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Motherless Day - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Motherless Day.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.


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Analisa: I lost my mom in 2017, so a handful of years out. And, you know, the grief is not that fresh grief, that sort of all-consuming, trying-to-get-through-the-day, you-don't-want-to-get-through-the-day-grief anymore for me. But it still sucks all the time. I still miss my mom all the time. And when I find out people lose their moms... I just really feel for them. It's like the feeling of getting the wind knocked out of you. Because I know that feeling. One way you get through it, or live without your mom, is you just kind of do it, as boring as that is, as unhelpful, maybe. You just kind of keep living and you just kind of go through the motions. I miss my mom every day, and I ... I do, even still. I know for me, I have small children, so that's part of it. You know? I wish I could call her and ask advice and complain or whatever. And so I feel her loss every day. I used to call her every day. And so that was, you know, just like a weird adjustment when she was gone. I know there's a lot of really good books on grief. I know for me that was helpful. I know I personally took a lot of comfort in just reading other people's experiences. And so I think that's one way to live without your mom is maybe to just seek out content and people, and that just sort of have that shared experience.


I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” And this episode is, I hope, some of that content that our listener Analisa just referenced. 

It is an episode that actually started as a gift for a listener. This listener is named Jess, and Jess and I have actually known each other in real life from my time in Minneapolis and our own grief experiences and knowing a lot of the same people in common. And, an unrelated note, I will be officiating Jess’s wedding to another TTFA listener next year!

But one night this past fall, I was on Instagram, and I got a message from Jess. She told me that her mother had just died. Like, JUST died. And Jess had, in the past, also lost her brother. She had lost her father. This was the third in a major loss. This is the kind of trifecta that makes you want to go full Karen and ask to speak to the manager. Ask whoever is in charge at The Universe, “I would like a word.” 

One of Jess’s messages to me said, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to live without a mom.”

And I thought: Me neither. I haven’t done that. 

And so I started to reach out to people that I know who have done that, who are doing that, who are living without their mother. And I thought, I’m gonna make this into an episode for Jess. 

And I did. And it is. And it is also an episode for everyone. Because there are so many of us who are living in a world without a mother. Maybe because your mother died, maybe because your mother left, maybe because you had to leave her.

And eventually, all of us will have to learn how to live without our own mother.

Mother’s Day is just around the corner, and some of us will be having brunch or posting Instagram tributes or sending a card a few days late (Madge, that’s me). And some of us will not. And just like we say, “Every day can be Mother’s Day,” every day, for many of us, is actually Motherless Day.


Kate Spencer: Nora reached out to me and asked me to try to answer a listener question. And that question was: "How am I supposed to live without my mom?" And I have been doing that for 15 years, which is … I say that, and that makes me want to cry, because it still feels like yesterday in many ways since I lost my mother. I would first say to this listener that I'm doing it, and I'm doing OK. And I think the way that you allow yourself to live without a parent is that you have to give yourself room and space to grieve. It took me a good year before I could really even talk about my mom dying without having a really intense physical reaction. And you can see, I'm recording this, I literally almost just started crying, and I am on quite a few, you know, I'm on Wellbutrin and Prozac, so it's not like tears come easily to me right now. [laughs] But it took me a full year before I sought out therapy and could even put into words the amount of pain I was in after losing my mom. Her name was Martha. She died of pancreatic cancer when she was 56, and it was incredibly fast and unexpected. So there was a part of me after my mom died that was still processing the fact that she had terminal cancer — she died nine months from her diagnosis. I can only speak about my mother and my experience. So many people lose parents in so many different ways and have varying relationships with those parents. My mom was, you know, essentially my best friend, and I truly never expected to have to lose her at such a young age. I was 27. So I think you need to give yourself space to grieve, because I think allowing yourself to grieve allows you to feel the depth of the sorrow that you are feeling, which then, I think, allows you to move forward. Not move on. I don't still don't feel like I'm over it. I think people who have not been through a loss kind of assume you get over grief. And really, grief is a thing that we carry with us. And that's OK. It's OK to be deeply, deeply sad about the loss of your mom and still continue to live without her. And one thing that was kind of eye-opening for me is that I was able to still experience joy alongside my grief. My grief was, it was, it was rough. That was a rough, you know, the first few years after losing my mom, especially, were extremely hard. A few things that helped me get through it: leaning on people who had a shared experience. I was amazed and deeply touched at how many people — acquaintances, friends, people I really didn't know very well but who had lost their mother — reached out to me and offered to be a sounding board and a support system. So find your people, find the people who get it. As the TikTok meme says, “The girls who get it, get it, and the girls who don't, don't.” And this applies to all gender identities. I really think that finding people who have experienced similar grief to what you’re experiencing, they are a lifeline. I can't stress this enough: Take up the offers of help, if you can. Because it's OK to need help getting through this. It is OK to ask for help. And actually, I imagine that people are often relieved when grieving people ask, because as you know, if you have lost someone, people do not know what to do, and they put it on you to try to figure it out, where it's like, "Let me know what I can do to help!" And you're like, "Uhhhh, bring my dead mom back to life," you know? [laughs] But I do think if we can find, you know, it's frustrating that that gets put on us, but … ask or delegate and have someone else be the taskmaster for finding you support and help. Obviously, support groups are amazing for people who feel comfortable in that kind of environment. Same with therapy. All these things help, but they might not all be for you, and that is OK. The way I get through living without my mom — in addition to writing a whole book about how sad it made me and how I got through it — I found things to escape into. Books, museums, exercise, certain things that actually made me feel good, because so much of my life initially was clouded with the grief of my loss. And I think one thing that is so amazing coming through grief is that you start to realize that the loss of this person — in this case, our moms — shapes us in a way that if we hadn't gone through it, we wouldn't be who we are. And that applies to positive qualities about yourself that you gain through going through the most awful thing in your life. I don't know who I would be if I hadn't gone through the loss of my mother. I think it's made me more empathetic and empathic to people. I connect with people on a deeper level. I think it's made me more understanding, a better listener. Not that I wouldn't trade all those things to have my mother back in my life, alive and not sick, but sometimes you look and you're like, "Wow, I didn't know that, you know, out of this, like, darkness would come a light I wasn't expecting." And that's a really weird thing to go through, because you're like, "What?" I'm not even sure I can put it into words, but ... I will say the other thing that you can do is find ways to remember and honor and coexist with the memory of your mom. You know, for me, that's as simple as talking a lot to my kids about my mother. Photos of my mom, you know, giving one of my kids my mom's name as her middle name. You know, very, like, basic stuff like that. But I also just talk out loud to my mom sometimes, you know? I don't care what people think. I’ll be walking around the outdoor malls here in Los Angeles just gabbing away talking to my mom, because it makes me feel better, you know? And I don't know whether or not she can hear me, but quite frankly, I don't care. This is about me. [laughs] If she can hear me, that's a bonus. But it helps me kind of get through. I just want to say that I am someone who's been through it, and I'm OK. And you will be OK. 


That was Kate Spencer, who is the author of The Dead Moms Club, an excellent memoir, and co-host of the “Forever35” podcast. She also has a new book, a rom-com called In a New York Minute, that is out now.


Jessica Pearce Rotondi: My mom was diagnosed with stage four cancer when I was a senior in college. She actually found the tumor on my birthday and didn't tell me. She showed up in a bright pink blazer, ready to celebrate my 21st birthday, took all of my friends out to dinner, smiled. And, you know, at the end of the dinner, I could tell that there was something wrong. Her eyes were off. They were a little sparkly. And I asked her if everything was OK, and she didn't say anything then. But through the next three years, and the progression of her illness, we would both talk every day, and talk about so many things: what was going on with me at school, my move to New York and publishing, the progression of her treatments, and the next treatment, and the next rung to reach for. But we never really talked about her dying or her death. There was this sense of yes, I knew the odds of stage four cancer, but my mother said she was going to live, and so it would be so. So when I actually lost her at 23, I was in a real state of shock. I was looking for anything, any kind of letter or document that she could have left on this Earth to tell me what the hell I was supposed to do without her. And what I found instead were letters about her brother, who she lost when she was my age. He went missing during the secret war in Laos in the 1970s and was missing for 36 years. And so those letters about my mother's grief of her brother, looking for him, became a road map through my own grief and understanding how she mourned for him, but also lived her life alongside that became kind of a way that I became not just a motherless daughter, but now a motherless mother as well. And thinking about how I want to raise my son in a world where his grandmother exists but does not exist where he is. You know, it'd been almost ten years since I had been in the room where she died. It was such a traumatic thing for me, to the point where I didn't do blood draws or go to the doctor myself — the opposite of what you're supposed to do when you have a cancer history — because I was so afraid and so traumatized from watching my mom basically die in front of me, right? This slow, very medical death. I became pregnant in 2020, in the fall. My partner could not come with me to the hospital. So those needles into my arms, those IVs, those tests, all of these things that I associated with loss, you know, then very much became about growth, and the future of my family, my mother coming through on that heart monitor as part of my son. And it was something I'm actually grateful I had to do alone. I think if I had a partner there, it would have been something that would almost have felt like a crutch, to go from being so afraid, too associated with this new, positive thing inside me, to become that strong mother that she once was was absolutely radical for me. And so she showed up in a way where I thought she would be a trauma, and something that would make it difficult to give birth and to be a pregnant person. And what I found instead was that connection to her strength, the memory of her. And then, you know, I had a wonderful doula. I hired someone, it's no coincidence, around my mother's age, who kind of looked a little bit like her, also from Pennsylvania. She was this wonderful maternal figure. And I think that's important, too. I think it's important to recognize, after years in my 20s spent thinking, “I don't need a mother. I'm a big girl now. I'm beyond wanting that.” You're never beyond yearning for that person to be at your side. And through the miracle of modern medicine and credit cards, you can have someone at your birth bed that can be that mother figure! [laughs] Highly recommend. What I do remember at one point, when it got really scary, I screamed out my mother's name. I didn't even realize I was doing it until I’d already said it out loud. And I hadn’t said it out loud in so long, and it felt so good. And he was born a few minutes after that – that cry. And I really think she was there. It was this thunderstorm. It was lightning. I screamed her name, and my son was in my arms. You're never too old or too young to, you know, yell for mom. And she came. I think it's impossible to live without your mom. I mean, our cells are in our mothers, as long as they're living, and their cells are a part of ours. I think even in their absence, their absence impresses itself upon us. I just realized I'm actually wearing my mother's shirt as I do this interview. It's been 10 years. It's still in rotation. You know, there are moments when she comes and goes. There are days I don't think about her, and it used to make me sad. And now it's just part of that living, that going on without her. I think holidays and celebrations like marriage and birth and death become places where you can anticipate their return and maybe even direct it or guide it towards positive associations, like perhaps wearing an earring that belonged to Mom or reading an old birthday card on your birthday. I have a lot of those from her that I really cherish and enjoy. And I think the older you get, and as we start to approach the age our mother was when we either cut off contact or lost them, there is something to be said for not being afraid to identify as our mother's daughter, but reaching for that as a way to heal. 


That was Jessica Pearce Rotondi, the author of What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family’s Search for Answers. She lives with her husband and son outside of New York City.


Kari Harbath: Man, I don't have platitudes. And I don't have bright sides. And I don't have anything except kind of survivability stuff to say. And no advice. And almost to the point of, like, I don't know what to say! And I've lived through losing my mom. And my mom and I were as close as moms and children/daughters get. And I still don’t know what to say. I’m just speechless. So I wrote down a few things, because it's been, I guess, two and a half years since mom died, which … that could be wrong. When somebody dies, your life becomes so off-kilter. Like, when somebody close to you, that is part of your blood and your DNA and your everyday routine and everything you do, dies, your life goes so off-kilter that time and the concept of time and the concept of living and the concept of waking up in the morning is so odd. You can't really, like, fathom what time of day it is or how long it's been since something happened, or like, can't comprehend it. And so when people ask me, like, “Oh, how long has it been since your mom died, or your husband died, or your daughter was born?” I'm like, “I don't, you know, I don't really know. I don't … I'll have to count the days and let you know,” because I can't comprehend it anymore. All of that to say: The grief thing really hits hard, and time moves slowly and quickly, and you can't remember anything – so lots of notes, lots of calendar reminders, lots of alarm clocks, lots of things written down places. I mean, it's extreme. Emails to yourself. Everything you can possibly do to remind yourself of the things that you need to do, you have to do it. And so I say that because I … I was going off on tangents, and finally, I was like, “I just better write some things down, so that I don't go off on weird tangents that end up mostly being silence … and me apparently breathing heavily, because I just moved from the couch to like another couch, and it was really, a really hard trip.” [laughs] So I didn't realize, didn't realize that was the thing. Once somebody said that when you lose your mom, it's like being a kid lost in a store. You're that sweet, naive, well-meaning, well-intentioned kid that's just sort of meandering around the store. And everything's been cool, you know? You rode up to the store in the minivan with your mom, listening to Radio Disney, and life was good. And you got out, and maybe you got a donut for free from the bakery guy. And then you took off on your own. And then you start yelling out for your mom. You’re yelling out for mom, and there's no response. The store clerk looks at you weird, because they're like, “Dude, get over it. Everybody loses their mom.” And people around you are like, “Come on. Everything happens for a reason. You know? It's OK. It's going to be OK. It's going to be OK. Just think positive! Just think positive.” And then there are those people that sit with you and say, “Hey, your mom's not here, but I'll be here, and I'll sit with you, and I know I can't replace her, but here's a tissue, and I'll cry with you, and let's talk about your mom.” And those are the people that you hang with, you know? But you'll always yell for your mom, and your mom doesn't show up. There is no minivan to hop back into and leave. There's that moment in “Frozen 2,” to make a Disney reference. There's that song when Anna thinks Elsa has died, and she sings a song about doing the next right thing, and that she doesn't know where to go from there, but the only option she has is to do the next right thing. That, in many cases, is what I feel like. And sometimes that Disney reference is also not going to work, and the next right thing may not be what society would deem right. But for you, it's right. And maybe that means “Housewives” and eating an entire package of cookies, or laying in bed and staring at the ceiling all of Christmas Day and not responding to anybody. And that's OK, too, because it's just a matter of survival through some of the toughest moments. I'm sensitive to the fact that there are a lot of people that have strained relationships with their moms, but in the case of somebody who has a really beautiful, good connection with their mom, that physical connection? Missing that is so hard. Because that brings you such peace. And it's the whole mother-child connection. I mean, we're the same human, we're the same being at one point, you know? And so having that physical touch and that connection together … once you lose that, even as an adult, it's so hard. One of the things that I think about the most when it comes to my mom is that I carry, obviously, knowing my mom the best. I mean, me and my sister know her the best out of anybody, probably ever. [laughs] Obviously, Mom had secrets from us. Sure. But overall, we knew, especially as she grew into adulthood and her later years and we were older, we knew who she liked and who she didn't like, the latest tea and her secrets. And I think that's a cool legacy to carry, without being all bright side-y and “everything happens for a reason,” that's just the reality, is: I'm still spilling tea with Mom, whether she's here or not. 


Did you recognize that voice? That was Kari. That was Kari Harbath. She was featured in our “Kari & Aaron” and “Kari & Sloan” episodes. She lives in Utah with her daughter. She’s on Instagram at @sloan_strength_ (yes, there are two underscores).

We’ll be right back.


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Megan Palmer: My mother and I have had a very complex relationship for, I think, most of my life. My mom suffers from alcoholism, and because of that, there was many absences of neglect and abuse throughout my childhood and adolescence. So I got used to taking care of myself and watching out for my siblings. I think because of this, I never felt like I could get very close to her. I always felt like there was a chasm between us — emotionally, at least. But yeah, that wasn't always the case. Like, there were periods that, like, brought a stronger semblance of closeness and normalcy to our relationship. When I was in high school, my father suffered from his own addiction and was incarcerated, and that was incredibly hard. But because of how hard that was, my mom was able to be there for me and my siblings in a way that we needed her, which I do appreciate. But I would say more recently, her behavior has shown that she does not currently love or care for me and my siblings, and has done things that have jeopardized our safety and well-being. And so, after years and years of asking for changes in behavior, clear communications, therapy, literally anything that could salvage our relationship and just unite us in some way, nothing ever got through to her. So I told my mom that I did not want to have a relationship with her … oh god, coming up on two years now. And I know that some people listening to this may feel like I'm just being young, seeing as I'm 22, or maybe that it was a rash decision, maybe that I will regret this course of action one day. But I will say that ceasing my relationship with my mom is one of the hardest but most important things I've done thus far. With that lovely background established, how do I live without my mom? Like I said, I've had practice. But honestly, it's not something anyone ever taught me how to do. It's truly just pure survival. When you're a child and you don't have someone there to take care of you, you just find ways to cope. And it really doesn't hit you, the magnitude of what you've experienced, until you're asked to reflect on it, like right now. I think if anything, every single parental figure and role model I've had throughout my life has played a part in helping me grow. That's my synchro coaches, my high school English and social studies teachers, my friends, my friends’ parents, so many people. So I've been mothered in countless ways, and I will continue to be throughout my life by so many people, many of whom I don't even know yet. I would be lying if I said that there is not a deep grief in knowing that the one person who is supposed to be your caretaker, your confidante, your friend, never was and cannot be any of those things. I feel a deep grief in knowing that I will never have a family that so many around me seem to have, a grief that I'm really only allowing myself to feel after years of anger and then numbness. So, how do I live without my mom? One day at a time. Being honest about how I feel — that's a new one. With the help of countless, truly countless friends and mentors in all facets of my life, and truly, truly, truly with gratitude and love for my mother, for the person who gave me life, even if she can't be here to share it with me. This is not me being proud of the situation I'm in. I do wish from the bottom of my heart that I had a mom that I could turn to. I wish she was brave enough to face her own demons. I wish she was brave enough to choose me, my siblings, over those demons. I wish she could face the truth and the reality of things. But she can't seem to. And that's why I don't have a relationship with her today. I refuse to engage in codependency. I choose to set a better example for my siblings, for myself, for anyone who comes next in our family.


This contribution was a little bit of a surprise to me. It actually comes from a member of the TTFA team. We were all down here in Arizona, and Megan and I had a little bit of time together to get to know each other. We went on a hike, and it was so lovely. And Megan mentioned one time when we were hanging out that I could be her mom, and it’s true. I could be her mom. I did not know when she mentioned that that she has a very complicated relationship with her mother. I’m really proud of her for raising her hand and offering to contribute that story to this episode. 


Anna Roth: For many years, I didn't live without my mom. I survived without mothering. And mothering doesn't have to just come from that one person, but it does need to come from somewhere. And when it doesn't, you spend your life stitching small pieces of love or attention together to create a quilt of makeshift mother love that you wrap around yourself while you learn to love yourself, mother yourself inside. It's a foreign feeling, self-mothering without a mother. But it feels like warm soup on a cold day. It feels like forgiveness. Because she was never mothered, either.


That was Dr. Anna Roth. She’s a longtime friend of the pod and myself. She’s a psychologist. She’s been on episodes of TTFA Premium. She lives in California, and she’s on Instagram @DrAnnaRoth. 


Danielle Henderson: Living without a mother can be very, very difficult, to say the least. And even though my mother is still on the planet, we haven't had a relationship for over 20 years and don't speak. And I do have, as it turns out, as a result, some tips for how to live without your mother. First and foremost, I would say that you ... you have to have a plan to be your own cheerleader. So, the moments when you would normally turn to a parent for advice or to, or to explain to them how happy you are about something, or to get work advice or romance or whatever it is, you have to learn how to do that a little bit on your own. And when I say that, what I mean is not that you have to stand in front of a mirror with pompoms. If that's your thing, go for it. But you have to learn how to talk to yourself very kindly so that it feels like you have support when you need it. I think that is probably the hardest thing I've had to try to do, because even when I was speaking to my mother, she wasn't really the most supportive. [laughs] So I've always kind of had to learn how to do that. But it was hard. It's hard to do. And I think that it's the most important thing you can do, because it's something that you can pull from inside when you need it. It doesn't require any external force. So you learn to be, or at least have a plan to start to learn how to be your own cheerleader. I think it's important to remember that loneliness will hit you at the strangest times. You might think that you have secured yourself away from loneliness, and then you'll be shopping for groceries and just feel this loss, and that's because not having a mother is … it's a cosmic void. You know? Like you were connected in such a deep way for such a long time, and it's a cosmic void to not have that in your life anymore. So just be wary, and let it hit you. Let it wash over you, but loneliness will come at you at the strangest times and you should be prepared for it as much as possible but you should also reach out to people when it happens. One thing that I do that might be strange, but hopefully isn't: I think you can celebrate the things that you like about yourself that come from her. So for example, my mother has always been really good at talking to people. Going to the grocery store with her was always so fun, because she just was bright and bubbly and just loved talking to people, and people seem to really love talking to her. And I wanted that feeling when I was a little kid, you know? I wanted people to feel that way about me as well. As I got older and I started watching both her and my grandmother interact with the world, I realized that you can just go out into the world with kindness. And I like that about myself. And I got that from her, was that notion that, you know, my bad day doesn't have to be somebody else's problem. So I chat. You know, I'm a talker, naturally. But I chat with people, and I'm interested in people. And I got that from her. So find the things that come from your mother, that you now have instilled within you, and celebrate them. And it doesn't have to be big. It could just be that moment of, you know, you're talking to someone and you realize, "My mom used to say that phrase all the time," you know, give yourself a little smile. But just find those ways to really celebrate the things in you that come from her. Because that is ... that's her legacy. That's her emotional legacy. That's her … her legacy that will live in you and help her still be present in the world. Now, I say that you should celebrate the things that you like about your mom, but I also think you should resist the urge to make her a saint. I think it's really complicated to be a mom and to be a woman. And I feel like when someone is no longer with us, it's instinctual to almost want to say that they were great, everything they did was perfect. If you had any kind of fraught relationship with your mom, or you had moments of doubt, or you had moments of strife, it's OK to remember those and still feel like, "Man, that sucked." And it's actually healthy, I think, to not put her on a pedestal now that she's not now that she's not here anymore. I think that it's harder to access your own emotional base when you're trying so hard to keep her pure and perfect. And I don't think she would want that, either. I think that she would want to be remembered exactly how she was, with all of it, you know? The flaws and the beauty and just all of it. So as much as you're celebrating the things that you like about yourself that come from her, I think you should also just resist the urge to turn her into a saint and to remember that – which, one of the gifts that she gave you, hopefully, was seeing her as a full person and seeing how to be a complete person in the world. And the other thing that I'm sure other people will suggest, but I just can't help but suggest it, because it's been so helpful: therapy. It's OK to go to therapy. I don't know if you've been to therapy yet. It's so nice. And there are therapists that really specialize in grief, because grief is long, and it shows up in ways that we never expect. And it's really nice to have a hand to hold as you're going through that. So find a therapist, find somebody that specializes in loss or grief, and really hopefully find someone that you can contact, you know, more than once a week if you need to. There are some therapists I know who will say, you know, "You can text me if you're having a hard moment,” or, you know, they won't charge you for the full hour, but find a therapist that can that you can work with that really helps you walk through the path of grief. And I would actually go a step further and say: There are a bunch of books about grief and you can read them, and some of them are helpful, but some of them are just overwhelming and make you feel weird or bad about how you're grieving. [laughs] So I would also say that, you know, don't dig into that too much. It might be easier at first to just talk through your own emotions with somebody before you start digging into the books and the advice and everything else. Just really understand your own grief, talk through it with somebody who's qualified to help you with it, and then you can start, you know, bringing some other bits of advice in, like this. Like this! Everything I've been saying. You don't even have to listen to me. You can just go talk to a therapist first and then come back and listen to this. When you're feeling like you can hear this message. But you're not alone, and living without a mom is difficult, and you have every right to feel the heft of that.


That was Danielle Henderson. She’s the author of The Ugly Cry, which was a part of our Terrible Reading Club series and is absolutely brilliant. Pick up that book and go listen to that episode when you have a moment.

 

We’ll be right back.


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So we are … lucky is not quite the right word, but ya know, something like that, to have so many accidental grief experts in our Rolodex. (Shoutout to anyone who remembers what that actually is. To have in our contacts, how about.) And you heard some of them in this episode already, but some of my favorite experts are you, our listeners. 

So when we were putting this episode together, I put up an Instagram story. I blocked Jess from seeing the story, and I said, “A listener has just lost their mother. She asked: How do I live without a mom? If you know the answer to this question, please reach out.” 

And you did. I’m really proud of this show for a lot of reasons, and one is because our listeners are so kind and wonderful and when we pose a question like that – a question asked by one of you – you really show up.

First up, we have Jeremy.


Jeremy: My mother died when I was two and a half — pancreatic cancer diagnosis September, and died in October. My sister had been born in May of that year. And so while I have few, no actual memories, audible memories, associations, my sister has even fewer. So I don't know what it is to lose a mom because I never knew what it was to have a mom. And so for me, I have a hard time … I have a hard time kind of figuring out what normal, is because I never had a normal. You know, obviously Hallmark sucks, but I also don't identify with Disney all that well. All these kind of Hallmark holidays that have become weaponized, they ring empty to me. And they don't really make me feel odd as much as they reinforce for me how empty and and and superficial they are. But my mom told my dad that he should, since he was faced with two young children and he himself was not much of a nurturer, find a replacement wife. And he did. A replacement mother. He did. It was very kind of “Terms of Endearment,” death bed scenario. And what for me has become kind of an almost inextricable tragedy is: The woman he remarried was horribly unfit, due to her own traumatic experiences and traumatic upbringing and undiagnosed traumas, to be a mother or to have any nurturing at all. And so for me, the next 20 plus years – so I got out of the house and then subsequent decades along the way — any time he said the word “mother,” it was simultaneously an empty word, a hole in my heart and a visceral reaction of, “That is not this or this is not that.” Because at the time, my dad was told by pediatricians, “Kids are resilient. You just need to move on. They will move on.” And my dad took it a little too literally and never mentioned my mother for decades. It didn't help that my stepmother, who hated the idea of being a stepmother and so demanded that I call her Mom, which if you think about what that means, or what that does to a 5-year-old, didn't really help us. And also because she was psychotic. Kids are resilient. I would have happily accepted and bonded with someone who is loving and kind and normal. But she wasn't. And so every time I had to call her Mom, it was a stab in my heart. And I'm not really being dramatic. And because she was so tormented and unsteady, our childhood was characterized by kind of a severe emotional kind of dysfunction and abuse. And so the notion of having to call someone Mom who wasn't, and the absence was all the more poignant, because every time I had to say, “Mom,” it reminded me that A., she wasn't my mom, and B., my mom was dead, and C., we weren't allowed to talk about my mom. So it's kind of a fucked up dynamic, and there's really no way to untangle it. I'm always fascinated watching people as their parents die — and now that I'm old enough that a lot of our parents are declining and dying, you know, a lot of this is academic. I'm always fascinated watching people as their parents die, and now that I'm old enough that a lot of our parents are declining and dying, you know, a lot of this is academic. My best friend's mom died about 10 years ago. And she went to the hospital one day because she was tired of being sick and she knew she was dying. And the family said goodbye, and they basically let her go to the hospital alone and die. And my best friend went and kind of sat sentry with her, And so the next morning, I returned to relieve Steve, and I found out that she had died and the family was gathering elsewhere. But I went up to a room, and they hadn't taken the body out yet. But she was in the body bag, you know, and I was able to unzip, unzip the bag and sit with her a few minutes and kiss her goodbye. You know, and I think at a certain point, a lot of these small things — Do you go to the funeral? Did you say goodbye? Do you get to read the last, the last note? — they haunt us in the short-term because what we want is the person to be there and present and whole. And in the absence of that, everything feels ponderous and mysterious. And it was a nice thing to be able to say goodbye to my friend's mom. And it gave me a little bit of closure. she was already dead and I'd seen her before she died when she was incoherent, and none of it really mattered, except for to say that I saw her and said goodbye. But that's not. It didn't that didn't change our relationship. You know, it's the best thing I can offer anyone is make peace with yourself, make peace with your family, tell those you love you, love them and realize that there is no mystery or magic. Just kind of this stubborn churn and royal of blood and bones and memory and heart. And take care of yourself. 

Shana: How do I live without my mom? This is a process, a challenge every day. I wake up, which is never an easy task in this house. No one's a morning person in our family, that's for sure. You know, she became gravely ill in the summer of 2020 with metastatic breast cancer. It was brutal. She suffered, and we were powerless. I couldn't be there with my own mom, even though she needed me desperately. The circumstances around what transpired in 2020 are impossible to comprehend, and sadly, she did not die with dignity. This extraordinary person who was our sun, our moon and our stars is no longer here on Earth. Every morning I make the conscious decision to be kind to myself, to love, to laugh, and when the sadness washes over me, I've learned to actually turn into it, and I let myself have what we call a grief moment or even a grief-y day. I have learned that working on my grief in just a small way on a regular basis helps me carry it with me as opposed to being overwhelmed by it. I have found that the creative process is the most cathartic for me. Things like journaling, taking photos, drawing, listening to music. I need to release my thoughts and feelings so they don't fester. Since we're a close family, one of the things I get so much joy from is spending time together with our kids, when they have a moment away from their busy lives. I feel at home with my family, and I'm so grateful for that. They're just good for my soul. And the other hand, I'm still figuring out how to do regular life. This part is hard. Thankfully, the grief literature has illuminated me on some of its complexities, but I do wish I would have been more prepared somehow. It's definitely been a trial by fire, and if I'm honest, I'm just not the same person I was before all of this happened. 


Thank you so much for that, Shana, and thank you to everyone who submitted. As always, we get so many beautiful submissions from our listeners. We can’t use them all or our episodes would be 100 years long, but we appreciate it, and we thank you. We thank you for being such a wonderful community and for being willing to contribute yourself and your time and your stories for each other. 

So, as we head into another Mother’s Day weekend, or a motherless weekend for so many of you, I hope this episode was helpful, and I hope this weekend is whatever you need it to be.

I’m Nora McInerny. I’m an author and the creator of this podcast. You can find my books wherever you find books, or we will link them in the show notes along with a way to sign up for emails from us and from me. We are a production of American Public Media, APM Studios. The executives in charge are Lily Kim, Alex Shaffert and Joanne Griffith. Our wonderful executive producer is Beth Pearlman. The rest of our team is Marcel Malekebu, myself, Jordan Turgeon, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina and Megan Palmer. Our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar Wilson. 

And I am recording this in my little closet. I hope you can’t hear my tummy rumbling. I love to record things just before it’s time to eat or when my dogs wake up or right before the mail carrier comes. Ya know, times when it won’t be quiet. So! All right, thanks everyone! Bye.