Monday, November 5, 2012

Mother Loss and the Grief of Abandonment

[Reviewed and updated April 4, 2022]

There were many ways of breaking a heart. But what really broke the heart was taking away its dream -- whatever that dream might be.  ~ Pearl Buck

A reader writes: I was recently informed that my mother has died, and I am grieving. My mother left me when I was a little girl. It hurt. I denied it for 40 years. So far I have attended two different bereavement groups. Both are filled with people who are grieving a loved one. I am not. I do not have a string of memories of our times together to talk about: how she taught me how to bake a pie, helped me plan my wedding, helped me through my divorce, paid for college, took care of my kids while I met my second husband, etc. I do not fit into those groups. They are grieving such a beautiful memory that I’m afraid I will poison their precious period of grief if they hear my story of abandonment. I didn’t have a mother to maintain kinship ties with an extended family. I had an evil stepfather who was remote and distant and lied to me about why my mom was gone: “She left you.” 
           Where is a group for me? I am mourning (a) my mother's death and my loss of a hope of a reconciliation where she tells me she is sorry, (b) my initial wound / loss that I never faced, and (c) finally facing that for 40 years I walked around with a huge ball of grief that I never admitted. There is no one to help me. I am all alone. There was no funeral, no coffin, no wake, no gravesite. No one came to me. No one sent flowers. 
          Today I bought myself a dozen roses. For the rest of my life, I will buy myself flowers every week, if that is what I need to be nurtured.

My response: I'm so sorry to know that your mother left when you were so very young and you’ve just learned that she has died, but I want to assure you that the deep sadness you are feeling now is both normal and understandable. What is more, your grief is complicated by at least two very significant factors: the early loss of your mother, and the belief you were taught that she abandoned you.

First of all, research indicates that the loss of a parent in early childhood has an ongoing effect on the life of a person through the teen years and on into adulthood. In the words of grief expert J. William Worden, who served as Co-director of the Child Bereavement Study at Harvard Medical School:
It may be that the most important long-term consequence of parental death during childhood is neither depression nor anxiety disorder, as important as these are, because these only affect a small percentage of adults with childhood parental loss. Rather, the most important long-term impact may be their continuing sense of emptiness and an ongoing need to rethink who this parent would have been in their lives had he or she remained alive. This ongoing presence of the lost parent is strong for most people, even though they may have had adequate parenting by the surviving parent or parent surrogate (p. 110). ~ J. William Worden, in Children and Grief When a Parent Dies
Second, because you were raised to believe that your mother “left you” when you were a little girl, obviously you grew up believing that you had been abandoned by her. It’s important to understand that abandonment is unique and different from other types of grief, and it needs to be treated differently. I believe that is why you felt as if you did not “fit into” the grief support groups you tried – but it certainly does not mean that there is no other help available to you.

I want to point you to some resources specifically aimed at your unique type of loss. You should know about Susan Anderson, herself a survivor of abandonment. She is a psychotherapist with over 25 years of clinical experience and research in working with the victims of abandonment trauma and loss. She is the founder of the Abandonment Recovery movement, and her Web site ( ) reaches out to abandonment survivors with all kinds of information and support. (For a modest membership fee of $15, her site offers questions and answers about abandonment, e-mail exchanges with fellow abandonment survivors, information about how to find abandonment support groups, and the opportunity to share your story with other survivors.) Susan also has written a number of books on this topic; you can read Amazon’s description and reviews of each by clicking on these titles:

Black Swan: The Twelve Lessons of Abandonment Recovery

The Journey from Abandonment to Healing: Turn the End of a Relationship into the Beginning of a New Life

The Journey from Heartbreak to Connection

One of the greatest myths about grief is that, if we let enough time go by, the day will come when we "get over it". Grief is a normal reaction to a significant loss, and it's something we all get through and learn to carry with us as we go on to live our lives, but we never, ever get over it. And there is no time frame for grief. The bond you have with your mother will continue as long as you hold the memory of her – or at least the memory of who you’d like to think she was – alive in your heart. Even though the two of you never got to know each other because she left when you yourself were so young, as you say, you still find yourself grieving the loss of what never was and will never be. The loss of that dream is yet another kind of death, and your loss is just as real as anyone else’s. I think of that beautiful passage from Robert Fulghum, posted on the Comfort for Grieving Hearts page of my Grief Healing website:
When we’ve changed our religious views or political convictions, a part of our past dies. When love ends, be it the first mad romance of adolescence, the love that will not sustain a marriage, or the love of a failed friendship, it is the same. A death. Likewise in the event of a miscarriage or an abortion: a possibility is dead. And there is no public or even private funeral. Sometimes only regret and nostalgia mark the passage. And the last rites are held in the solitude of one’s most secret self — a service of mourning in the tabernacle of the soul.  ~ Robert Fulghum, in From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Daily Lives
When your mother was alive, even though you didn’t think about her all the time, on some level you always knew that she was still there, somewhere, should you ever wish to find her. In a sense, you became accustomed to loving her in her absence, and deep inside your heart you could keep hope alive that one day you might see her again. Now you are faced with the reality that her absence is forever, and that is very hard to accept.

You say “there was no funeral, no coffin, no wake, no gravesite” for your mother, but keep in mind that if you choose to do so, you still can hold a memorial service for her ~ in the solitude of your most secret self, your very own service of mourning, in the tabernacle of your very own soul.

I sincerely hope this information proves helpful to you, my dear. Grieving is very hard work, but it is manageable, it is never too late to start, and there are many resources "out there" that can help. My hope for you is that you will make the effort to find them, and I wish you nothing but the very best.

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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH   

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