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When Hope Edelman was 17, her mother died. Like many families in the 1980s, Hope’s family soldiered on by grieving her mother’s death in silence. This climate of silence around death caused her to feel shame around the topic and disconnected from her mother.
This spurred the beginning of Edelman’s career as a community educator surrounding death and grieving. In this episode, she answers the question “Is grieving a lifelong process?” and helps us understand the importance of an open discussion surrounding death.
Hope Edelman is the author of eight nonfiction books, including bestsellers “Motherless Daughters” and “Motherless Mothers,” and the memoir “The Possibility of Everything.” Her original essays have appeared in many anthologies, including “The Bitch in the House,” “Behind the Bedroom Door,” and “Goodbye to All That.” Her work has received aNew York Timesnotable book of the year designation and a Pushcart Prize for creative nonfiction. The recipient of the 2020 Community Educator Award from the Association for Death Education and Counseling, she’s also a Martha Beck Certified Life Coach and facilitates Motherless Daughters retreats and workshops all over the world.
Learn more about Edelman at HopeEdelman.com and MotherlessDaughters.com
Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of the Inside Mental Health podcast, formerly The Psych Central Podcast. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to thank our sponsor, Better help. You can save 10 percent and get a week free by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Calling into our show today, we have Hope Edelman. Ms. Edelman has been writing, speaking and leading workshops and retreats in the bereavement field for more than 25 years. Her first book, Motherless Daughters, was a number one New York Times bestseller. Ms. Edelman was the recipient of the 2020 Community Educator Award from the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Hope, welcome to the show.
Hope Edelman: It’s a pleasure to be here, Gabe.
Gabe Howard: Death is a very heavy topic and one that most people avoid to the detriment of themselves and their loved ones. What made you become an expert in this topic and be so willing to discuss death so openly?
Hope Edelman: Well, it began when I was a teenager, really, and it began because no one would talk with me about death, more specifically the death of my mother when I was 17. She died of breast cancer. It was the early 1980s. There was very little, if any, grief support available for families. And my family responded the way most families did in the 1980s, which was just to soldier on. But oddly, we stopped talking about her completely because it was too upsetting for the family members to remember even her life, let alone her death. And I started looking for a book for girls like me who’d lost a mom and I couldn’t find one. And for 10 years I really struggled with that silence. Along the way, I met a few other women who had lost their mothers, and I discovered we had an awful lot in common. And then I wound up in a graduate writing program where I started writing about my mom’s illness and her death. And that evolved into my first book, which was Motherless Daughters, which came out in 1994, found a lot of readers because it turned out there were many, many women like me, most of whom had grown up in this climate of silence around death. And so it was this opportunity for us to all break that silence together. And that was the beginning of my career, both as a writer and also as a bereavement educator.
Gabe Howard: Your latest book opens with an overview of grief theory of the past 100 years when mourning behavior shifted in the United States and the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 figures prominently. What can we learn from that event 100 years ago that might be helpful today?
Hope Edelman: Interestingly, when I wrote Motherless Daughters, I had interviewed a woman who was an infant when her mother died in the flu pandemic of 1918. That was 1994. By 2020 when I was finishing up The AfterGrief, yeah, we were just starting the COVID pandemic. About two years earlier, when I was writing that book, I was researching the evolution of grief theory, very, very influenced by the work of a health psychologist named Leeat Granek, who’s in Toronto, who had written a number of articles about how grief theory changed over the past century. There was a big shift in thinking about grief and mourning and bereavement and mourning behavior in the 1910s, and it was the result of several historic events in a row. It was World War I, which had mass carnage and people dying far from home. It was also the rise of psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud’s paper, Mourning and Melancholia, in which he talked about grief as an internal individual process rather than the social experience that it had been up to that point in many ways. Also the flu pandemic of 1918-19, when so many people died so quickly. And just like now, people could not gather for funerals and memorials and the elaborate Victorian mourning rituals had to be abandoned. And also the women’s suffrage movement, I discovered, because women had been mostly responsible for the family’s mourning behavior.
Hope Edelman: So those four events in a row changed mourning behavior in Western culture. And we lost a lot of the rituals and traditions that had given people comfort and familiarity and brought them together. But without knowing COVID was coming, I went way down the rabbit hole for about two weeks studying the 1918-19 flu pandemic because I was so fascinated about what had happened and then to watch it happen again during the COVID era, to see how people couldn’t gather. We couldn’t go out and comfort our mourners. We couldn’t engage in the kinds of ethnic or religious or cultural rituals that gave meaning to a death and gave support to the bereaved, to watch that happen all over again, 100 years later, despite the fact that we were much more technologically advanced as a society, was really extraordinary to witness. And here we are again. What I’ve been telling people is that we can’t lose what little we have left. We lost a lot of the elaborate rituals in 1918-1919. We need to hold on to what we can. Come back to in person funerals, memorials, celebrations of life. We need to make sure that we get back to them, even if we’re doing it two years after a death. It’s critically important for mourners to have that in person kind of social experience to be supported in their bereavement.
Gabe Howard: Hope, how do you see attitudes toward death, dying and bereavement changing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? You alluded to the fact that we’re not able to get together.
Hope Edelman: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: In a funeral, but is it changing internally?
Hope Edelman: I’m not sure that the internal experience, how we feel, how our bodies respond to grief has changed much. I do think that people who have lost a loved one in the past year, because we were under such extraordinary restrictions have been in survival mode for much of the past year. I think it’s possible that this spring, when we start seeing the one-year anniversary of the first known COVID death, we may see an upsurge in postponed or delayed grief. People who have been just really kind of holding it together for that first year, steeling themselves through the first birthday without the loved one, the first holiday season without the loved one, and then get to the first anniversary of the death may feel safe enough to really start grieving then. We need to feel safe in order to grieve. And a lot of people haven’t felt safe this past year. And some families have lost multiple members, which puts them into a state of what’s called bereavement overload, meaning that you can’t grieve each person individually because you’re grieving several people at once. So we’re not really out of this yet. But I do see that we are becoming a more grief literate culture because we are talking about all of these deaths.
Hope Edelman: And I don’t want to only focus on COVID deaths, because in the course of any year in the United States, about 2.8 million people die of other causes. And so we have the 2.8 million plus the 400,000 COVID deaths in the past year. And it is believed that for every one death, there are nine close family members who are bereaved. We have a lot of mourners in the culture right now who have lost someone in the past year. But I do think that we are talking about it more. I’m grateful that we finally had national recognition of all of the death, a coming together of the entire country to mourn the 400,000 who are lost because those of us in the bereavement community were feeling like, my lord. Four hundred thousand dead. And we can’t act like this is normal. This is not normal. This is not normal. Four hundred thousand is a staggering number. And we need to make sure that each one of those people are remembered and each one of those lives and deaths mattered.
Gabe Howard: I could not agree more with that. I, too, was glad that we finally acknowledged it, because acknowledging it doesn’t mean that we’re happy about it or condoning it. It just means that we’re aware of it and this sort of makes me think one of the dominant cultural messages about grief is that, well, we’ll just get over it. We’ll just get past it we’ll resolve it. We’ll move on.
Hope Edelman: Right.
Gabe Howard: It’s done, right? It’s something that we feel that is only supposed to last a couple of weeks. But your book offers a new way of thinking about grief. And I believe you call it a lifelong process.
Hope Edelman: Yes, the acute phase of grief where we are really feeling the depths of sorrow or despair, really longing or missing someone, maybe feeling some relief, maybe feeling guilt. You know, we’re having somatic experiences like perhaps disruptions in our appetite or in our sleep, that typically lasts anywhere from several weeks to a year. If it lasts more, that’s when professional help is often very successful. But that’s what’s known as the acute phase of grief. But what I found, you know, I’m almost 40 years past the death of my mother now. I’m 16 years past the death of my father. I have worked and spoken with thousands of adults who were bereaved as children and adults who are 10, 20, 30 years past a major loss. And nobody has said, oh, yeah, I got over that. I don’t think about it anymore. I don’t think about that person. It doesn’t affect me. I haven’t met a single person who will say that. I’ve met a lot of people who say, yes, I still think of them all the time. I carry them with me or I feel like I never adequately grieved them or I’m concerned because I don’t feel that I’ve gotten over it. Because, like you said, there’s this cultural message that this is something we need to get over. What I found, honestly, is that there’s only two stages of grief that people really care about and really experience. The first one is the one where they feel really terrible and that’s the acute phase. And the second is the one where they start feeling better and they can get back to what feels like a new normal. But they will always miss that person. They will often think of that person. And that’s what I’ve called the Aftergrief.
Gabe Howard: What is the Aftergrief and how did you come up with that concept?
Hope Edelman: Well, I realized we didn’t have a language or a vocabulary to talk about how grief shows up over the long term, and I even went looking at other languages thinking there must be a word in German or Thai that would explain what it feels like 10 or 20 or 30 years later. And I couldn’t find it. And I was writing about how the death of my mother still shows up from time to time or missing my dad still shows up from time to time. And I kept using the word grief. And I thought, that’s not really, that doesn’t fit. That’s not a good fit. Grief is a terrific term for what I think people feel in that first six months to a year before they start reentering the world of the living, so to speak. But I couldn’t find a word for what comes after grief. And I remember one day I was driving down the road from my house at the top of the canyon down to, I live in Los Angeles, down to the Pacific Coast Highway. And I was really putting my mind on it and thinking, what is the word for what comes after grief? What comes after grief? And by the time I got to the ocean, I thought, I guess we’ll just call it the Aftergrief because everyone will know what that means. And it doesn’t mean that grief has disappeared, but it has diminished. It has gotten a little softer. It’s turned into something else. It’s not ever-present, but it still visits us. And in the Aftergrief, which I think extends from the point where we start feeling better and extends for the rest of our lives, we find new and different ways to remain connected to our loved ones. But we will have these upsurges of grief from time to time, and that’s completely normal. The grief spikes and sometimes they’ll come completely by surprise, like you’re driving down the road and a song comes on the radio. Or in my case, it was walk through a department store cosmetic area, and I catch a whiff of my mother’s perfume, things like that, that you can’t prepare for that just feel like a punch in the gut. And then just sort of go with it for a while. And they take a couple of minutes, couple of hours, even a couple of days before you start, you’re like the scales balanced again. But sometimes they’re cyclical events like your loved one’s birthday or their favorite holiday or the anniversary of their death. And then sometimes it’s like milestones like a graduation or wedding or the transition to parenthood or another loss that you experience. It percolates up to the surface and you find yourself experiencing that old loss in a new way, looking at it maybe from a different perspective and your point of view shifts and changes. And I found that to be absolutely normal in the lives of the bereaved, no matter how long ago the loss was.
Gabe Howard: We’ll be back in a minute after we hear from our sponsors.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing bereavement and grief with author Hope Edelman. How can we best support those who are grieving right now?
Hope Edelman: Those who have had a recent loss, you mean?
Gabe Howard: Yeah, if I believe what you referred to as, if I’m not mistaken, “new grief.”
Hope Edelman: New grief is the acute phase. Those would be the people who have lost a loved one in the past year or the past two years. Really it is to acknowledge that there is no one size fits all. It is an extremely individual process. So, to give the space to have whatever experience they’re having, the way that we respond to any loss depends on so many factors. It depends on how old we were when that person died, what our relationship with them was like, how they died. It depends on our temperament. There are so many factors that come into play, you know, not to impose judgment on how they should be feeling or what they should be doing or what they should be ready to do. There is a phrase that I really love called companion-ing someone in grief, which is just listening, which is putting your discomfort on the back burner to just be there and hold space for someone to talk to you, to express how they’re feeling, to remember that it’s not over in a couple of weeks. And then I have friends that I check in with. Their mom may have died 10 months ago, but on Mother’s Day, I’ll just contact them and say, hey, how are you doing? You want to talk? I imagine you’re thinking of your mom today.
Hope Edelman: They will be thinking of that person and reminding them of it is not going to cause them distress in most cases. But one other thing I’d like to add is also, though, to be aware that there are what are known as feminine patterns of grieving and masculine patterns of grieving, and they’re very different. About 80% of women will grieve in the feminine style, which is wanting to reach out and talk and emote and share their feelings and thoughts. About 20% of women will grieve in the masculine style and about 80% of men will grieve this way, which is grieving through doing an action and problem solving. And this is often why husbands and wives or male female partners don’t always understand each other in their bereavement or brothers and sisters because their grief looks very different. A man might decide that he’s going to take all the photo albums in the house and create a digital slideshow of that person’s life and be very quiet while he’s doing it. But that might be his way of working through his bereavement and the women around him may not recognize it as such.
Gabe Howard: You lead retreats for adult women who’ve lost mothers during their childhood, in their adolescence. What common patterns do you see among this population? And is it the same, the masculine, feminine way of grieving, is that what you see? Or is it different because it’s that mother-daughter bond?
Hope Edelman: Oh, that’s such an interesting question. I’ve never been asked that before and I’ve done a lot of interviews. You know, what I find is that, yeah, I’m sure that 80% of the women who come to these retreats would have liked to or have naturally needed to grieve in a feminine style. But remember, when the mother dies, they are often left with the father as a custodial parent. Not always; some go to live with aunts or grandmothers or older siblings, but the majority are with a father, so his grieving style will be different. So there wouldn’t be support maybe for them as a child or a teenager or young adult, because I also do retreats for women who were in their 20s when the mother died. So they may not have had the support in the family to grieve in the way that felt most natural to them. But if a woman is an adult today and lost a mother during childhood or her teens, that means that she’s most likely to have lost their mom in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, which really until the mid to late 1990s are really the dark ages, I think, of grief support.
Hope Edelman: So there wasn’t much help for them at the time and most of them existed in a climate of silence around the grief. It’s such a relief for them to sit in a circle and realize I have permission to talk about this. And also, they have spent much of their lives feeling like the odd woman out in any group of adult women because their experience may have been so different from the others. And now you can just see their face, their whole countenance changed when they realize I’m sitting in a room and every woman in here shares a piece of my history and we understand each other in a way that I’ve never experienced before. That’s a commonality. I also find that women come to the retreats typically for one of two reasons. The first is that they feel stuck in some area of their life.
Hope Edelman: They feel that it has to do with loss somehow and they don’t know how to get unstuck. And most often it’s because they had to develop coping or survival strategies in order to adjust or adapt after the loss of their mother. And they’re discovering as adults that although those strategies served them very well when they were younger, they are no longer serving them well as an adult. And an example is maybe they had to really be extremely independent and learn how to take care of themselves emotionally. But now maybe they’re an adult who really longs for a partnership. They don’t know how to navigate being interdependent with somebody else. So that’s one reason. The second reason that they come and this is so interesting, there’s always three or four women in every circle. It’s because they are about to reach the age their mother was when she died or they have just turned the age their mother was when she died. It is such a significant rite of passage. It brings up so much for them that they want to be in a community of women who can understand that.
Gabe Howard: You really alluded to the fact that perhaps they’ve never spoken openly about it or in the example that you used at the top of the show, you stopped talking about your mother’s passing and then you stopped talking about your mother.
Hope Edelman: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: So it seems like for the very first time, not only are they around people who understand, they’re also speaking about their mother, they’re speaking about their family, they’re speaking about their grief. I imagine that that would be well, frankly, just amazing.
Hope Edelman: It can be. I mean, what we also see that is extraordinary, almost miraculous to witness is that these women start forming inner relationships with their mothers that they didn’t have before, that had been disrupted. The women who were children and teenagers when their mother died, especially if they were prohibited from talking about their mother. And some were, especially if the father remarried and the stepmother came into the family. The number of girls who are told, this is your new mom, you’re going to call her mom now. And the pictures of the original biological mother come down off the walls and the child loses a connection to that mother. So they’re coming and they have a disconnect in that relationship with their mom. And a number of them will leave the retreat very curious about their mothers’ lives. They will start calling their mother’s friends or other relatives to learn more about her. And they’re looking for ways to remain connected to her memory and finding ways to carry her forward. So a lot of the work we do with the younger women is helping them reconnect with their moms. Some of the adult retreats, because I have done a few adult mother loss retreats.
Hope Edelman: The work is really helping them stay connected, helping them find new ways to stay connected. But with the younger women, it’s allowing them to talk about their moms because so many of them were prohibited from speaking about her and had learned to self-silence. Because if the family pattern or the family communication strategy was to not talk about this person and there would be repercussions for doing it, they learned to self-silence. And what happens when a child feels there’s something that I can’t talk about? There’s something that isn’t safe to talk about? Sometimes they will develop a sense of shame around that. And I’ve met a number of women who said it doesn’t make any sense, but I felt ashamed that I didn’t have a mother, so I didn’t tell anybody. And that was my experience in college. I was very, very careful about who I told that I didn’t have a mother. I even, you know, would construct sentences in a way that didn’t reveal that I had a single parent just because I didn’t want to be the object of pity. But also I felt ashamed because I was different from all the other girls, women and men that I was meeting.
Gabe Howard: Hope, one of the things that I hear over and over and over again is that there’s no wrong way to grieve. What’s your opinion on that statement?
Hope Edelman: I believe that there is no right and wrong when it comes to grief. I do, however, believe there is something called complicated grief, which is when the grief channel sort of gets stuck on and we’re never able to turn the volume down. It tends to be most common in people who had a predisposition for depression or anxiety, but there are programs for complicated grief that are enormously effective. I would not say that is a wrong way to grieve, though. That is a judgment. A complicated form of grief often comes with traumatic bereavement, you know, suicides or homicides. And there is help out there for these people. I also never use the word normal. People say to me all the time, is this normal? And I say, I prefer not to use the word normal because that implies that there is an abnormal way to grieve, which then implies there’s a wrong way to do it. I use the word normative. Is this how most people experience it? That’s the normative experience. There are always outliers. Your experience may be different. It may not be the norm, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Gabe Howard: Hope, can you tell folks where to find your book and where to find you?
Hope Edelman: TheAfterGrief.com will tell you all about my newest book, which is about the long arc of grief and links for purchasing it there. If anyone is interested in the support calls for motherless daughters or any of the online courses or the in-person retreats when they start up again, that’s at MotherlessDaughters.com. And then me and my coaching is at HopeEdelman.com. So there’s three different websites right now. We’ll consolidate them one day. But for the moment, TheAfterGrief.com, MotherlessDaughters.com and HopeEdelman.com.
Gabe Howard: Hope, thank you so much for being here.
Hope Edelman: Thank you, Gabe, I so appreciate this. You know, there is such a need for these services right now because grieving alone is such an isolating experience to begin with. And then in COVID too. You know I led a support group last year with Claire Bidwell Smith, just a public service support group for women who had lost moms to COVID. And gosh, it was just so hard for them. They were so grateful to find each other. And I hope that more of those will continue. And it took a little while, right, because it was such an abrupt shift, but grief centers are able to move online and keep their groups going, at least. And so that’s something to be grateful for.
Gabe Howard: Thank you, Hope, so much for being here. And remember, we can’t do it without all of you, our listeners, please, wherever you download this podcast, please subscribe, please rate, rank and review. Share us on social media. Tell a friend. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations, which, of course, is available on Amazon.com. Or you can grab a signed copy for less money over at my website, gabehoward.com. We’ll see everybody next week.
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