90s FAMILY : Motherless Daughters : The grief of women whose mothers died prematurely is deep and prolonged. But there is solace in a sisterhood of common experience.

Special to The Times

Although her mother died 28 years ago of Hodgkin's disease, Gaile Price--who was 9 at the time--can't stop imagining her.

In her aunts' faces she sees her mother aged to the appropriate years. In exchanges between mothers and children, she hears her mother's voice. And through her father's recollections, she composes a mosaic of the woman who was to be her lifelong nurturer, teacher, adversary and role model to womanhood.

"The only thing I have known about my mother is illness and death," said Price, 37.

"I just felt this loneliness, this hole inside of me . . . and that I was different because of her death," she said. "When my dad wrote about her (for me), it helped me tremendously. He really gave me my mother back."

Like Price, approximately one of every 20 children in America will lose a parent to death before age 15, according to J. William Worden, co-director of a Harvard University child bereavement study that tracks children for a decade after parental death. And the loss of a mother is rarer than the loss of a father, said Worden, who calculated that roughly two mothers die prematurely for every five fathers.

But it is the impact of mother loss upon a woman, whose primary identification and role-modeling is patterned after her mother, that is the subject of Hope Edelman's recently released book, "Motherless Daughters: A Legacy of Loss" (Addison-Wesley, 1994).

The book is believed to be one of the first popular psychology books on the effects of early mother loss on women under 25. A New York Times review called it "an insightful first book . . . and . . . a moving and valuable treatment of a neglected subject."

Edelman, who was 17 when her mother died of breast cancer, said: "I just set out to write a book that I had been looking for when my mother died. The grief books that I read weren't written for younger women who lost their mothers. They were written as if you mourned and it was over. That was like a blanket denial and part of what made me feel abnormal. . . . I found out that the grieving will never stop."

Edelman, who is 27 and lives in New York, interviewed clinical psychologists, surveyed 154 motherless daughters by mail and interviewed 92 women in person. The result is a collection of anecdotal renderings that tell a story of denial, anger and yearning.

Although the book is not representative of the general population--89% of women interviewed were Caucasian and 69% attended college--some common threads are explored. They include daughters' fear of dying at the same age as their mothers, feeling anxiety on the anniversary of death, fear of abandoning their children by death, feeling a void, and fear of future losses. The majority of women interviewed by Edelman called their mother's death the central defining event in their lives.

After Edelman's book appeared, support groups formed spontaneously in Los Angeles, New York, Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City, St. Paul, Minn., and Atlanta, following Edelman's book readings. Lorraine Janeway, a counselor in the Portland area, said response was so overwhelming that she formed separate groups in various parts of the city.

And because motherless daughters feel alone in their experience, support groups are valuable for the solace of shared experience and the "mitigation of feelings of isolation," said Worden, a Newport Beach-based psychologist who wrote "Grief Counseling & Grief Therapy" (Springer Publishing Co. N.Y., 1982.)

The early loss of a mother can overwhelm some women for many years. A few women interviewed for this article said they felt so embarrassed and stigmatized by their mothers' deaths that they couldn't talk about it publicly. Others said they had postponed mourning for up to 20 years--until the pain of not mourning overwhelmed them and bulldozed its way into their consciousness.

Edelman writes that the daughter's age, the quality of the mother-daughter relationship, the way grieving is handled, the interdependence of siblings and what kind of mother substitute attachments are made afterward affect the impact of a mother's death.

Stephanie Schlanger, 40, was 17 when her mother died in a car crash.

"She died at a bad time, right at the time when I hated my mother," said Schlanger, who teaches literature and composition at a community college in Santa Fe, N.M.

"The night she died, she came to my dorm and gave me a blanket with a note, saying 'Thought you might need this.' I don't think I have ever gotten over the guilt. I feel like I have spent my whole life just coping," she said. "I never got to apologize. I was convinced I wouldn't live past 38, her death age. So when I did . . . it was a milestone."

Worden said that guilt and fear of dying at the same age of a parent is fairly common among the motherless women in his practice.

"When a woman reaches close to the age that their mother died, there is a reactivation and a heightened awareness of one's mortality," he said. "There is some guilt about having survived longer than the parent, but it is a subtle . . . 'Why me, why did I survive?' "

And although Schlanger surpassed her mother's death age and experienced yet another critical loss when her father committed suicide years later, she endures a residual fear that she, too, could die, leaving her son abandoned like she was.

"I understand that bad things happen," Schlanger said. "I've overcompensated by making sure that I am really involved with Thomas. I work part time, we read at night and we spend a lot of time together. If anything ever happened to me, he would know who I was."

In cases where girls do form healthy mother-substitute attachments, it is usually to an aunt, a grandmother or, less often, a stepmother. Still, Edelman and other experts said, many women say they are missing the kind of emotional security most daughters derive from their mothers but rarely from their fathers.

"For a little girl, a mother makes everything OK," said Dorthea Lack, a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist who specializes in bereavement. "She stands between the child and the monsters of life. When the mother is gone, life can never be OK again. The father can be a dragon slayer, too, depending on how well he has handled his own grief and how present he is for his daughter. If your mother dies in your life, the primary nurturer, how can anything be permanent or safe?"

Diane Sabatini, 32, was 11 when her mother died of breast cancer, leaving her with a generalized feeling of insecurity and rootlessness. She felt doubly abandoned when her father shipped her off to relatives, remarried and avoided talk of his wife's death.

"The grieving has never gone away for me but you learn to cope with it," said Sabatini, who is a Venice-based film production coordinator. "Mortality is so real to me. Whenever I love someone, I think something bad is going to happen. I wait for people who are close to me to die. I always want to be prepared for it. Even when I hear someone is dying who I don't know, I get all choked up. It brings me right back."

Despite such emotional fragility, Edelman said that most of the women she interviewed reported feeling self-reliant, strong and competent survivors as a result of their mother's death.

Linny Siefert, 29, who was 14 at the time of her mother's death from lymphoma, said she was pressed into service afterward.

"I feel emotionally the same way I did when I was 14," said Siefert, who now assists her father running his import fabric company. "I just lost my childhood and took on the responsibilities of a wife, going to the cleaners and grocery shopping while my friends did normal teen-age things. But those years were very un-nurturing and I felt like I never got what I deserved, which made me feel like I didn't deserve anything. I just had no guidance. A part of me died when she died."

Though it may never end, Edelman and psychologists say mourning changes as women grow older. With the help of therapists, support groups, family members and mementos, women get rid of the mythology surrounding the "idealized mother" and come to know the mother as she really was.

"Grief is not a linear process; we got that idea from Freud," said Worden, the psychologist. "You keep your dead mother in your life through different kinds of memorialization as part of an ongoing negotiating process of, 'What would my relationship have been like now? Who would this person have been had they lived?' "

For different women such memorialization means different things.

For Schlanger, it has meant seeing her mother in her physical traits, temperament and in her own "good mothering" to her son.

For the non-religious Sabatini, it has meant honoring her mother, who was a devout Catholic, by attending a Catholic church on the anniversary of her death and on her birthday.

And for Price, who used to have a recurring dream in which her mother would come down from the heavens with only 15 minutes to visit, it has meant realizing that she doesn't have to "bargain with her mother for just a little time."

"That dream made me realize that all I wanted was a little something," said Price, the director of a private elementary school.

"I have so little of her. My mother died the day before Mother's Day and this was the first year I didn't just hide on Mother's Day by going to a double feature movie to avoid the mothers all over the place. This time I wore her watch with her name engraved on it. It felt wonderful and special. I felt really connected to her."

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