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Losing a mother early shapes a woman's emotional terrain for life

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Therapist Irene Rubaum-Keller in L.A. takes part in a network of 'Motherless Daughters' programs
Daughters who lose their mothers prematurely share certain qualities

Mother's Day is a week away and my daughters are casting about for gift ideas. But the one thing I want most — this and every year — is something they can't conjure up and Amazon can't deliver.

I'd like my mother to pay a visit, sit with me at the kitchen table and catch up on all she's missed.

I know that won't happen. My mother's been dead for nearly 40 years.

She was 52 when cancer struck. It killed her quickly. I was 19, the eldest of her four children. My father tried to reassure us that life would go on. "We are still a family," he'd recite every morning, before he left for work.

Life did go on — but her death left a void that's been impossible to fill and difficult to explain.

Even now, I still imagine the conversations we might have, still wonder at every challenge: "What would Mommy do?" The sight of a mother and middle-aged daughter getting a pedicure or enjoying a restaurant meal can move me to jealous tears. I feel an irrational bond to every woman I meet whose name, like my mother's, happens to be Ruth.

"The legacy of loss," author Hope Edelman calls that inevitable fallout. Her 1994 book "Motherless Daughters" was the first to chronicle the emotional terrain a woman travels when she loses a mother.

"When a mother dies, a daughter's mourning never completely ends," Edelman wrote. "Motherless women have always intuitively known this."

She wrote the book because she couldn't find help in the library as a 17-year-old struggling with her mother's death from breast cancer. There were no support groups or online chat rooms in 1981. She felt confused and alone — until she found this passage columnist Anna Quindlen had written about her own mother's early demise:

My mother died when I was nineteen. For a long time it was all you needed to know about me. A kind of vest-pocket description of my emotional complexion: "Meet you in the lobby in ten minutes — I have long brown hair, am on the short side, have on a red coat, and my mother died when I was nineteen."

Quindlen could have been describing Edelman. Or me. Or legions of young women unwittingly warped by ambient grief.

::

I wept when I first read that Quindlen column. Later, Edelman's book became a lifeline for me.

I realized I wasn't crazy, and I wasn't alone. I would learn to live comfortably with my mother's shadow. That's harder than it might sound.

Daughters who lose their mothers prematurely share certain qualities, Edelman discovered: "A keen sense of isolation, a sharp awareness of our own mortality, ...[and] the strong desire to give our children the kind of mothering we lost or never had."

We look elsewhere for nurturing, but don't know how to receive it. We tend to be hyper-independent, always braced for rejection and unable to ask for help.

"There's a sense we share of being adrift in the world," said therapist Irene Rubaum-Keller, whose mother died when she was 7. "Lonely, sort of needy, but not wanting to need anyone because that's too scary."

Rubaum-Keller offers support for women in Los Angeles, as part of an international network of "Motherless Daughters" programs Edelman launched 20 years ago. Now there are therapy groups, social groups and meetup.com groups for motherless daughters all across the country.

The grief that accompanies early loss of a mother can ebb and flow through a daughter's life. It tends to surge at milestones: a graduation, a wedding, the birth of a first child. I found consolation among women who understand that.

Many groups sponsor luncheons on the Saturday before Mother's Day, a holiday that can feel singularly cruel.

"The commercials start up: 'There's no one like mom.' 'Mom, the person who is always there for you.' It's right in your face," Rubaum-Keller said. "Women really appreciate having a place to go where they can feel that they are not weird."

She's been hosting luncheons here since 1997. I attended one a few years ago, and was warily prepared for a grief fest with strangers.

The idea itself seemed somewhat masochistic: Why cloak the holiday in sackcloth and ashes? Why publicly unpack so much painful private baggage?

But I found the afternoon unexpectedly uplifting. No dirge-filled ceremony or long weepy stories. Just the comfort of chatting about my mother's life and death, without worrying that I'm ruining the vibe of someone's holiday brunch.

::

Instead of a luncheon in Los Angeles this year, Edelman and Rubaum-Keller — who both live here — are sponsoring a day-long "Motherless Daughters"conference next Saturday in Marina del Rey.

Rubaum-Keller's session will explore how losing our mothers when we were young may have made us stronger, wiser and more compassionate. "We know we're living on borrowed time. That makes us more in-the-present, more alive," she said. "Women say they feel more vulnerable and stronger at the same time."

There's no way to put a good spin on the pain that the early death of a mother brings. But in 40 years, I've made my peace with both the costs and the benefits.

Mothering my own daughters always felt like a solo tightrope walk, with no net and no cheering from the stands. But I've learned to appreciate my mother's legacy; how fiercely she loved her children and, at the end, how tenderly.

So when my now-grown daughters ask what I need for Mother's Day, I tell them what my mother used to tell me:

Get along with your sisters. Don't bicker or complain or hurt each other's feelings. Because the day is coming when each other is all that you will have.

I need to know that you'll remember: We are still a family. And Mommy's love lives on.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Hope Edelman will host a discussion on motherless daughters at 7 p.m. on May 7 at Diesel bookstore in Brentwood.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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