My Mother Died: Which Mother am I Writing To?

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

I’ve been a fan of AfterTalk and your column for some time. I have used “Private Conversations” to talk with my deceased father for years. My mother died two weeks ago. I am starting to gel my “Conversations”  to my mother in my head.

Here’s the rub, and the challenge: Which Mother am I writing to?

Am I writing to the loving, easy going mother who I knew most of my life, the one who got all my jokes…the one that we laughed till we cried?  OR, Am I writing to the mean tongued mother who when
influenced by one toxic family member  fueled negativity and upset?

I am at peace with my relationship with my mother. She lived with me and I was her primary caregiver.
But each time I start to write , both personalities come up in the “Conversation.”

Thank you so much Dr. Neimeyer!


Dear L,

As you might already anticipate, the question of whether you should write to the “good mother” or “bad mother” is an unambiguous “Yes!”  That is, it sounds like you have much of importance to say to both figures:  much to affirm and appreciate with the former, and much to redress with the latter.  Separating these “two mothers” in your mind can be a crucial first step to recognizing and validating the quite different grief you might have with each.

How might you do this?  As there seems to have been a shift in your relationship with your mother over time, you might begin by reviewing an old photo album of those early years, especially looking for pictures of little Lisa and mother together.  What feelings and stories come to mind and heart as you hold these images, and ask silently or aloud, “Who were you?”  “Who were we?”  Let the answers come, perhaps with tears, and commit them to paper or screen in a heartfelt letter to that mother, speaking to what she meant to you, and means to you still.

Then, on another day, review pictures from later years, after the shift.  This time ask, “Who did you become?”  “Who did we become?”  “And why?”  These answers are likely to arise with a different feeling tone, and with very different stories of disappointment underpinning them.  Write these too, in a second letter, acknowledging the unresolved relationship issues, the unfinished business, the hurt, the pulling away protectively.

Differentiating each “mother” in this way, you might then see if a bridge of integration might be built between them, without forcing it to be so.  To do this, read one letter aloud, pause, and then read the next, just holding them in the same field of awareness with no pressure to make them one.  Instead, you might hold one letter in each hand, hands separated by three feet in front of you as you sit, eyes closed.  Then, very, very slowly, almost imperceptibly across the course of 20 seconds, bring your hands holding the letters together, a centimeter at a time, until they meet, and both hands hold both letters together.  Note what feeling, if any, arises in you as you do this.  You might find that a shift is sparked that is hard to anticipate, that leads naturally to a further question:

“How can I grieve you now?”

Dr. Neimeyer


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