The Commercial Appeal

How to explain the grief as ‘second mother’ is dying


Dear Carolyn: My mother and I are estranged after an entire life of her, for some reason, disliking, abusing, and eventually distancing herself from me. After my father died when I was 11, I started flute lessons with a wonderful woman who ended up, discreetly, taking on a mothering role throughout my life. I don’t know if I would have survived as I have without her.

She is now in hospice, dying, a plane flight away. I’m not there because I’m not immediate family, though able to call here and there as they let me know.

I’m finding it hard to tell anyone other than my husband why I am grieving. I’m sick with it, literally physically sick and sad. But it’s not like I can say, “My mother is dying,” even though, for me, that’s true. And when I start explaining, it doesn’t seem to make sense for others. My mother substitute is dying.

Why do I even care about telling anyone and having them understand? Or do I just carry it and mourn it privately? Anonymous

Anonymous: You mourn this beautiful person however you want.

If that’s in private, then that is well within the range of normal. But that doesn’t sound like your first choice.

If you want people to know your mother-substitute is dying, then tell them that, just like that. Or say “second mother,” “other mother,” “friend who was a mother to me.” “Surrogate mother” is correct in one sense of the word; people will mistake it for the other sense, but does that change the feeling you want to convey?

None of these counts as explaining. They’re all just saying and leaving it to the person to figure it out.

That covers only the “telling anyone” part, and not the “having them understand” part. But I can argue that’s okay because you don’t need to tell the story of your biological mom for your substitute mom to make sense. Plus, none of these terms for this mother figure in your life needs further explanatio­n to make it obvious you are saying a hard goodbye to someone deeply important to you.

And that is the reason you care, I’m guessing. You want people to know you’re grieving, and you want your angel to get her due. “The woman I loved as a mother is in hospice and I’m just so sad.” (Saying it that way would work, too.)

If anyone you say this to can’t grasp that a person who isn’t your mother is a mother to you – is incapable of imagining a definition of family that’s broader than Mom/dad/grandma – then that may be a nuisance for you in the moment, sure. But even more so, it’s kind of a sad statement about this listener’s utter lack of emotional imaginatio­n.

And that, at least, is not your problem. So say what you want just because you want to, and trust enough people to get it. And maybe even tell the ones who do get it a little more about this wonderful person who shaped you into the person you are today. I’m sure they’d love to hear about her. I’m grateful you shared her with us.

I’m also sorry you’re going through this. If these words could hug you, they would.

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