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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.

July 27, 1994|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | 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.

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