Sunshine Muse: Grieving a Mom Who’s Still Here

My relationship with my mom is estranged and feels unfixable.  Her capacity for intimacy is incompatible with my desire to be nurtured. She is more of a tough-love mother, mostly unavailable in the ways that I need and want her most.

635898753504476015-1619945331_grief-angelIn the last six months, five of my friends’ moms have died. I am 43, which feels a little young for this mass exodus of moms to be happening. My mom is 63, healthy and here.

My relationship with my mom is estranged and feels unfixable. Her capacity for intimacy is incompatible with my desire to be nurtured. She is more of a tough-love mother, mostly unavailable in the ways that I need and want her most. My mom didn’t come to my bridal shower, first public reading or harbor me when I called her from the highway to say I was leaving my husband and needed to get away to clear my head. In that conversation she offered me three days’ respite; telling me that beyond that  I would need to find another place to stay because she had plans—after all, she said, “you always land on your feet.”

Over the years, my friends’ moms have been the nurturers that I watched with interest, hope and sometimes yearning. They were the ones who would give you their last dollar, live with you to help take care of your kids, comb your hair with their fingers and understanding because they saw you crying with a broken heart. I absolutely wanted that mom, and, I got a different one.

My mom taught me to walk into a room, take a seat at any table, and speak with confidence.

She taught me to be bold in my vision and brazen in its pursuit. That, if the figurative ship I am on is sinking, to remember that I can swim—and to get my limbs working even if I have to spend months, or years, just staying afloat.She taught me that I am beautiful and deserve to be seen and even admired. To be the expert of my own lived experience and to translate that into voice, programming and advocacy. She taught me that a woman can and should have her own, and that enabling others is not our key role. So while I am hurt by her for not being another kind of mom, I am also grateful to her for the strength and self-reliance she’s instilled in me.

In the context of friends losing their moms, I think about my own mom all the time. I try to consciously appreciate her just because she is alive thereby allowing the surrounding current of maternal loss to sweep me to her shores in the hopes that she will greet me like the weary traveler I sometimes am, in the open-armed and open-hearted way that I long for.  I try to understand where our relationship broke. Was I so horrible in my teens and 20s to warrant her type of distance, then and now? I do think that I was obnoxious, in that entitled way that many young adults can be; not fully understanding or respecting what it would take to care for myself. But that doesn’t explain the limits to my mother’s love for me or, perhaps more accurately, her inability to display it. She may love me in a brittle, disfigured way that is rich at its center, but splintered in its delivery. At least I’d like to think that. I love her like someone who is scared, of being hurt and hurting; like eggshells is how I love my mom, and so I mostly keep my distance.

But this new phenomenon of moms I know dying is forcing me to face the grief of people I love dearly, and the imminent approach of my own motherlessness.

My mom will die; and even with our broken relationship, I don’t know how I will handle it.

Right now, I am trying to handle it by appreciating that my mom is here and approaching her—and, more importantly, myself—with new eyes; by acknowledging the fear and fact of my own mortality; and by loving my children ever more consciously—so that the affection and regard I have for them arrives to their hearts in huge chunks, not small, pointy slivers. I am also continuing to forgive myself, for wanting more than my own mother can give.

I cannot shield my friends from this moment or lift the pain of their grief but I want them to know that I love them, that I am here, that even though I can’t share the experience or their grief, I can love them while they walk in and through it. I try to help by being someone with water, a hot meal or a kind face on the multiple stops along that road. I want to be one of those reliable rest stops. I still want my mom to be that for me, but there have been few and far times, and many years since, she has. In this way, because she can’t be here even as she is here, I am always grieving her absence.

In my life, I translate my longing to be nurtured by my mother into my own maternal-ness. I give what I haven’t gotten; I mother myself, my children and others who need it. I hold strong boundaries like my mother taught me; but I keep my heart open, too. It is open because I won’t be able to receive love if it is closed, and life is so short that I can’t afford not to.

As my life becomes shorter, I see my mortality in my changing body and mature looks, new reading glasses and behaviors related to age. I am changing rapidly and beginning to prepare for older age, should I be that fortunate. At this point in my life, if I cannot heal the relationship between myself and my mom, perhaps I can give myself what’s been missing. I’m not 100% sure how to do that but a friend recently told me that she has no regrets as a motherless child, because she was exactly the kind of daughter she wanted to be. Maybe that is a clue.


Sunshine Muse is a badass, writer, and mother who is learning to be gentle with herself and the world while moving with integrity and the ability to be and hold accountable. Muse lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and is grateful for the wisdom of the desert as she figures out what else is possible—and next!


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3 Comments on “Sunshine Muse: Grieving a Mom Who’s Still Here
  1. I really felt like Muse was speaking my mind regarding my relationship with my father. It was so honest a piece and I appreciate that because I realize that honest writing involves vulnerability. I want to know more about the “boundaries” she mentioned that her mother helped her to establish. I didn’t give myself permission to set boundaries till I was in my thirties, but I want my daughter to learn the technique as a middle schooler if possible. Also, I am curious about a motherless child being the daughter she wanted to be. This is a fascinating idea. This story reminds me of my own mom who is alive and well ( thank God) but who lost her mom when she was 16. She tells me that she heals by being a daughter to older women she meets along her journal. This is how she had healed her gaping wound. Sunshine is a kick ass writer and this was a piece that is a salve. It helps our wounds heal. Thank you!!!!

  2. This is a heart-felt piece Sunny! Your ability to express your feelings clearly and concisely is quite introspective for me. I appreciate you and this piece! Keep up the REAL work

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