How to find resilience after losing your mom

Close up of a white weathered weather vane with an arrow on top with blue sky and clouds in the background

By Gina Luongo

When I was a kid, my mother used to fall half off her chair laughing at all the impersonations I used to make of our relatives. She’d chase me around the house, spoon in hand, trying to shovel any morsel of food she could get into her picky eater. I’d even crawl into that warm space in bed at four in the morning, where I’d shimmy my behind up to her waiting body. I lost all that love when she died.

Losing my mother, especially at a young age, was losing my compass. My role model was gone, and I had to draw on memories of her to get me through life. But somehow, I’ve managed to find my way and turn out OK. Here are some of the ways I’ve done that.

Adopt Surrogate Mothers

My mother’s best friend Emma and I have had our bi-weekly 7:30 AM phone calls for years. On the car ride into work on these days, via Bluetooth, Emma listens, and she mothers me.

If you can, hold on to your mother’s friends, sisters and co-workers after she’s gone. The people your mother spent time with are the ones who’ll say, “your mother would be so proud” or “she would’ve loved that.” Ask your mother’s friends questions about her. “Do you know if my mother had her wisdom teeth pulled?” Or, “what color was Mom’s prom dress?” These friends have an insight into your mother as a woman you didn’t have the chance to see.

Subconsciously or not, you may veer towards relationships with older women throughout your life. These may comfort you. The therapists I’ve known, all women older than me, have offered their perspective and wisdom over the years. And I’ve listened to them, like a daughter. If you need to seek guidance from someone with more life experience, try speaking to someone around your mother’s age.

I have paper mothers, too, like Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro and Carol Shields, a few of my favorite authors. In their imaginative worlds, I gain insight into people, which has served me well in my life. In whatever line of work you do, try leaning into women that make you feel confident and worthy.

My work mothers mentor me and watch my career grow.

My friend mothers make me laugh so hard and remind me that with love, I can somehow live a pretty fulfilled life.

My surrogate mothers manage to fill little parts of me that were left missing when Mom died.

Find yours.

Choose Your Partner Well

I married well. Carlo is patient and kind to his motherless wife. He understands how this absence in my life has created in me a fierce independence. I love that he still asks questions about Mom, after all our years together. “How old was your mother when she needed reading glasses?” I grin. “She didn’t. She died when she was 43.” There are the odd times, like after we’ve had a fight and I’ve become unhinged, when I have to remind him that I lost my life’s buffer when I was nineteen.

The partner you choose should be sensitive to the huge loss you’ve endured in your life. They should never tell you to “get over it.” Let your partner know that the effects of mother loss, like anger and depression, can lie dormant and then, like a viper in the grass, resurface at inconvenient times. These are the times you need support and patience the most. You need kindness too, not criticism. A partner who is curious about your mother is one I’d hold onto.

Bake, Cook, Listen to the Oldies

There’s no sweeter moment than when I squirt drops of vanilla extract into the biscotti batter taking me back to my childhood in the 70s and 80s. Mom’s lemon-vanilla biscotti were once-baked instead of twice-baked, making them softer, because I loved them that way. That’s how I make them today. Cooking her roasted potatoes with rosemary (dry your washed potatoes with a clean tea towel, she used to say, and add more sea salt) seems to erase thirty-five years from my life just like that.

When the Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s hit “Islands in the Stream” comes on my 80s station, so does my mother. I belt out the words just like she used to.

Smells and sounds and your mother will resurface. What sensory memories do you have of her? Is there an experience you two used to share that transcends all the time that has passed since she died and delivers her straight back to your heart? When we replicate a sound, a taste, a touch, a spoken word she used to say, our mothers return, if even for just a moment.

Read Lots On Grief

My sister read the book Motherless Daughters which she then gave to me. Finally, someone understood how short-changed I was feeling. I’ve grabbed on to anything I can read about grief like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (Joan kept her late husband’s slippers where he left them because she thought he was coming back home). I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Option B. When life throws you an expected loss and Option A is off the table, it’s time to work on Option B.

Grief memoirs have helped me feel less alone and less crazy. For me, grief has felt like a heavy, invisible weight on my body and mind. Reading and sharing in others’ stories helps lighten the load. So have grief bloggers like Claire Bidwell Smith or websites like Modern Loss and Hello Grief. Books, poems, articles, the written word, can help us understand how early loss in life changes us.

Speak Of Her Often, Especially To Those Who’ve Never Met Her

My children were born without their grandmother. So I tell them stories about this sweet and funny woman, Nonna Vicky, who used to love sour keys candy and sucking on salty sunflower seed shells. They know she was a fan of that group with those four guys, The Beatles. How do you speak of your mother to those who never knew her? Do you talk about her death more than you do about her life? People like to hear stories, especially about those no longer living. Share yours.

Mom’s picture is up in our home. My daughters have read her handwritten recipe books that are in our kitchen cabinet. Make the woman in the picture frame come to life. Talk about your mom. You’ll feel better when you do.

Gina Luongo lives in Toronto, Canada where she works as a Special Education Consultant. Before she became a mother to two teenaged daughters, she was a teenaged daughter herself to the sweetest mother, but didn’t appreciate her as much as she should have at the time.  

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