it seemed as if I unwillingly entered the second phase of my life, the years I would be motherless. I think a woman’s life can be divided up into two parts, the years she has a mother and the years she does not. How many years one gets to have on either side of this “great divide” seems to be randomly and unfairly determined, but regardless of how much time you are allotted for the first part, it’s not long enough and you enter part two unprepared.

I wonder why this is sometimes. Why we are so unprepared for death and why isn’t it talked about much in our society? Why do people struggle figuring out what to say or do for others when a death is involved? Why do they sometimes even avoid the person who has experienced loss because it’s just too hard to face them? Do other cultures do a better job dealing with these issues? Do other cultures embrace aging or incorporate death more into everyday life, thus making it easier to at least talk about and therefore prepare for somewhat better? I think perhaps they do.

I realize loss of parents is in the natural order of things and in no way compares to the loss of a child. I have several loyal readers who have experienced this nearly unbearable tragedy and I have witnessed it in my own family as well. Nothing compares with this excruciating loss. But still, when you lose your parent(s), you are transformed or at least I was. The void left is immense. In addition, you are forced to step forward in life’s line so to speak. You are forced to face your own mortality a bit more seriously.

You are transitioning.

Do you agree that the twenties should be relabeled as another stage in human development? What was one of your most difficult times of transition? Or what was one that brought you great joy?

27 thoughts to “Transition to Being Motherless”

  1. Oh I love this post! You bring up such a good point. How long has EVERYONE been experiencing loss in his or her life… yet when it happens to someone else we all still don’t know what to say. Shouldn’t there be some kind of book or entire encyclopedia dedicated to exactly what to say to someone who’s grieving? I mean, it’s been happening for centuries, people! Haha. Maybe we should write it, Nancy!

    I am in the midst of blogging about one of my happiest moments. Stay tuned! xo

    1. Sami, Yeh, maybe we should! I’m still trying to figure out why this topic makes everyone clam up. I’m looking forward to reading your upcoming posts, happy ones or otherwise!

  2. Nancy, once again, your thoughts are beautifully written. You describe exactly how I felt the moment my mother died. One minute I had a mother, the next I didn’t. That moment clearly defined the first part of my life and the second. I knew a part of my life was over and nothing, not even a cancer diagnosis, comes close to making me feel that way. Everything else just blends in with life, but her death, divided it. The loss of a parent, whether expected or not, is one of life’s great tragedies, how can we not be affected?

    Beautifully done.

    1. Stacey, Your comments really sum up the essence of my post. Perhaps as one who is also motherless, you understand all too well. How long ago did you lose your mother and what did she die from? (If you want to share).

  3. Nancy. You ask some very profound questions in this emotionally intelligent post. The hardest transition for me has to be breast cancer. Whew where do I start ? It blew me out of the water, and came right about the time of some major life transitions. I was getting married, finishing an MBA, starting a new career, settling down in a new country, thinking of having children and finally feeling like the silly 20’s were behind me and looking forward to my confident 30’s. Well I still managed to do everything except have children, and I’m still here seven years on. Along with the breast cancer unfortunately. Who knows what or when the next big transitions will be, but I’m determined to be there for the ride.

    1. Anna, Well, thinking is good, right? You had one heck-of-a-clump of transitions back then I would say and came through quite well from what I can tell! I like your determined attitude! Where do you live anyway? Also, thanks for your willingness to answer my questions!

  4. Nancy,
    I’ve always wanted the kind of mother/daughter relationship you describe, but it was not to be. I now realize my mother’s been mentally ill most of my life. When I was 12, we role reversed after the death of my father. I became the mother, and she became the daughter. Until I realized the depth of her mental illness, I felt I’d failed her as “the parent,” and desperately searched for clues that might tell me where we went wrong.

    Now that she has dementia, our relationship is different, but still difficult. The only thing I know to do is release her to God. I pray, every day, He brings her peace, and that He gives me the wisdom to be the daughter she needs because she’s been incapable of being the mother I needed.


    1. Brenda, Thanks for your comments. You have had so much loss in your life and not having the relationship you wanted with your mother is another kind of loss too. I know I’m lucky to have had a good one with mine. I hope you both find peace in the relationship you have managed to build despite the hardships. When she is gone someday, I believe it will still be a defining moment in your life – when you transition to being motherless. You already exhibit a lot of wisdom by realizing and accepting she wasn’t capable of being the mother you needed, while continuing your efforts to be the daughter she needs now.

  5. Nancy, just as Mother Nature decides when the transition from fall to winter will be complete, so to do I question the various stages of my own life.
    I have not grieved for my own Mother who passed away less than one month before Jeremy’s accident. I think our culture has much to learn to facilitate the grieving process.
    I remember reading a book called The Wisdom of Menopause by Dr Christina Northrupp [I think] which was life changing.
    Your post will be used as a time of reflection for me.
    Love and gratitude xo

    1. Chez, You didn’t get time to properly grieve for your mother because you lost Jeremy so soon after. I am sorry for those excruciating back-to-back losses. I have no idea how one even goes about grieving in that situation. You are managing to cope and survive and that’s admirable. I’ll have to look for that book sometime soon. Thanks for sharing your comments once again.

  6. Losing parents to death is not easy, no matter how they die or at what age. I’ve survived this season of my life, but do feel like an orphan. Parents know their children better than anyone else does. Thanks for your reflections on this time of year and on what it means to love and be loved.

    1. Jan, Thank you for finding my blog and taking time to comment. I will add your blog to my list. It seems you and I have chosen the same two topics to write about.

    2. Jan oh my gosh I lost my father February of 2016 then my mother on February of this year, she was my best friend I saw her every day! I am so blessed to have had her as a mom I have done very well except the night of thanksgiving, for some reason I cried for two days!! Your right my sister and I both said “ what do we do now we feel like orphans!” Christmas was always so exciting her and my father loved it !! Just being together! I’m struggling right now but reading all these posts makes me feel not so alone thank you to everyone!

  7. Funny. This is something we’ve discussed over the course of the last week of lifespan. I think that we’ve begun to expect less of our children. They’ve also begun to expect less of themselves. I think we should quit worrying about naming the period and simply begin to raise our children to be independent. We have a friend who’s daughter lives outside Washington DC. She loves her horse, but cannot afford to board it in that expensive place, so her parents pay that for her (it’s more than her rent each month.) I suggested to her that perhaps she should move away from the big city, so that she could afford her horse. No. She wants to live outside NYC. It’s her parents’ responsibility to board her horse. They seem to believe this as well. It makes no sense to me.
    They’re allowing her to be childish. The girl is 26.

    Life is constant growing. From one experience to another. We just grow. Why do we need to label it?

    Good thought provoking post, Nancy.

    1. Debby, Good to see you back and thanks for your comments! Maybe we’ve all begun to expect less of ourselves?? I don’t know, I’m just asking. It’s hard to generalize. I don’t really think we need to relabel the twenties either. It seems kind of like an excuse to not grow up to me. Interesting concept though.

  8. I don’t think our 20s should be labeled as another stage in human development. I think people in their 20s should grow up. I am 27, and I notice that most people my age, especially men, do not apply themselves very hard. This is most noticeable in the “grown men” I know who are ages 23-29 or so. It is socially normal for guys my age to have no ambition. I can’t tell you how many guys I know who look forward to nothing more than Friday night so they can drink and play video games. They seem to live the “college lifestyle” well past the standard college age.

    1. Lindsay, Thank you for your very interesting observations! Why do you think it’s more socially acceptable for young men in their twenties to behave that way?

  9. Nancy, I hope you can take great comfort in the fact that you had a wonderful relationship with your Mother.

    It appeared to me, that your Mom was one of your best friends. Which is something so special, that so many never do experience. I know I always enjoyed talking with your Mom. She was always so caring and genuine. She took a true interest in how our family was doing, as well as her own (Very lucky).

    I always remember how your Mom would love to bake, and decorate. I’m talking years and years ago at slumber parties at your house with your big sister. She put the true meaning of making a house a home.

    You have to be thankful you were given 53 years of memories to cherish.

    I so enjoy your blog. Very proud of you!! Love, LaVonne

    1. LaVonne, Thanks for your comments! Yes, I do take great comfort in the fact that my mother and I had a good relationship and also because I did get to spend so much time with her at the end. I was lucky to have all those years, but still would have liked more. Also, I really have no regrets about anything done or not done. That’s a good feeling too. Thanks for sharing your memories and for your encouraging words about my blog. It means a lot to me.

  10. When my mother died, it was sudden & unexpected. I was shattered. And my dad had already been dead for nine years. What astonished me most was how, even at the age of 40, I felt my ‘orphanhood’ acutely. I was suddenly very conscious of mortality, of being thrust on the front lines, as it were, with no one protecting me. I felt that a tangible part of my life, my entire childhood, had disappeared. I’ve had patients who have been much older when their moms have died. Even women in their 70’s experience the feeling of being orphaned, I’ve discovered. It’s such a huge loss. We don’t ‘do’ death very well in our culture, I don’t think. I was grateful that I could talk with other friends who’d also lost their moms. I still miss mine, 19 years later. Now, at least, I have grown more comfortable and comforted by my memories. But it took a long time. Hugs & love to you, Nancy. xoxo, Kathi

    1. Kathi, I think it’s true that no matter how old we are when our parents die, we do feel orphaned and yes, even abandoned. It’s a life-altering passage that’s for sure. And like you, I don’t think society does a good job at all of allowing a person time to talk, grieve or whatever she needs to do after losing a parent. We’re expected to get over it quickly. I’m sorry you’ve been without your parents for so many years. Hugs and love back.

  11. Nancy, your post has made me think about how grateful I am to still have my mother now that I’m dealing with cancer. She helps me with my new disabilities. And I help her with hers. Will I lose her before she loses me? I don’t know. But we are sitting here together on a train and I think I will close the iPad now and talk to her …while I can.

    1. Kate, Enjoy all those moments with your mom. Sometimes I’m glad my mom didn’t have to be around to witness my cancer diagnosis and then again, sometimes I get almost angry that she hasn’t been here for it. Emotions are so complex. Thank you for reading this early post of mine and for taking time to comment on it too.

  12. So sorry that you lost your mother. It is so very hard. For months after mine passed, I would find myself starting to pick up the phone to tell her something or ask her something.

    My mother somehow knew and told us for months that she was going to be with Jesus soon. Dad even took her to the doctor. One night she died unexpectedly (at least to the rest of us) in her sleep. She had survived breast cancer with no recurrences 17 years.

    I grieved for my mother, but I felt blessed to have had her as long as I did. You see the biggest transition in my life was actually when my mother lost her mother. I was 14. I watched the rock and foundation of the extended family quickly and painfully slip away from breast cancer in her bones. I watched the adults of my family struggle with both daily caregiving and grief. I never doubted God could send a miracle, but I was so very angry that He didn’t. I know I didn’t suddenly turn into an adult, but I mark that summer as the end of childhood. There had been deaths in the family before, but this was real in a whole different way.

    A lot of years have passed since then. Now I have cancer. I cannot hope for a long life like my mother’s for it has already recurred. My biggest fear of my cancer, breast cancer in my bones, is my young adult children may find themselves motherless way too soon, even younger than my mother lost her mother. My one grandchild, and his future siblings and cousins, will miss knowing me the way my youngest cousins missed really knowing my grandmother.

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