When Mothers Die and Children Fly


By Carol Frances

As both a mother and a daughter, my roles have always been clear. As part of the sandwich generation, caring for and guiding my precious children and my aging parents have been part of my life for years. I never doubted the value of my roles – I whole-heartedly loved being able to provide guidance, support and comfort. And as much as I can hope to know, I believe I made a positive difference in their lives.

So why would I be surprised how shutdown I became when, in a span of 6 weeks, my mom passed away and my last child flew the nest?

I didn’t see it coming.

My mom had severe dementia and last year she no longer recognized me. While I had anticipated the moment, no amount of mental preparation could soften the blow.  Still, I had come to terms with our new relationship and – thankfully – she thoroughly enjoyed my company even though she didn’t know me as her daughter. She remained the always-cheerful and loving woman whom I always knew.

Until the day she passed away, a part of me believed that I had said goodbye to my mother years ago, when she lost her cognitive abilities. I foolishly thought that when her life actually came to an end, I wouldn’t feel the loss so deeply. After all, in some ways, I had already lost her.

I was so wrong.

For weeks after my mom’s death, I literally dragged my body around, going through the motions of living. My body felt so heavy – like a skin-clad mannequin filled with concrete. At first, I didn’t recognize the fog I was in as the manifestation of loss. The truth was, I had never truly stopped to consider how deeply our mothers are embedded in us.

Do we ever truly know the impact our mothers have on us? Can we possibly understand the depth of attachment, the amount of soulish security that comes from our mothers?

After my mom’s death, I began pondering the role she had played in defining the woman I had become. I wondered how much and how deeply she had influenced the way I perceive myself. In this new motherless context, I began to question who I am and why I am the way I am.

Six weeks later, my youngest daughter moved across the country to start her new life.

This wasn’t the first time we’d lived apart. I’d crossed the invisible threshold into the “empty nester” phase of my life when she first left for college; but this was different. This was final. She wouldn’t be coming home on any weekends or returning to spend the summer. She was starting her own life.

This transition has been incredibly difficult for me. Intellectually, I know this move is right for her. I know my job was to give her the skills to ultimately fly on her own. I want her to create her own path and follow her dreams. I’ve always encouraged her to do this. And there’s nothing that could fracture the bond we have – I know this without any question

But it hurts.

And the miles between us remind me how much my role as Mom has been altered—a role that, for me, is the greatest gift, surpassing all others.

I realize that there are many more layers to these feelings than simply knowing I’m going to miss my daughter. While I’ll always be “Mom,” the way I fill that role will evolve. But I do wonder lots of things: How will I fit into her new life? Will I stay relevant? How will she deal with my aging? What amount of contact is best?

So who are we when our mothers die and our children fly?

We define ourselves, at least in part, through the roles and relationships in our lives. Who will I become, now that my roles as daughter and mother have changed so dramatically?

As I navigate my own journey, my guess is that we are the same as before. Perhaps deeper humans with a larger perspective.


Related articles:

How to Be a Great Long-Distance Parent

What the Death of a Parent Can Teach Us, If We’re Willing to Learn







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