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'90S FAMILY

A Girl's Loss

The birth of a child. Shopping for a wedding dress. Pivotal events are hard on women whose moms died early.

April 20, 1997|KATHLEEN O. RYAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The day we shower Mom with gifts and take her out to dinner was started at the turn of the century by a woman whose mother died.

Wishing to honor her recently deceased mother, Anna Jarvis unofficially began Mother's Day in a Philadelphia church in 1908. By 1914, President Wilson had declared it a national holiday to commence on the second Sunday of May.

Now almost a century later, women like Jarvis want to reclaim a piece of the Mother's Day weekend for themselves.

Calling themselves "Motherless Daughters," women in 17 cities across the nation gathered last year on the Saturday before Mother's Day to honor the memories of their moms. This year, women in Los Angeles will get the opportunity to join the "Circle of Remembrance" for the first time. The May 10 event will involve 22 cities this year.

The Los Angeles group will hold a noon luncheon at Jackson's restaurant in West Hollywood (8908 Beverly Blvd., $30 per person; for information, call [310] 550-8142).

Motherless Daughter's Day is an extension of a movement that started with a book, "Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss," by Hope Edelman (Addison-Wesley, 1994).

Edelman says the most profound event in her life was her mother's death at 42 of cancer. She was only 17. Like most families, hers had no blueprint for grief. Edelman says that through the years, she carried her sadness within herself.

While suppressing her many emotions, she quietly searched for answers in university libraries; information was sketchy at best. By 24, coming to grips with her maternal void propelled her to write the book.

Edelman spoke to psychologists, psychiatrists and grief professionals. She conducted research and spoke to hundreds of women who had lost their mothers early in life. She found them eager to share their experiences and be connected by their common bond.

"Women wanted assurances that what they were feeling was normal," Edelman says. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for 14 weeks. Letters poured in.

Edelman joined forces with a few other women and helped form the first support groups. By March 1995, the New-York based organization attained nonprofit status, its mission to provide support, resources and encouragement to daughters of all ages who had lost their mothers at a young age.

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Irene Rubaum-Keller, a Santa Monica therapist, was one of those moved by the book. Her mother died when Keller was 7. Her response to the death was typical: "From that moment on I became a little adult. I tried very hard to be the perfect one and I felt isolated."

Keller contacted the organization's headquarters and requested help in organizing a support group in Los Angeles. With Edelman's blessing and the organization's prescribed format for running the group, Keller began the first eight-week session more than a year ago. The women discuss such issues as their shared fears of abandonment, fear of close relationships and the belief they will not live long lives.

"The sessions are not meant to be therapy," Keller says. "We gather to discuss these topics because they are the leading concerns of motherless daughters."

Keller, whose first child is due this Mother's Day, says it is milestones like the birth of a child, graduating from school or shopping for a wedding dress that create emotional speed bumps for the motherless daughter.

"The turning points you want to share the most with your mother remind you that you're still grieving. The fear of losing the ones you love the most stays with you and inhibits many women from forming close relationships."

Roni Petersen of Ventura says the support group and subsequent therapy have brought her a long way in the journey to resolve her mother's death. When Petersen was 8, her mother died of a heart attack while taking an afternoon nap.

"A neighbor came and told me my mother had gone to live with the angels, but we weren't taken to the funeral. There was no closure, and afterward my father was not available emotionally. We didn't talk about it because the unspoken rule was, 'Don't upset Dad.' So I waited and didn't do anything about my grieving," she says.

Petersen says that while many good female role models guided her while growing up, it was therapy that helped her overcome her feelings of abandonment and understand that her rage was normal. She strives now to bring the spirit of who her mother was back into her life.

Adults who try to protect children at such a traumatic time often do the wrong things, says William Worden, a Newport Beach psychologist who specializes in bereavement issues and author of "Children in Grief: When a Parent Dies" (Guilford, 1996). Worden wrote his book based on his study of 125 children.

"One of the main factors in mother loss is the difference in continuity of daily life," he says. Mothers are the emotional caretakers of the family, he says. "When the mother dies, it is much more difficult for the father to play the role of a single parent" than it would be for a mother.

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