When Becki Ellis had a baby a year after her mom died, her happiness was tempered by grief. “I mourn his loss,” she says of her infant son. “He would have seen my mom all the time. She would have been an amazing grandmother.”

The Southampton woman keeps her mother’s picture in her little boy’s room “so he knows who she is. When he’s older,” says Ellis, “I’ll tell him all the good stuff he missed out on.”

Many mothers without mothers face uniquely heart-rending challenges, experts say. “It’s like you’re missing the instruction book,” explains Nona Dawson-Land, a longtime grief counselor for Samaritan Healthcare & Hospice. In other words, the person moms often rely on for advice – on everything from parenting to cooking to life – is gone. “They miss having that person to run to.”

“My mom was my hero,” says Andrea Dean of Haddonfield, who was 23 when her mother died in 1986. Though Dean and her husband lived in Arkansas back then, mom and daughter talked long-distance “at least three or four times a week.” When Dean became a mother, she wished her mom were there to answer questions. Like Ellis, she too grieved for her children’s loss of the grandmother they never knew.

“It would be great to have my children experience my mom firsthand, rather than hear stories about her,” says Dean, whose kids are now 20 and 15. “I think she’d be proud of their accomplishments; she’d partake of their activities as much as she could.”

Celebrating significant family events can be especially difficult for motherless mothers. “Holidays, birthdays and milestones of their children are often marked with some grieving, because they cannot share this joy and excitement with their mothers,” says Robin Bilazarian, a Mount Laurel-based psychotherapist. She often advises women to incorporate a ritual – such as a favorite recipe, story or decoration – to honor their absent mother.

Pregnancy is another period when the loss can be felt more acutely. “I wished I could’ve called my mom and asked her questions, like how long she was in labor, how her pregnancies went,” recalls Ellis, whose mother died in 2012, a few months before her son was conceived.

Bilazarian says it is common for expectant moms to yearn for their late mother. “They are full of anxious anticipation, and they know their mothers would have eased their entry and journey into parenthood.”

Mothers who lost their moms as children can have a particularly tough time. “These mothers are often more intense and worried,” notes Bilazarian. “They were less nurtured and less directed than their peers.”

For women who had a troubled mother-daughter relationship, other challenges come into play. “Daughters can have a lot of guilt,” says Dawson-Land, who runs Samaritan’s “Daughters Without Mothers” grief support group. For instance, they may feel they didn’t do enough for their mother, or that they did too much and enabled their mom’s unhealthy behaviors.

Death can also trigger great anger, which can lead to clinical depression – and result in the mother neglecting her own children. Her children then may “take on the feelings of the parent,” says Dawson-Land. “They can feel like it’s their fault.” Marriages can suffer, too, she says.

In some ways, Ellis was fortunate. While she had a difficult relationship with her mother, she got to “settle a lot of demons” before her mom passed away. Ellis was her mom’s primary caregiver for about three months before the 65-year-old’s death. “The lines of communication had to open up; she couldn’t hide things anymore,” says the Southampton resident.

“It made me feel like I was more prepared to become a mother,” notes Ellis, 32, a teacher at Seneca High School in Tabernacle. “It gave me confidence I could open up and communicate with my own kid.”

Now, Ellis recalls the positives she learned from her mom – and hopes to incorporate them with her own child, 7-month-old Aidan. “She had an insane amount of patience. She taught us to look at the bigger picture.”

Whether the relationship was good or bad, grief’s impact on a surviving mom and her family depends on how well she copes, says Dawson-Land. And coping is affected by many factors, including whether you have a good support system and how mentally healthy you are. “If you’ve had previous depression, an anxiety disorder, personality disorder, substance abuse problem – these can magnify how you feel and cope in grief,” she says.

For moms with very young children, simply finding time to grieve can be a struggle. “That can become dysfunctional or delayed grief,” notes Dawson-Land. “They may start losing it, crying more, not sleep, not eat. It’s like a sore that can’t heal.”

The pain may be eased by finding someone to help fill the void in the mother’s life. “Find another woman of any age, who is there for you,” advises Bilazarian. An aunt, mother-in-law, grandmother or sister may help fill mom’s shoes – but maybe not immediately. “They’ll say ‘No one can replace my mom’ while in the grief process,” says Dawson-Land, who was 31 with two toddlers when her own mother died years ago.

Ellis is grateful for the new closeness she has with her mom’s sister, which began with a heartfelt gesture at the remembrance ceremony. “My aunt grabbed a hold of me and my brother and said, ‘You’re mine now.’

“I cried,” says Ellis. “My mom’s sister became my surrogate mother.”

This aunt has also stepped in as a grandmother to Ellis’ young son. “Having somebody be grandmom – that helps a lot. That helps me get through the mourning of his loss.”

Still, one woman can’t be expected to fill all motherly roles. “Seek out several women to avoid overpowering one with neediness,” says Bilazarian. “I suggest you also have a woman in your life who is a parent. You can use her as a resource as your child goes through stages and issues.” She advocates taking parenting classes, too.

Andrea Dean – who’s one of 10 children – turned to a friend for parenting advice. “She’s the most like my mother of everyone, even my siblings,” says Dean, a registered nurse who works in healthcare sales. “She has the same priorities as my mom: the children. I have a great sense of comfort around her.”

Husbands can also help, experts say. Bilazarian advises all husbands to learn “active listening,” which consists of paying attention, asking relevant questions and summarizing what the person just said.

“It is not fixing it,” she emphasizes. “Let the woman process her feelings by you becoming a good sounding board.” Spouses should watch for anything abnormal, such as eating or sleeping more or less than usual, or excessive isolation. If such behaviors occur, seek professional help.

Anyone who’s had a loss “should be good to themselves and understand that grief is a natural and normal process,” says Dawson-Land. “It can make you feel like you’re crazy. If you feel you need help, there are places you can go to sort through your feelings. You don’t have to do it alone.” Options include grief counseling, grief support groups and psychotherapy – which can include parenting guidance.

Someone who’s coping well with grief will still cry, be emotionally upset and have some down days, says Dawson-Land, but also be able to function. “A woman will still be able to talk about mom with pleasure and go through the stages of grief – not be in denial about it,” she explains. “In counseling, you can learn about the grief cycle; it’s easier to go through when you know what to expect.”

The first year is the hardest, Dawson-Land notes. “Now you have to learn how to live without mom and learn new ways of doing things.”

But with loss sometimes come gains.

“I have a bigger, closer family now because I don’t have a mom,” says Ellis. “My dad is more active in my son’s life. My aunt, sister and sister-in-law are more active in my son’s life. Losing my mom has made my family much tighter as a whole.”

July 2014
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