When Mother Doesn’t Reach Back

Non Death Loss and the Emotionally Absent Mother 

We are created with a natural desire to reach for another…and this desire remains within us until life on this earth is complete.  It is innate and it is normal.  It is a reach to draw someone to us physically but most importantly…emotionally.  As infants we bid for connection with coos and cries and wait for the responsiveness of someone who will reach back.  This someone we yearn for is…our mother.  This is well represented in an experiment called the Still Face Experiment.  In this experiment we see the natural reach the infant makes and how the mother reaches back.  We can also see when the infant’s bid for connection is not fulfilled how the infant tries repeatedly in every way to draw the mother to her.  But mother is not there…emotionally.  This sends the child into a heightened distress…because it is our inborn need to reach and have someone reach back.  For those who have experienced an emotionally absent mother this video can call to remembrance their own unmet emotional needs.  This can evoke a number of feelings such as anger, sadness, and fear.  But the overarching theme is loss.  It is a loss of a normal nurturing experience.   

The daughter of the emotionally absent mother is a daughter whose reach was not met consistently or perhaps rarely at all.  Life becomes a state of chronic sorrow that goes unrecognized within self and with others because it is nebulous and nameless.  But this loss of a normal nurturing experience does have a name and in order to heal one must call this loss by name.  This loss is called a non-death loss. 

Knowing that the loss has a name we can now begin to understand the impact of living that loss.  A non-death loss is not necessarily recognized by others.  A non-death loss has no ritual or demarcation that outwardly identifies that one is in the process of mourning.  In fact the owner of such a loss may not recognize this ball of feelings as a non-death loss.   When this loss is not recognized by others or self it can be said that the loss is disenfranchised.  Disenfranchisement is a lack of acknowledgement and common to non-death loss.  This lack of acknowledgement is like a brush burn to a daughter that has been under nurtured by her mother.   

If you are a daughter of an emotionally absent mother and your loss is not recognized then you aren’t recognized as a daughter in grief.  But you are.  Call the loss by name.  It is a non-death loss.  The grief when a daughter experiences a non-death loss due to an emotionally absent mother is not a place of pathology.  It’s a normal response to an abnormal experience.  Your needs are normal.  Your experience was not.  Acknowledgement affirms your loss.

Where do you take your grief?  Who will understand your experience?  Motherless Daughters Ministry  provides a rich variety of resources of support and healing.  Yet some daughters of emotionally absent mothers will feel the desire to augment those resources with professional care but are not sure of how to begin that process. There are some basic thoughts one might consider. When seeking professional care it is helpful to find someone who will validate your loss.  Does this person recognize that it is a loss that has special characteristics that differentiate it from loss through death?  Is the professional one who will focus on emotional presence providing a safe place to explore a vulnerable state?  Is the professional someone who is able to orient to being present in a painful place rather than feeling pressured to fix something?  Is the professional able to recognize many other losses can accompany the initial loss of nurturance a daughter of an emotionally absent mother experiences? 

If you are a daughter of an emotionally absent mother you have experienced a non-death loss.  This was outside of the intended plan for your life.  This loss respectfully deserves to be acknowledged by others and yourself.  It becomes imperative to seek out those places where this loss is acknowledged and understood because then you are affirmed …the very piece you missed as a child.  You may find solace with other women who share a similar loss.  Or you may desire additional individual care and seek professional support.  In either case, continue to reach outward.  There are people who are capable of reaching back.  They are waiting to receive your reach. 

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