Research tends to overlook young adults who lose their moms, according to Taranjit (Tara) K. Bhatia, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships, including mother-daughter bonds. Because they’re already adults, people assume these daughters don’t need maternal guidance.
However, losing a mom has a powerful effect on young adult daughters. In her research, Bhatia found that a daughter’s sense of identity is especially shaken. “They don’t know what being a woman is all about.”
Daughters also doubt their own role as mothers. “Most motherless daughters are very insecure about how well they could mother without their mothers’ advice, support and reassurance.”
Cultural identity is affected, as well. As kids and teens, many daughters are too busy with school and other activities to focus on their traditions, Bhatia said. They assume they’ll be able to learn from their moms in the future. But once their mothers pass away, they “find they don’t have anyone to learn from.”
Many daughters feel like orphans, Bhatia said. Fathers may become “absent and withdrawn, and are unable to tend to their [children’s] emotional needs.” Moms typically form the foundation of the family. They “take care of everyone and keep the family together. If there is a conflict, mom is the mediator.” So when mothers pass away, the family can fall apart. To regain their family’s stability, daughters set aside their own grief and assume their mother’s role.
Motherless daughters also can experience a persistent grief for years, which peaks during milestones, like their own pregnancy and post-delivery. “When you become a mother yourself you want to be mothered,” Bhatia said.
Daughters who didn’t have good relationships with their moms still experience a profound grief. They grieve for what could’ve been. “They grieve for the opportunity to improve their relationship,” Bhatia said.
Motherless daughters may have problems with their other relationships. They tend to feel especially distant from their peers, because of both “jealousy and lack of commonality.”
“In intimate relationships, motherless daughters are far more needy because they’re trying to fill that void. They try to find in their intimate partners that nurturing that they used to get from their moms.” They’re also not able to give much back to their partners, which causes resentment.
To prevent this, Bhatia suggested motherless daughters gain insight into their behaviors and “utilize other resources to gain that nurturing, such as a friend or maternal figure.” Individual and couples counseling also can help.
Below, Bhatia shared other suggestions for motherless daughters to cope healthfully with their loss.
1. Carry on your mom’s traditions.
Instead of solely focusing on your loss, incorporate the traditions you grew up with into your own life, Bhatia said. If you’re a mother, this also is a great way to teach your kids about their grandmother, she said.
2. Participate in fundraising efforts.
Helping others who are in a similar situation can be a tribute to your mom, Bhatia said. For instance, if your mom passed away from cancer, you might participate in events sponsored by the American Cancer Society, or make a yearly financial contribution.
3. Create a collage.
A collage is a tangible tool for retaining your connection with your mom, according to Bhatia. It’s a way for you to see her every day and feel her presence, she said. “Instead of forcing yourself to disconnect and get over your loss, what’s more helpful is to hold onto your memories and keep those connections.”
4. Accept your different identity.
Again, a mother’s passing is a powerful loss, which can change your identity. Bhatia wants readers to know that this is OK. It’s OK if you’re different today. “Allow yourself the opportunity to explore different prospects without the approval of your mom.” If your mom wasn’t supportive of your career or life choices in the past, “understand that as time progresses, things change. [Your] mom’s opinions would’ve evolved, as well.” For many daughters, their image of mom stays static, she said, but people naturally change over time.
5. Participate in support groups.
Many motherless daughters feel like they don’t fit in and can’t relate to their peers, Bhatia said. Talking with women who’ve also lost their moms and share similar experiences reminds you that you’re not alone. It helps you connect with others, create a sense of belonging and build a support system.
6. Find a maternal figure.
For instance, you might become close with one of your mom’s friends, who are often very similar to your mom, Bhatia said. And you might learn more about your mom, she said. “When you’re not able to do that, seek out older females who might help to guide you – almost like a maternal surrogate.”
7. Seek individual or family therapy.
For the participants in Bhatia’s study, individual therapy was incredibly helpful in processing their mother’s passing. Family therapy also is helpful for daughters, dads and siblings to process their grief and be honest with each other in a supportive environment, Bhatia said.
Coping on Mother’s Day
Naturally, Mother’s Day can be especially hard for motherless daughters. “Many motherless moms don’t celebrate the day and deprive themselves of that opportunity,” Bhatia said. They may feel guilty for celebrating without their mothers.
Bhatia encouraged daughters to celebrate the day and enjoy the appreciation of their families. This “reflects the fruits of their own mothers’ labor and thus honors them, for they wouldn’t be the mothers they are without that strong primary attachment.”
Also, motherless daughters can continue to buy a card for their moms, she said. In it, they can express what they truly want to say to their moms and reconnect in a meaningful way.
As Bhatia said, “just because your mom is gone, it doesn’t mean you’ve lost your attachment or connection to her. Your mom will always be there to help you navigate through life.”