How to Deal With the Death of A Mother

Sad woman looking out of the window


The death of a mother is one of the hardest things most people will go through in life. Whether you had a great relationship, a hard relationship, or somewhere in between, this event will likely have a significant impact on your life.

In one survey, between 20% to 30% of participants stated that losing a loved one was the most traumatic event in their lives—even among those who had reported 11 or more traumatic events over the course of their life. For that group, 22% still ranked the loss of a loved one as their most traumatic event.

Why the Death of a Mother Is So Hard

Whether you are grieving the death of a mother who birthed you or a mother (or mother figure) who raised you, you are either grieving the bond you had or the bond you wish you had.

John Bowlby, a British psychologist, believed that children are born with a drive to seek attachment with their caregivers. While others before him believed that attachment was food-motivated, he believed that attachment formed based on nurturing and responsiveness.

Therefore, it makes sense that grieving that attachment—or lack thereof—would be incredibly difficult.

A mother is such an integral part of our lives in our society, in part because we are not raised in communities with a variety of caretakers,” says Liz Schmitz-Binnall, PsyD, who has done research on mother loss and resilience.

Her research specifically focused on adult women who had lost their mothers as children and found that they scored lower on resilience than those who had not lost mothers as children.

She says she sees many people who didn’t have a good relationship with their mother but are surprised at the strength of their grief reaction following their mother’s death.

How Death of a Mother Affects Someone

While mother loss differs from other losses in some key ways, some of the same effects that come from any kind of loss or bereavement are present. Some thoughts and feelings typical of grief:

  • Shock
  • Numbness
  • Sadness
  • Disbelief
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anger 

Less known is that grief can show up physically, in addition to the more-known mental or spiritual indications. In your body, grief may look like:

  • Digestive problems
  • Energy loss
  • Nervousness
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Weight changes 
  • Nervousness

Risk of Psychiatric Disorders

In others, however, a loss of a loved one may activate mental health disorders even in those with no history of mental illness. One study found an increased risk for the following disorders, in addition to discovering a new link between mania and loss:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Posttraumatic disorder

Specifically in adults over the age of 70: 

  • Manic episodes
  • Phobias
  • Alcohol use disorders
  • Generalized anxiety disorder 

What Is Complex Bereavement?

All grief is complex, but upon losing someone, many people are able to slowly readjust to their daily routines (or create new routines). Mental health professionals may call it complicated or complex bereavement if it has been at least a year and your daily function is still significantly impacted. 

(Note: the current clinical name is Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder, but the American Psychiatric Association recently approved a change of name to Prolonged Grief Disorder.)

Some of the signs of prolonged grief are the following symptoms still significantly impacting your daily functioning after 12 months:

In one study, 65% of participants with complicated grief had thought about wanting to die themselves after losing a loved one. So if you, or someone you know who is grieving, is having suicidal thoughts, know that you aren’t alone and this is not uncommon for what you are going through.

If you are having suicidal thoughts but feel you can keep yourself safe, you should talk to a mental health professional. If the thoughts become unbearable and you are in imminent danger of hurting yourself, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support from a counselor who is trained in this.

How to Heal from the Death of a Mother

When loss is fresh, it feels like you will feel that way forever—but you won’t.

“If you allow yourself to grieve, and if others allow you to grieve,” says Schmitz-Binnall, “you will probably notice that the really intense feelings will lessen during the first few months after the death of your mother.”

She says that while most people intuitively realize it can be hard to lose a mother, they don’t realize quite how hard it can be—or how long it can take. “People in our society often think we can move through grief in a month and be done with it.”

And even if we don’t acknowledge those feelings, that doesn’t mean they aren’t existing and impacting our lives anyway.

Liz Schmitz-Binnall

Too many people push us to ‘get on with life’ too soon after a significant loss. We need to be able to grieve, but...we also need to adjust our expectations of ourselves.

— Liz Schmitz-Binnall

Some of her tips:

  • Feel the feelings
  • Or let yourself feel nothing
  • Talk about your feelings
  • Spend time by yourself
  • Spend time with others
  • Talk to her (in whatever way that means for you and your beliefs—it may also include writing letters to her.)

Talk to a Professional

Therapy can be helpful after a major loss like this. While most therapists will have worked with grief, as it's one of the most universal life experiences, there are also therapists who specialize in working with clients with grief. To find one, search for grief therapist or grief counselor in your area.

Find a Community

Since grief can feel like such an isolating experience, many find comfort in support groups, whether they be in-person or an online support group. If you are a woman who has lost a mother, you may be interested in the Motherless Daughters community, which is both virtual and has offline meetups.

A Word From Verywell

The death of a mother is one of the most traumatic things someone can experience. If you are currently grieving your mother, give yourself grace. Whether you had a good relationship or not with her, there will always be grief associated with either the actual relationship you had or the one you wish you had.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hasin DS, Grant BF. The national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions (Nesarc) waves 1 and 2: review and summary of findingsSoc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2015;50(11):1609-1640. doi:10.1007/s00127-015-1088-0

  2. Schmitz-Binnall E. Resilience in adult women who experienced early mother lossAll Antioch University Dissertations & Theses.

By Theodora Blanchfield, AMFT
Theodora Blanchfield is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and mental health writer.