When a mother dies

On my desk sits a photograph of a mother and child. In 5-by-7 black and white, a beautiful young woman in her 20s, her dark hair in a twist, and her lips and fingernails plainly tinted, is holding her baby up to her cheek and looking out, almost heavenward. Their faces are gleaming, calm, sunk into the caress — as if somehow they know that this primal embrace will be the deepest joy they will ever feel. I keep this photograph on my desk as a reminder that perfect moments exist.

And also because the two people in it are my mother and grandmother.

But even though I find it indescribably beautiful, the mood of the photo is also unbearably somber. Because I know that soon after it was taken, my grandmother died. My mother would never again know the blissful comfort that emanates in this photo from her sweet infant face. Without her mother, so much would be lost — feeling safe, feeling cared for, feeling adored and at peace. 

My mother never really recovered from that formative trauma. She just learned to live with it. In the past year, learning to cope with that inimitable loss suddenly became my task, too.

The loss of a mother is singular for every child it affects, laying bare a deprivation that is incomparable and unrivaled. It is also a universal human experience that, pursuant to a “normal” progression of nature, should ultimately affect everyone. By the time most people lose their parents, though, they are grown adults, perhaps with children of their own, and a lifetime of parental presence behind them. Of course, it often does not happen that way: In the United States alone, a new documentary points out, one in nine people will lose a parent before age 20. 

Adolescent loss of a mother is the thread that links six different women in the HBO documentary “The (Dead Mothers) Club,” which will air May 12, the day after Mother’s Day (so as not to be too morbid on the day of maternal homage). Three of them are ordinary young women — Leticia, Jordyn and Ginger — who struggle to reconcile their young losses with their growth into adulthood, especially as two become mothers themselves. The other three are famous, older women — TV personality (and one of the documentary’s producers) Rosie O’Donnell, actress Jane Fonda and comedian Molly Shannon — all of whom, with the benefit of ample hindsight, are able to reflect more abstractly about how their early losses shaped them. 

“Everything about my life changed — everything,” O’Donnell says about her mother’s death from breast cancer when she was 10. “It was the defining moment. Everything went from being in color to being black and white; everything went from possible to impossible; everything went from hoping for the future to craving the past.”

In these stories, it does not seem to matter whether a young woman’s relationship to her mother was nourishing, challenging or damaging; a mother’s premature death is a slight of nature, a miscarriage of justice. It is particularly harmful to female offspring who look to their mothers not only as caretakers, but also as models for who they could someday be. When the mirror is gone, a girl can only guess and second-guess the way to her rightful path. 

Artist Ginger Williams-Cook, whose mother committed suicide.

“My mom taught me to, like, not just think about myself, but to think about the people around me,” Los Angeles high-school student Jordyn Levine says, as she debates whether to attend UCLA. “My dad and my sister would really like me to stay in-state, so would she have just been, like, ‘Go to an in-state school’? Or would she have been, like, ‘Go where your heart is telling you to go’? ” 

Levine’s mother died of breast cancer when Jordyn was 12, and her sister, Brooke, just 8. She was cheated of those years when the mother-daughter relationship develops into a bond of confidantes, and it has left her feeling somewhat stigmatized within her group of friends. “I had that put-the-Band-Aid-on, tuck-me-into-bed relationship,” Levine says, “but I never had, ‘How old were you when you had your first boyfriend?’ Or, ‘What dress did you get for prom?’ I won’t have any of those conversations.” 

The three young women in the documentary are each shown in the midst of a personal crisis directly related to their loss. For Leticia Guimaraes-Lyle, a lovely Brazilian woman in her early 30s who gives birth to her first child during the course of the story, the revelation that she may carry the BRCA (breast cancer) gene mutation — which led to the disease that killed her mother and grandmother — casts a dark shadow over her burgeoning Manhattan family life.

For Ginger Williams-Cook, an artist and expectant mother, the challenge is how to reconcile the guilt and anger she feels at having had a difficult, disapproving mother who then committed suicide. And for Levine, the youngest, the decision of which college to attend is a deeply symbolic choice: a tug-of-war between her commitment to her family and her commitment to herself. 

One of the documentary’s strengths is that it avoids pat portrayals of mothers as infallible pillars of goodness. Almost none of the mothers discussed were “ideal” parents: Both Williams-Cook and Fonda talk about their mothers’ suicides, and the pained relationships that preceded that nightmarish event. “The fact that my mother killed herself made me feel that there was something wrong with me,” Fonda says, “and that it was my fault — up until I discovered that it wasn’t, which was at age 64.” 

Through candid narration about complicated, strained or absent relationships, these daughters reveal their mothers to be flawed, complex and sometimes even troubled individuals. The more fraught the mother-daughter bond, it seems, the more acute and complicated the grief. O’Donnell captures this best with a heartrending confession of double bereavement, lamenting the loss of her actual mother, as well as the idealized, angel-mother she never knew. 

“I miss her almost daily,” a stoic O’Donnell tells the camera. “I miss the presence of that archetype. Not necessarily my mother; because I think I wanted more emotionally than she was ready or willing to give.”

The trauma of this loss runs so deep that it continues to live in these women long after their official period of mourning is over (if there is even a ritualized space for mourning; only one woman, Levine, is Jewish, and she does not appear to be observant). The reverberative effects of this death carry on, sometimes for decades, continuing to impact these women’s relationships, professional lives and sense of self. 

“I didn’t know how to be a mother myself when I had children,” Fonda admits, “especially with my first child. I made many of the same mistakes [my mother did].” Only with the birth of her grandchildren, Fonda adds, was she was able to experience “real intimacy.” “That’s when I really began to understand what loving a child is supposed to feel like and look like.”

Rosie O’Donnell with her mother, who died of breast cancer when O’Donnell was 10

Fonda’s disclosure is pretty profound, but unfortunately the documentary only briefly addresses the revelation of sexual abuse (in Fonda’s mother’s case) that led to it, or the mental illness (in Williams-Cook’s case) that led her mother to take her own life. Still, the evidence of these tragedies is expressed in inherited wounds. Before her mother’s death, the artist Williams-Cook explains, the strength of her work was measured in practical terms, like how well she could shade or the vividness of her color palette. “It never had the emotional connection,” she says. But after her mother’s suicide, her art began to reflect her inner flux. “When my artwork started to get attention, it was because of the emotional expression; people started commenting on the mood in my work.” 

There is something to be gained from loss, we are told. Comedian Shannon, who lost both her mother and sister in a fatal car wreck that spared her own life at age 4, said she became more fearless and driven. Creatively, she says, she discovered “a certain wildness” that helped make her a star on “Saturday Night Live” and led to regular film roles. “When it came to characters,” she says, “I felt this crazy freedom.” 

Even through pain, the women reveal strength from hard lessons learned and obstacles overcome. Healing comes slowly, over time, as love, achievement and new life help fill the void.

“The day my son was placed in my arms,” O’Donnell says, “Life seeped back in, color seeped back in. … I stopped looking back for my mother and started looking forward to being a mother.”

Whatever the tenor of the mother-daughter relationship in life, the break leaves emotional scars that permanently affix to the spirit. Perhaps because these women lost their mothers so young, or because life is just harder absent that archetypal role, these women demonstrate that some grief never ends. Mourning a mother simply becomes the relationship that is left as one goes through life without her. 

Recounting how she first bonded with the pop star Madonna, who also lost her mother, at age 5, O’Donnell unwittingly suggests the documentary’s title: “The dead mother thing? It’s like a club,” she says. “You’re initiated, you get a tattoo; it is not going away.”

It is the club to which hardly anyone wants to belong, but once initiated, comes with lifetime membership. 

I will never stop missing or mourning my own mother. But I had the gift of her presence far longer than she had her mother’s, and in that, I consider myself blessed.

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