Being a Motherless Mother: Loss of a Loved One as a Child


*I am not a grief counselor; this post is solely based on my personal experience.*

I may not be able to tell you what I had for breakfast yesterday – or even this morning, for that matter. However, I could tell you about my morning on August 17th, 1996, as easily as I could recite the words to just about any Taylor Swift song.

The air felt heavy, as most Midwest summer mornings do; the smell of dew filled my lungs as my sister, and I headed off to our usual haircut appointment. We stopped for bagels on the way home, discussing topics that, in retrospect, were ever-so trivial. My upcoming seventh birthday. Her dance schedule. Our remaining summer vacation plans. Time seemed to move quickly and slowly all at the same time. Before we knew it, it was time to head home.

As we turned onto our street, I noticed a lot of cars reaching out between driveways, like Hot Wheels cars lining a plastic track. My stomach dropped further and further as we approached our house.

“I don’t want to go in there,” I muttered beneath my breath. My sister grabbed my hand.

Before anyone had to even told me, I knew my life would be forever changed the second I walked through that door. 

And I was right: that was the day my mom died.

Fast-forward, twenty-six years later, I am a mom now, myself. I have told my recollection of that morning more times than I can count – primarily to various therapists over the years. Nonetheless, each year, I grieve all the same. I miss my mom just as much as I did over two decades ago.

Although holidays such as Mother’s Day have a new sentiment for me now, it still has the lingering feeling of loneliness and heartache. Last year, I looked at my newborn daughter, and while I wanted to feel a sense of pride and joy, I silently wept with fear about what she would (and, eventually, will) go through after my passing.

With that being said, I began to reflect on what helped me as I survived through the years to come following my mother’s ultimate demise. Now, I am not a medical professional; I was just a kid going through an unbelievably difficult time with very little understanding of the world around me. As an adult and now a mom, I can see how I overcame that chapter of my life and use it to become the – what I would say – empathetic, persistent, and strong person I am today.

1. Literature is helpful, even beyond the pages.

Calling it a “book” was generous. Its pages were black and white, and it had a blue cardstock cover with a couple of stock-imaged cartoon bears pictured. The words were poorly copied on what was seen as state-of-the-art printing technology in the 90s. However, that “dealing with loss” book sent home with my sister and me from the hospital made all of the difference. 

I remember sitting with my sister next to my parents’ bed, leaning into her shoulder as she read each page to me. The plot was not anything complicated: a young bear had recently lost his grandfather (grandmother?). Although, the story itself was not very important. It was about that moment. Sure, the story opened up a child-friendly dialogue for us to discuss our recent loss. It also gave us an opportunity to not feel so alone in a situation that can easily make one feel lost and isolated. Maybe it is the English teacher in me, but books really can bring people together.

2. Prepare, if you can.

Now, I would be naïve to think that this is always possible. If at all possible, though, prepare the young one for such a loss. Despite knowing my mom was sick with breast cancer for some time and my seemingly sixth sense for impending bad news, I did not know she was going to leave this earth when she did. I find myself, twenty-six years later, constantly watching for the ground to fall beneath my feet because that is exactly what happened on that August morning. Knowing ahead of time will not heal the heartbreak any easier or quicker, but it does give the little one a chance to embrace the moments leading up to it and mentally prepare for the life-altering change that is about to occur.

3. Give the child some type of say.

Years following my mother’s passing, my dad dipped his toes back into the dating pool, but not first without the approval from his best buddy: me. Before he asked my now-step-mom out on their first date, he asked if it would be alright with me if we all went to a baseball game together. From there, he asked if it would be fine if he asked her to dinner. So on, and so forth. Until the day came when he parked the car in the driveway and asked if I would be comfortable with his asking her to join our family officially (also known as proposing), I remember staring ahead into the empty dark garage. Although I felt nervous and slightly awkward, I said it was fine.

Here we are now, and my step-mom is the first person I call when my dad gets on my nerves or I need to know how to properly and efficiently clean a microwave! All jokes aside, that moment truly was a huge chapter in my grief story because I felt like I had some say in my life. I would say that is pretty important.

(I think it is crucial to note, though, that this does not have to be some huge life decision. My dad asked for my input on many things after my mom’s passing. One that sticks out to me is he asked who I wanted to ride with from the funeral home to my mom’s burial site. It seems silly, maybe, but being with my best friend at the time on one of the worst days of my life really did make a huge impact on me if I still recall it, right?)

4. Do not stop talking about the loved one. 

This one is tough. Odds are that, if you are regularly interacting with a child who has suffered a significant loss, then you are, too, impacted by said loss. Talking about the loved one can be difficult. However, discuss their memory when – and if – at all possible. It may seem insignificant or trivial, but I promise you it is not. I often question, though, if my memories of my mom are accurate: her voice, her smile, her smell, etc. Hearing others talk about her makes those seemingly fading memories come back to life, and in turn, they have given me life throughout the years. 

(Also, when in doubt, ask about the person. Sometimes, listening can be as helpful as speaking.)

5. Celebrate the good and the not-so-good days.

Our first Mother’s Day without her was tough. I remember, even way back then, as young as I was, dreading Mother’s Day. Fortunately, my dad, being the planner he is, found a breast cancer awareness walk on that bleak May day back in 1997. What, at first, felt like a huge weight on my shoulders ended up being the breath of fresh air my young self did not know I needed. I looked around, and I saw people who were suffering like I was. I saw women who were fighting to be with their children like mine did. 

Don’t get me wrong, though; this does not have to be a huge ordeal. On the date of my mom’s passing, I regularly would go to Dairy Queen and get her favorite. (Okay, I sometimes do this on her birthday too. Don’t judge. Grief takes many forms, and sometimes those forms are delicious creamy goodness…) It is not much, and from the outside, it may not look like an event. Though to my sister and me, it is a warm (or, in this case, cold?) feeling of remembrance and honor to the woman whom we think, love, and miss dearly daily.

Now, these all seem easier said than done. They are not full-proof. I am not a grief counselor. I am just a woman – a mom – who has been a child dealing with traumatic loss. (There are plenty of helpful resources out there, though, such as this one.) Twenty-six years later, I look at my daughter, and I think to myself that each and every one of these days, as long and stressful as they can be, do mean something. It may not seem that way, but one day, even to people beyond just myself, they do and will. 

Losing someone significant at such an early age (or ever, really) can do a lot to one’s mind and well-being. (Check out this Indianapolis Moms post for more insight into lessons learned through grief.) I did not realize it back then, and quite honestly, I do not think I really realized it until I even had my daughter. Once I started reflecting on that August day, the pieces all just kind of fit into place. My attitudes, beliefs, fears, and safe spaces all started to make sense.

So, one could say that this list is for my little girl, just in case. Others could say it is applicable to any little girl (or boy), who might find themselves in a similar situation of significant loss. Really, though, it is for that little girl on that August morning. Sometimes, I think – deep down – she still needs it.