Motherless Daughters

When a daughter loses her mother, she loses the ally who will help her navigate the developmental challenges of life, form a secure sense of herself and her place in the world, and accept and survive the many losses which are an intrinsic part of living itself. She loses the witness who helped mark her passage through childhood, and the familiarity, recognition, and love which only a mother can provide.

When a woman loses her mother, she loses a reflection of herself. She is forced to confront the grim realities of illness and death. She loses the innocence, protection, and freedom of her youth, especially if she is asked to assume roles or responsibilities her mother once filled. Even worse, her loss sets her apart. Unlike others of her age, she is a “motherless daughter.”


My mother died of ovarian cancer in 1976 when she was forty-two. I was twenty years old at the time, a young woman physically, but still an adolescent in many ways, eager to embark upon my life as an adult, but in no way prepared for the consequences of such profound and traumatic confrontation with death and loss. In fact, it is only now in hindsight, as I review the past twenty years, and trace my difficult passages into early adulthood and now mid-life, that I see how much of my life has been darkened by the shadow of my mother’s death. Indeed, although I never knew her well; although we were never allies, as I now know mothers and daughters can be; although the tenor of our days and years together was far less that ideal; she was my mother and the terror, tragedy, and the trauma of her illness and death still haunt me.

For many of the past twenty years, in the reoccurring nightmares that frequented my sleep, and in the fears which accompanied me by day, I relieved the horror and trauma of her illness and death, fearful that someday I too would fall victim to the painful disease that claimed her so young in life. Even so, it was not until two years ago, when I purchased Hope Edelman’s book Motherless Daughters, and began reading the stories of other women like me, that I began to understand why, to this day, I still bear the painful scars of my mother’s death.

Many psychological theorists have written about the unique significance of the bond between a mother and daughter, especially during infancy and childhood, however until recently the impact of the loss of this vital relationship in later life has been given far less attention than is its due.

Adrienne rich wrote in Of Woman Born, “The loss of the daughter to the mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy.” But why does this difference exist in the experience of men and women, who are born from, suckled and tendered by their mothers? And how do we account for the quicker or easier recovery and adaptation by one daughter, and not the other? And how, as clinicians, can we help those who are most traumatized by their loss?

The answers to these questions are complex in scope and far exceed this paper, but, as I surveyed the literature on mother loss and other related subjects, I formulated the following preliminary responses to these inquiries.

An Explanation of Difference: The Significance of Gender in Mother Loss

Gender and Development: According to feminist researchers and scholars Judith Jordan, Alexandra Kaplan, Jean Baker Miller, Irene Stiver, Janet Surrey, and their associates at the Stone Center of Developmental Services and Studies, who have formulated the “self-in-relation” theory, women’s development differs from men’s – a factor which may influence how dramatically they respond to loss of their mothers, who play a vital role in their ongoing growth and development.

In an analysis of the prevailing developmental paradigms, Baker Miller notes that “Modern American theorists of psychological development, and indeed,, of the entire life span, from Erik Erikson to Daniel Levinson, tend to see all development as a process of separating one’s self out of the matrix of others – ‘becoming one’s own man,’ in Levinson’s words. Development of the self is presumably attained via a series of painful crises by which the individual accomplishes a sequence of allegedly essential separations from others, thereby achieving an inner sense of separated individuation.” Within this conceptual framework, separation or individuation from the mother is an essential milestone in our development.

The “self-in-relation” theory, on the other hand, emphasizes interaction versus separation as the primary vehicle by which development occurs, a process which leads to strong identification between mothers and their daughters, as they engage in a context of “relational mutuality.” As Baker miller explains, “The literature has generally ignored the extraordinarily important character of interaction, that of attending to and responding to the other,” in women’s development. This, not separation, is the essential feature, of “all continuing psychological growth” in women’s lives in her view: a feature most notably characteristic of the mother-daughter dyad.

If the perspective of the “self-in-relation” model is true then, when a mother dies, a daughter loses not only a parent, but the parent who served the most essential role in her developmental life. While simplistic, this alone may explain some of the differences in adjustment to mother loss between the genders.

The Role of Identification with the Mother in Women’s Development

According to the “self-in-relation” model, mothers assume a distinctive and crucial role in the developmental lives of their daughters, not only in infancy, but throughout the entire life span.

In The Self-in-Relation: A Theory of Women’s Development, Janet Surrey discusses the salient features of this process, a process which is based upon a daughter’s identification with her mother and which defines not only her self-experience, but her deepening capacity for relationship and relational competence.

Through her identification with her mother, she explains, a young girl begins to develop not only her sense of self, but a psychological, emotional, and social stance she will seek to replicate in all future relationships and which furthers her development into womanhood.

Without her mother to facilitate this process, however, a daughter is left to master the developmental tasks of her early life alone. Worse, as Edelman notes in her introduction, “she co-opts the loss [of her mother] into her emerging personality, where it becomes a defining characteristic of her identity.”

Developing a sense of herself, as well as all the other steps of behavioral and cognitive growth which are aided by identification with her mother, will be altered or arrested if a mother dies early in a girl or young woman’s life. She may also encounter difficulties mastering the tasks and responsibilities normally associated with her chronological age and without the continuing influence of her mother, may have difficulty with the maturational processes of life.

Factors That Influence the Degree of Trauma Experience As a Result of Mother Loss

Although many factors seem to play a significant role in determining how a daughter will respond to her mother’s death, including her birth order, natural constitution, early attachment patterns, prior experiences with loss, and the ability to mourn, the following three circumstances seem to have particularly strong bearing on the degree of trauma she may experience.

A Daughter’s Age and Development Phase at the Time of Loss

Most of the research on the impact of the death of a parent still regards parents and children as a homogeneous group and overlooks the specific gender issues that arise when a same-sex parent dies, however, age seems a particularly influential factor in determining how a daughter responds and adjust to her mother’s death.

In Motherless Daughters, Edelman discusses the impact of mother loss on four distinct age groups, including young girls up to the age of six, girls ages six to twelve, adolescents, and finally, young adults. She highlights the particular development strengths and challenges of each group, as it pertains to their emotional and psychological needs, and reactions and vulnerabilities to loss.

Although losing a mother is, as I’ve already noted, profoundly disturbing and disorienting regardless of a daughter’s age, those in late childhood and adolescence may be particularly traumatized by the loss.

According to Edelman, some clinicians believe that children who lose a same-sex parent between the ages of six to twelve years of age have the most difficulty adjusting. “they are cognitively and emotionally advanced enough to feel a profound loss,” she notes, “but their resources for managing their emotions haven’t yet reached a level of mastery.” However the complexities of the adjustment process are equally challenging when a girl is an adolescent.

According to Women’s Self Development in Late Adolescence by Alexandra Kaplan, Nancy Gleason, and Rona Klein, this is a critical phase in a young woman’s developmental life, especially in regards to her mother.

Most developmental theorists describe adolescence in terms of a “loosening of affectional ties,” “emotional disengagement,” “severing” of family bonds, and repudiation of maternal ties, in late adolescent girls. However the “self-in-relation” model posits that even the conflict inherent in the relationship of adolescent girls with their mothers is typically focused on specific issues that coincide with the feeling that “my mother is my best friend” and an intention to maintain engagement, not separation and disconnection.

Whatever its intended outcome, whether separation or an attempt to expand their relational competency, (i.e., in the capacity to engage their mother in conflict without disrupting the underlying qualities of care and commitment), the conflict associated with this stage of development can have a disastrous impact on the relationship between a daughter and her ailing mother, especially when her mother is ill.

Typified as a period of intense internal chaos, adolescence is also a time of accelerated self-exploration and definition. As Edelman notes in her book, any of the developmental tasks of this time – whether developing autonomy; learning to live with ambivalence and ambiguity; learning to express emotions; developing a personal system of values; and maintaining a sense of adequacy and competency – can be disrupted or halted when a daughter loses her mother.

Other complications may also develop. For instance, if a young woman’s mother becomes ill during her adolescence, while she is attempting to master these tasks, and experiencing all the surges of emotion associated with this stage of development, her relationship with her mother may become rife with conflict. Unfortunately, a daughter whose relationship with her mother assumes this pattern often feels tremendously guilty if her mother dies at the peak of her rebellion. What would otherwise have been a temporary hiatus with the hope of later reconciliation becomes an irrevocable fracture in the relationship.

And Edelman writes, “An adolescent daughter may blame herself for not being a good daughter and may feel intensely sad about the lost opportunity for later redemption.” She may not understand that the antagonism and ambivalence she felt for her mother is normal. Worse, she may even hold herself responsible for her mother’s demise, linking it’s timing with this phase of their relationship.

Unfortunately, because most adolescents have little experience with profound loss, a girl’s peers are often unable to validate her feelings, or to understand the magnitude of her loss: a factor which compounds her sense of disorientation and anxiety in the aftermath of her mother’s death. Even worse, her loss sets her apart.

“Adolescents without mothers,” Edelman notes, “are often deeply ashamed of having lost the parent other girls view as so central to a daughter’s well-being.” In fact, many avoid talking about their loss or revealing any anger, depression, guilt, or anxiety to their friends, for fear it will make them different. They may attempt to create and project a new identity, one that exists independent of their past – not without disturbing consequences, however. For in this attempt to reinvent themselves “motherless daughters” frequently assume a falsely self-reliant persona.

As Dr. Mary Pipher’s bestseller Reviving Ophelia explains, the incidence of eating disorders and drug and alcohol addiction are on an alarming rise in today’s world. “Motherless daughters” are even more prone to these compulsions, especially if they lose their mothers in adolescence and have adapted such a persona to suppress their grief.

The Impact Of Loss On The Family And The Daughter’s Role In Its Survival

A second factor which influences the degree of trauma a daughter suffers appears related to her relationship with her family, the way it responds to the loss, and the role she may be expected to assume within it following her mother’s death.

As Viorst notes in her book: “Some analysts have argues that no young child has the ego strength to mourn to completion.” However psychologist John Bowlby, who is renown for his contributions to our understanding of “attachment” theory, disagreed with this perspective, insisting that children are capable of grieving and adjusting to even such a devastating loss if they are given the necessary opportunity. Unfortunately, in our culture, with its gender divisions, and in the specific circumstances of the death of a mother, these ideal conditions are rarely met.

In the aftermath of a mother’s death, a daughter is often ascribed the responsibility of the survival of the family and its members, a process which requires her to assume adult roles long before she is prepared. This may jeopardize and impede her development and result in the denial or subjugation of her needs, including those for mourning and support.

Depending on how her father adjusts to the loss, she may also be pressured to assume the role of a surrogate mate, a process which may distort her sense of herself and adversely influence her future relationships with men, especially if her father becomes seductive, and begins to treat her as “a replacement image for a sanctified dead wife.”

If a daughter is the oldest or most parentified child in the family, she may also be expected to care for her younger siblings. Since siblings are generational peers, sharing the same position in the family hierarchy, this may become a source of interpersonal tension, though.

As Edelman notes “When an older sister tries to become a mother replacement for a younger sister, the two may become enmeshed in developmental struggles – including adolescent separation and rebellion – that typically occur in the mother-daughter relationship.”

If a “motherless daughter” refuses these roles, she may feel guilty about abandoning her family. If she succumbs to the pressures, she may realize she cannot possibly meet her family’s needs. If she continues to try, despite the futility, she may exhaust herself trying to meet unrealistic expectations, and develop the characteristics of an “over-achiever.”

The consequences of either choice are not ideal, since both further thwart a “motherless daughter’s” ability to mourn and proceed in her own development.

The Way a Mother Responds to And Experiences Her Illness and Death:

In his classic book on existential psychology, psychiatrist and author, Irvin Yalom notes that many of our fundamental attitudes about our illness and death are influenced by the manner in which out parents experience, view, and respond to their own illnesses and deaths. In Motherless Daughters a similar correlation is made.

If a daughter watches her mother face death with unrelenting terror and fear, she will be more likely to fear death herself, and may even begin to anticipate it in the form of an incessant “death anxiety.” Even the faintest reminders of physical illness may precipitate this fear, which may become even further exacerbated, especially if a daughter sees the once youthful and beautiful mother with whom she so closely identifies become grotesquely disfigured or emaciated in the final stages of dying.

Edelman explains: “Witnessing a mother’s slow physical decline can be the equivalent of experiencing a long-term trauma. The daughter’s feelings of helplessness, anger, and fear persist. She may alternate between wanting to protect her mother and resenting her, in and advance and retreat dance.”

At the heart of this dance is a tragic conflict. As Naomi Lowinsky of The Motherline writes, “because many “motherless daughters” so strongly identify with their mother’s bodies they become afraid – even abhor the thought – of being like their mothers, because it may mean they will also become ill and die. And yet, every morning, when the daughter looks at herself in the mirror, a visage of her mother’s face may be reflected there, an inescapable daily reminder of the intimate biological tie they share.”

This conflict provokes deeply ambivalent feelings and fears about bodily health, fears which “motherless daughters” may attempt to ward off through extreme measures, which may persist, or appear cyclically throughout the remainder of their lives.

“A daughter’s individual identity depends upon her ability to adopt some of her mother’s characteristics and reject others, a process that’s complicated when the most recent and striking memories she has of her mother are of a woman who was seriously ill,” Edelman writes. This may have a seriously negative impact on her self-image, a notable characteristic of many “motherless daughters.”

The Failures of Our Cultural and Societal Milieu to Acknowledge Death and Assist Survivors

According to Motherless Daughters, in 1989, 124,000 women died between the ages of 25 and 59, 40% from cancer. Every year, at least 125,000 children, adolescents, and young adults lose their mothers, and yet, as a nation, we still tend to overlook the sad pervasiveness of this phenomena.

As Edelman notes, this oversight may actually be a form of cultural resistance or psychological denial, a denial which “originates from the place in our psyches where mother represents comfort and security no matter what our age, and where the mother-child bond is so primal that we equate its severing with a child’s emotional death.” It may also be part of society’s tendency to disregard and ignore death, and the needs of both the dying, and those who survive them.

Unfortunately, this limits the availability of support needed by “motherless daughters” to overcome the devastation of their loss, as it does all persons who experience traumatic loss.

A Clinical Approach To Helping “Motherless Daughters”

Defining Mother Loss as Trauma: In 1980, when post-traumatic stress disorder was first introduced in the diagnostic manual, the American Psychiatric Association described traumatic events as “outside the range of usual human experience.”

According to Judith Lewis Herman, M.D., Associate clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and author of Trauma and Recovery, in today’s world, where violence has become commonplace, “traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary adaptations to life.”

Although it is difficult to define psychological trauma, Herman believes that it is generally the result of experiences which involve “threats to life and bodily integrity, or close encounters with violence and death.” While we think of trauma as a reaction to atrocities such as rape, battery, abuse, or torture, rather than natural occurrences, such as the death of a parent, a young girl who sees her mother suffer an excruciatingly painful death, is likely to experience the “intense fear, helplessness, and loss of control, that the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry attribute to all psychological trauma.

Although as I noted earlier, thanks to the efforts of Edelman and other researchers, the plight of the “motherless daughter” has gained far more recognition than ever before, greater understanding of its serious clinical impact on the developmental and psychological lives of women is needed. Acknowledging the traumatic nature of the loss in certain circumstances is essential to this understanding.

Trauma as Initiation: If attended to appropriately, the experience of traumatic loss can be used as a deeply transformative experience. In her book, Herman presents a therapeutic model that can be used to help facilitate this process. A similar model can be employed in our clinical work with “motherless daughters” to help “work through” their grief, become autonomous adults, and create meaning form their loss: necessary steps if they are to lead fulfilled lives as other adults.