My Mother, My Loss

By Anne Diffily / May / June 1998
December 28th, 2007
Doris had just hung up the phone when she heard her father's cry. It was a Saturday morning in February 1958, and the Rockville Centre, New York, teen had been making plans with a friend to catch a movie that afternoon. But her father's stricken voice wrenched her from carefree adolescence into a darker realm. Doris ran to her parents' bedroom and saw her mother lying on the bed, dead.

The fifteen-year-old was Doris Kearns Goodwin, now an eminent historian who recounted the life-changing moment in her 1997 memoir, Wait Till Next Year. "My father was sitting on the edge of my mother's bed, sobbing into his hands," Goodwin wrote. "Perhaps my mother's long illness...should have prepared me for the prospect of her death. Yet...I recoiled in shock at the sight of her body."

Losing one's mother is shocking at any age; losing a mother during adolescence is particularly shattering, says Lynn Davidman, associate professor of sociology, Judaic studies, and women's studies. Davidman should know. Not only is she completing three years of research on the topic and writing a book, Growing Up Motherless, due out next year, but as a young teenager she herself lost her mother to cancer. It was an experience Davidman has never entirely recovered from - a point that became clear after her father died in 1993 and Davidman fell to pieces at her parents' grave site in Jerusalem.

In the aftermath of that unexpected emotional meltdown, Davidman went on to locate and interview thirty men and thirty women whose mothers had died when the interviewees were between the ages of ten and fifteen. It's an age range, Davidman explains, when the effects of what she has dubbed "motherloss" are especially acute. The children are old enough to retain vivid memories of life before and after their mother's death, but they are not yet mature enough to be self-sufficient; they still require nurturing.

What Davidman found is heartbreakingly poignant: most of the interviewees had never talked about their mothers' deaths until she sat down with them one-on-one. Often both she and the respondents cried during their two-to-three-hour meetings. The loss of care experienced by every one of the subjects - and by Davidman herself - had an enormous effect on their adult lives, leading many to seek out gentle, nurturing mates or to go into caregiving careers such as nursing.

Indeed, motherloss seemed to color everything in a person's life, from the prosaic, such as decisions not to return to work after childbirth, to the archetypal. Over the years most of the interviewees had constructed culturally stereotyped, idealized views of their mothers. They described doting moms who baked delicious cookies and sewed elaborate Halloween costumes. "Daily life with my mother was so unbelievably good," one middle-aged male professor told Davidman, "you might think I made it up." A woman who had been severely beaten by her mother as a young child astounded Davidman by insisting that the same woman, if she had lived, would now be "my best friend." The deceased mothers became powerful, madonna-like icons - a fact not lost on Davidman, much of whose scholarship has examined the intersection of sociology and religion.




What unhinged the normally composed Davidman on a chill November day in Israel in 1993 had little to do with her father's death and everything to do with issues she assumed she had buried along with her mother's body twenty-one years earlier. After all, father and daughter had barely spoken during that time, since a rift arose over Lynn's rejection of his Orthodox Judaism. No, what pierced her composure was seeing, for the first time, the grave in Jerusalem next to her dad's into which her mother's remains had been transferred from a Long Island cemetery four years earlier.

Standing over the graves, Davidman began crying hysterically. "I was transformed into the thirteen-year-old girl who had lost her mother," she says. "I repeatedly sobbed, `I want my mom.' I cried out in mourning for my lost opportunity to have known my mother over the course of her life and to have her know me as a woman. And I wondered about the many ways in which my life would have been easier if my mother had not died when my brothers and I were young."

Such a deeply felt reaction might have sent other social scientists running from a research project as close to home as the one on motherloss Davidman was contemplating. When her father died, Davidman was on sabbatical from Brown, working on a book proposal. Having arrived at a point in her life when she could appreciate the depth of her young loss, she wanted to attempt the book for both personal and professional reasons. "It was something I really needed to get into," Davidman says. "And there was almost nothing else written on the topic." So, when she regained her composure after her graveside catharsis, instead of abandoning the project, Davidman plunged back in with renewed commitment.

Davidman had waited to do the book proposal until she felt sure her Brown tenure review would go well, because, she points out, "it's a daring project" for an academic. The frank twining of personal experience and scientific method would, she knew, dismay more traditional social scientists who bow at the altar of objectivity. Davidman has chosen to work within a newer social-science model, "grounded theory," which often relies on highly personalized interactions between interviewer and subject to tease out primary research themes.

Davidman was no stranger to self-referential research. "Throughout my academic life," she says, "beginning as an undergraduate, I have pursued intellectual work partly as a way to better understand my own life." Early in her career, she majored in psychology and religion at Barnard and went on for a master's from the University of Chicago Divinity School. She switched to sociology for her Ph.D. at Brandeis after concluding that the field "places individual experience within larger contexts." Her first book, Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism (1991), investigated the personal factors that cause Jewish women to be attracted to a fundamentalist form of their faith. Both that work and her current book, Davidman notes, "focus on how people make sense of and rebuild their lives after experiencing a major, unexpected disruption."

The good news about motherloss, Davidman has concluded, is that people do rebuild their lives. Of the sixty sub-jects she interviewed, fifty-eight have constructed successful adult lives. While nearly every interviewee agreed with the forty-something woman who called her mother's death "the defining event of my life," most are survivors. "In one way or another," Davidman notes, "we have found ways to make our lives work for us. It is a testament to the human ability to experience adversity and transcend it."

But the path to that transcendence, Davidman believes, was made unnecessarily difficult by squeamish social conventions. One of her hopes is that the book will help families experiencing motherloss to avoid the pall of silence and shame that deny an adolescent's searing loss and the difficulties that follow.




The day after her mother died, Doris Kearns Goodwin arose early and puttered aimlessly in the kitchen. "I wanted my father," she writes in her memoir, "yet for the first time in my life I was afraid to disturb him. I wanted to call my friends, but did not want to be pitied." Back in high school after the funeral, she plunged into her studies and after-school activities. "At home, however," she recalls, "I entered into a private realm of sadness. The old rituals of family were gone, dissolved by death and my father's continuing grief."

Goodwin's story is a familiar one to Lynn Davidman, who suffered in silence after her own mother's death and now knows she was far from the only teen to do so. Until recently, Davidman notes, death has been a subject eschewed in polite society. For many families, it was the conversational elephant in the living room: hugely disruptive, impossible to ignore, yet verboten to mention. The reasons for this were several, Davidman suggests. For one, the surviving fathers got caught up in their own loss and in the shock of suddenly assuming the day-to-day care of their children; typically, they didn't encourage conversation about the bereavement. In addition, the death of a mother resulted, sociologically speaking, in an abnormal family structure. "In the fifties and sixties, any major trauma that shattered the nuclear-family pattern," notes Davidman, "such as parent loss, homosexuality, even divorce - all were silenced.

"We learned, early on," she continues, "that the subject was taboo, and thus we rarely discussed our mothers with anyone, from the onset of their illnesses and afterward, throughout our lives." When her mother became ill, no one used the word cancer, and Davidman was shushed when she brought it up. Family and friends told her simply that her mother was sick, adding reassuringly, "Don't worry, she'll be fine." So Davidman stifled her worries. After her mother's death, fearing she would further upset her remote father, she stifled her grief, too. "I couldn't cry," Davidman says. "If you can't cry, you can't grieve. You kill something in you. In high school I was so unhappy, but I would say to my friends, `I'm not unhappy. I'm just not happy.'"

For children who lost their mothers, such cultural strictures typically led to "a lifelong habit of silence," one that exacerbated the sense of disruption orphaned children were already feeling. In addition to their repressed grief, the children also experienced an abrupt discontinuation of the specific caretaking provided by their mothers. Not surprisingly, given the roles women played within families, such deprivation often centered around food - the literal and symbolic epitome of mother love.

Shortly after Davidman embarked on her research, she began to have a troubling dream. In it, she was living in her childhood home with her two brothers, her father, and her mother, who had somehow returned to the family after her death. Even though she appeared to be present, in one crucial way Davidman's mother was not there for her children.

"She's not feeding us," Davidman says, summarizing the dream's story line. "My brothers and I are concerned about planning meals, buying or scrounging food, putting food on the table. My mother is just not doing her job, and I'm not happy about it."

The disruption in normal mealtimes that happens when a mother dies, Davidman says, is a major part of motherloss. "What people lose is mothers' caring in its manifold variations," she says. "The loss of regular meals is a loss both of something you physically need and of nurturance." One brother-sister pair she interviewed brought up a common theme - the stingy, unloving stepmother. "They talked about this stepmother who didn't feed them," Davidman says. "She'd give them one can of Chef Boyardee to share." In effect, these children felt both emotionally and physically starved by their father's remarriage.

Contrary to Davidman's expectation, few of her interviewees seemed to have been comforted by institutionalized religion. Instead, they "kept their mothers symbolically present" via quasi-religious practices. One woman placed her mother's photo in her own wedding-day bouquet; later, she put it in her son's pocket for his bar mitzvah. Similarly, a man sewed his mom's picture inside the yarmulke he wore when he married. Another woman "talked" to her mother when she jogged, seeking guidance from the dead woman as if from a god or saint.

Even Davidman, who smilingly describes herself, like Max Weber, as "religiously unmusical," created sacred spaces for her mother's artifacts. After her fiancé moved in recently, Davidman began jealously guarding a framed photograph of her mother she'd placed on a living-room desk. When her fiancé added photos of his daughters to the desk, Davidman quickly moved them across the room. He moved them back. She moved them again. "After the third day of this, I said, `Hey, Arthur, what's with the pictures? You keep putting them over here on my desk.' He said, `And you keep moving them.' I said, `Well, that's...' and I groped for the right word. `That' shrine.'"




At times, interviewing her subjects was so painful that Davidman nearly abandoned the project. Because she explicitly set out to incorporate her experiences into the research, she struggled to overcome decades of repressed emotion and to face her pain. "Every few weeks I would think, `I have to drop this,'" Davidman relates. "About two years ago I wasn't sure I could go on. I was so depressed; I'd come home after an interview feeling like a rag doll." Several friends urged her to leave the project and the pain behind. "But one really good friend said, `You want to do this, and you're not going to rest until you do. Stick with it.' And she was right."

In the end, Davidman has been left not only with a heretofore-nonexistent body of knowledge about the effects of motherloss in adolescence, but with an affirmation of her conviction that most people manage to make sense of their lives, no matter what they've experienced. So, even though she winced for Princes William and Harry when their mother, Princess Diana, died in a car crash last summer, Davidman is confident that the surprisingly "un-English" public mourning will help the two boys adjust; "they won't be isolated by shame and silence."

Further, she has seen among some of her younger research subjects a small, but encouraging, shift toward openness in the way families deal with impending motherloss. This trend is particularly noticeable in urban communities and among the well-educated. Davidman would love to see her book make healthier conventions more widespread.

In the meantime, Davidman has achieved a measure of equilibrium in her personal life at the same time she is wrapping up her motherloss project. That she persevered with the research is due, she believes, to her ability to confront, at long last, the pain of her mother's death - and to at least one person who supplied Davidman, decades later, with the support and love her mother might have given her, had she lived.

"About the same time I was questioning whether to proceed with the research," Davidman notes, "I was getting involved with my fiancé. He's a very nurturing man. He cooks dinner for me every night.

"Having that kind of unconditional love and support in my life freed me to do my work. Within a couple of months of making the decision to continue, my mother began coming into my dreams. I felt I could go on. She had come to help guide me."




Death in the Family

How to help young people cope


Lynn Davidman emphasizes that she is an academic sociologist, not a therapist. But as one who experienced the death of her mother when she was thirteen, and as a veteran listener to the stories of others, she has some advice for guiding children through the pain of motherloss.


  • First, communicate. "Talk with the kids in depth and in detail about what's going on when a mother has a fatal condition," Davidman says. "Prepare them for what's going to happen."


  • Second, arrange for the children to be physically cared for. "If the father doesn't know how to cook, figure out a way to ensure that the kids will get regular, balanced meals," she says. "Bring someone in to do household cleaning so the kids don't have to start managing this at a young age." If a family lacks financial resources to hire help, Davidman says, they can mobilize networks of friends, religious organizations, or others in the community.


  • Third, listen. Children with dying or dead mothers should be encouraged to express their feelings and emotions, says Davidman. "They should not be told to be strong and move on." Acknowledge their grief by saying, "Yes, this is a major loss. Yes, this hurts, and this is going to hurt for a while. We will need to work together to alleviate some pain." It's okay, Davidman reminds us, to feel sad.


  • Fourth, allow for farewells. "I would encourage children to spend time with their mother while she's dying and to figure out a way to say good-bye," Davidman says. "If the mother is well enough, perhaps she could make tapes for the children. One of my interviewees said her mother had done that, and it helped her a great deal."
What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
May / June 1998