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SANDY BANKS / Life As We Live It

You Don't Have to Be a Prince to Feel the Pain

September 15, 1997|SANDY BANKS

She was beautiful and charming; a single mother devoted to her children; a society doyenne who worked tirelessly for charitable causes. On vacation with her boyfriend, she was killed in a car accident, a drunk driver at the wheel.

But her name was not Diana and her death provoked no media storm, spawned no international outpouring of grief.

She wasn't a princess, Terry Leavey Lemons; just a 40-year-old West Los Angeles mother of five, whose children have missed her every day in the 18 years since she died.

"It was the first thing we thought about when we heard about Diana," says Karen Lemons, who is 27 now but was 9 years old when her mother was killed.

"My brothers and sister, we all said 'Remember when Mom died?' . . . And all we could talk about was those kids and what they must be feeling.

"Poor Harry and William."

*

It is mostly over now, the grand spectacle of mourning that followed the death of Princess Diana. Los Angeles said its goodbye too, committing her memory to history and recounting as her legacy her charitable good deeds.

But her sons have been left a legacy of another sort--an equal opportunity legacy, as it were; one shared by millions of children around the world.

They may be solitary princes, William and Harry, but they are hardly alone as motherless kids.

More than 125,000 children and adolescents are left motherless in this country each year, through homicides and suicides, illnesses and accidents.

In my small circle of friends, three families I know lost mothers this summer, leaving three sets of children whose lives have been permanently altered in ways both mundane and profound.

We don't really know, for all that's been written and said, what kind of mother Diana was, what memories her boys will carry of her as they move through adolescence and beyond.

And it doesn't matter much in considering her death. What they've lost is bigger than the reality of the mummy they mourn. It's a loss without resolution, a grief without end.

You don't get over losing a mother.

"It's like the idea of existing without a God," wrote a woman whose mother died years before, in a letter to Hope Edelman, author of a book tracing the legacy of mother loss.

"You're on your own."

*

Twice a month, Karen Lemons drives down from her Santa Ynez home to West Los Angeles to talk with kids about death.

She's one of the volunteers at Our House, a 4-year-old bereavement center that sponsors grief groups for children who've lost parents or siblings, and grown-ups whose spouses or children have died.

The center exists mostly on grants and donations, but it has no shortage of clients.

Lemons leads "The Littles"--kids from 5 to 7--on Wednesday nights. Around the corner are older kids and teenagers, and in the office "living room" are the young widows and widowers.

The kids talk, draw pictures, play music--whatever helps them share the sting of being singled out by fate. Some sit quietly night after night; others lash out in anger and pain.

It helps, Lemons knows, to be with other children who do not pity or shrink from you, as if parental death is contagious. "I wish William and Harry could have this," she says. "I wish I could have had this."

Her father--who like Prince Charles was divorced from his children's mother when she died--did all he could, she says. He moved back home and took charge of his brood. He got them therapy and kept their mother's memory alive.

But still, she says, recovery is a long, tough road. "People think you get over your grief, but you don't," she says. "Not when it's your mom. . . . No one can replace her.

"And no one wants to touch that this could happen to anybody. We're not all being chased by paparazzi, so we're safe, right? Well, what happened to those boys happened to me, and it happens all the time.

"And it leaves you in shock and pain that can last your entire life."

*

It is a primal bond, the mother-child connection; so profound that "we equate its severing with a child's emotional death," writes Edelman in her book "Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss" (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1994). There's a place in our psyches "where mother represents comfort and security, no matter our age."

Even children taken away from their mothers because of abuse call out for them when they are sick or hurt or scared.

But I know all this. Because I remember when I realized the magnitude of the loss I faced, as I prepared for my own mother to die.

I was 19, home from college to tend her. She was bedridden from cancer, terminally ill. I was making her tea. I spilled the hot water on my hand, called out for "Mommy" and ran into her room.

I climbed up onto her bed, crying from the pain, and held my hand out for her to see. She wrapped her arms around me and took my hand between hers. She leaned forward and blew on it, like she did when I was little, after she'd put burn medicine on my childhood wounds.

Then she kissed it, and kissed my cheek, and murmured to me to stop crying, that it would be all right.

And at that moment the pain was eclipsed by the realization that this was the last time I would sit on my mother's lap. That for the rest of my life, there would be no one to kiss the hurt away, no one with the power to stop the pain of a second-degree burn by blowing on it.

* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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