I Just Found Out My Mother Died — Five Years Ago

I’ve seen my sister maybe twice in the last thirty years. She has four grown children. I’ve met her 28-year-old twin sons twice: once when they were infants, once when they were twelve. I saw their older sister once, when she was two. I’ve never met their younger brother, who’s now twenty-one. (Over the years I’ve sent the twins emails, and tried to FB-friend them — but, alas, they’ve never responded. Same with their sister. Their younger son did FB-friend me back. Apparently an aspiring writer, he sent me a message saying that his mother told him I had once had published an article that I wrote.)

Yesterday my sister replied to an email I’d recently sent her, in which I’d asked her if she could recall whether or not our mother was married when she reentered our lives after having disappeared on us two years before. (And I do mean disappeared; when I was ten years old, and my sister twelve, our mother — with whom we were living after my father had moved out two years before — said, “I’m going to the store for some milk and bread,” and was gone. For the following two years, we didn’t hear a single word from her. We later learned that throughout that time she had been living and working not five miles from our home.)

In her email back to me, my sister wondered if I ever hear from our mom. I answered that, except for a single phone call, I hadn’t spoken with or seen our mom in thirty years. My sister and I patched together what little we knew about her — and the next thing we know, we’ve located a website with a page on it whereon the man we know to be her husband has written about much he’s grown psychologically and spiritually since the passing of his wife.

So to the email address given on that page, I wrote the man the following:

Hi, [man]. You’ve probably already received an email from my sister, in which I’m sure she inquired about the same thing I am, which is, simply: are you the [guy] who married our mother [mom’s name]? If so, is [mom’s name] the wife of yours who passed away?

In other words, do you know if our mother has passed away?

If so — if that’s the wife you wrote about losing — please accept my deepest sympathy. It sounds like you guys were really close; I am genuinely sorry for your loss. How did she die, if I may ask?

Well, gosh. I guess let me/us first discover whether the wife of yours who died was, in fact, our mother. Thank you very much for letting us know. And, again, we’re terribly sorry for your loss.

Thanks for taking the time to help us with this sad mystery,


A few hours later, the man wrote back to both my sister and me to say that, yes, our mom, an “amazing woman,” was his wife of twenty-five years. Five years ago, he told us, she died of lung cancer.

Yikes. Lung cancer!

I once had one of my lungs collapse on me. A doctor came into my emergency room area, got his face real close to mine, and said, “You’ve got twenty seconds to pull air into your lung. If you don’t, it’s going to collapse forever. I can’t help you with the pain; there’s no time. Trying to breathe is going to hurt like nothing you’ve ever felt before. [This, I already knew.] Do it anyway — and do it Now. I’ll leave you alone. Good luck.”

I did it. It made fireworks go off in my head — but not in a good way.

But  it worked. Here I am! Two lungs and all!

My mom, obviously, didn’t contact us during the year or two she was certain she was dying.

I have a lot of good cyber-friends out there in cyberspace, and I’m grateful to every one of you. You guys are so nice. And because you are, some of you might be feeling sorry for me today. I totally appreciate that. But, from my end, please know that I’m perfectly okay. By the time I’d hit about twenty years old, I had begun to pretty wholly realize that I’d better come to terms with the fact that my mom emotionally nurturing me was a dream that would never come true. I’ve had thirty years to adjust my psychology to that truth. So I’m okay. You don’t do all the work necessary to truly sever yourself emotionally from your parents to then be emotionally blindsided when one of them dies. (I wrote a bit about this type of thing in Unhappy? Reject Your Loser Parents.) I know this sounds absurdly callous, but the (hard won) truth is my mom’s been dead to me for a long time now. Finding out that she actually did die, five years ago, isn’t, at this point, anything near traumatizing, or even difficult.

So, I’m good. I mean, I’m aware of what’s happened, obviously. But … well, put it this way: I slept fine last night.

Love to you all.

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  • Wow. I am sorry for your loss. I understand what you mean as far as having already comes to terms with the loss. Being an adopted person, I always wonder if I will ever have an opportunity to meet one or both of my birth parents. What I like most about this post is the dysfunction has not led to a statstic. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Thanks for being willing to share your story with us, John. There must be some comfort in closure. Not in a twisted, "good the 'ol broad's gone" way, but in a resolute "and now I know" way. This may seem or even be impossible, but I pray now for complete reconciliation between you and your sister. There are similar disconnects on my father's side of the family, so I know a bit of what you're going through there. God is a God of restoration. Anyways, thanks again for sharing.

  • Thank you, Judy, very much.

  • wow John.

    I have to say it's amazing NOT to know somebody personally, like I don't know you, but to follow their life (sort of) through their posts — as I have had occasion to follow yours (when mine isn't totally too crazy to follow anything else but my nose to my bed).

    This is such an extraordinary thing you've shared, and I can only say, you are the bomb J.S. I think I said that the first time I ever replied to one of your posts, or something. LOL.

    Peace to you and yours man. You are good for our souls.

  • Thank you. My mother, too, was adopted, at five years old. (I learned yesterday that at one point she did locate her birth mother–who, apparently, was a full-blooded Indian. So apparently I'm one-quarter, like, Choctaw.) Anyway, thanks again for sharing.

  • Very sensitive of you, Chase. You're exactly right: the closure, mom-wise, is a very good thing. Thank you.

  • Gosh, Jake-ann, thank you. As you know, I'm a fan of yours, too. Thank you again.

  • Colleen

    John, although the details of your story regarding your mother are different, the feelings expressed are exactly what I have experienced with my own mother. My mother was mentally ill and institutionalized after my father's death. I was put in foster care. I also did not have contact with my mother for over 30 years. I learned she died six years prior through a geneology search; the mental health system does not inform families of anything unless they have legal guardianship. Like you, my mother was dead to me many years before. It was a necessary journey I had to undertake. I am able to survive this dysfunctional pain because of my faith and understanding that we all function imperfectly but are fully and perfectly loved by God. Thank you for sharing this very personal story; it has blessed me as well.

  • Dennis Dawson

    I know you're fine. My sympathy is for your mom, who missed out on 25+ years with one of the finest people I have ever known. But, then again, you are who you are because of choices made primarily by you and, to a lesser extent, by those around you.

  • Linda Chimienti

    In the last three months I have wondered about your mom perhaps more than you have and today's post represents closure for me too. (Still the mystery of your sister, though.) I can't help but sense that your bazaar childhood circumstances have contributed to the unique character that you are today. And I mean that in a good way. The bloggers community is better of for having you just the way you are. BTW my brother suffered that same collapsed lung thing when he was young. He was treated by a Dr. by the name of Die, if you can believe that, but he didn't. So there.

  • Joel

    I love your practicle "process". Due to a deraliction of duty my mother and I are not close. Many times I have rebuked the shame and guilt others have tried to place on me by saying "but she's your mother". She was my mother when she was taking my fathers paycheck to go to the bars and run around with men.

    (when my dad died my mom, saw the responsibilty that my brother took upon himself to make the necessary arraingements… with a sense of entitlement she mentioned something that she wanted for her funeral. My brother was nearby and when "mothers" attention
    was elsewhere I went into cherade/mime mode and gestured driving a car, rolling down the window, reaching into a bag, throwing out its contents.)

    I am as you, indifferent, but I may be a bit more harsh since I actually know my mother. I send her the mandatory mothers day gift, but I don't even know for sure when her birthday is… Poetic sense she left for a long weekend on mine one year when I was 8 or 9.

    What is with these parents? I'm sorry for the loss of your mother many years ago. I hope the "wonderful woman" was able to see and no doubt, take credit for the virtue she passed to her son.

  • Joel

    ugh… my appologies for the spelling errors. I love my iphone but seriously! "Since" you may have been wondering.

  • Dang, Dude. Is it okay if I envy you? Probably not, huh?

  • Dear John, I understand bizarre! I understand losing someone you never really had….more losing the idea of someone…or the hope of the idea of someone. I have similar things in my background. So I will say that I'm sorry, because, even if there isn't a lot of pain now, the void has to be resolved, if it hasn't already. I know you must find great comfort in the fact that you and your wife have such a loving relationship. My husband and my boys are the family I wished I was more a part of growing up. And my family looked in tact to the rest of the world. All of us have some crazy somewhere in our lives. As far as your sister is concerned, people don't often like to return to the scene of a train wreck….except in the most superficial ways. She probably has created her own sense of "normal"….it most likely has nothing to do with you. That's what I tell myself when my brother drops in and out of my life. Take care, and I am sorry for all that you lost. Jerri

  • Beyond love, I think most of us just want to be understood. Many of us "get" John by the way he expresses himself in words, and that hopefully spurs him on to keep writing, in a way that money never will (which is good, because this type of blogging don't pay!).

    And I truly believe that one day, John, you and your mother will understand each other. And that's extremely cool.

  • Whoa: now THAT is a tough story. Yikes. Thank you for sharing it with us, and for your very kind words to me.

  • Wow. Thank you. THANK YOU. (Friends: Dennis here is a fellow with whom I went to HIGH SCHOOL. Long time ago! We've recently reconnected through the wonders of the internet. Yay!)

  • Gosh, thank you, Linda. That's … extremely sweet of you. (Your brother had that, with the lung? God, that's awful. It's called "Devil's grip." That's exactly how it felt. I couldn't BELIEVE the saving of my lung came down to my own personal will. Trying to breathe at all instantly brought me to a wall of pain so absolute that going THROUGH that pain was simply unimaginable. I was, like, "But what about pain killers?" And the doctor said, "No time. Now you've got twelve seconds." Bad, bad, not good.)

  • Listen: I'm not indifferent toward my mother. I DO (or did, I guess) know her, very well. We were even, I would say, abnormally close (until I got old enough to … think twice about that). In a lot of ways it's my anger toward her that … I make work for me. You can imagine–well, clearly you can–how AWFUL a mother/person she had to be for me to be able to actually emotionally detach from her.

    It's not like I ever lost sight of that … awfulness. How could I? How does anyone with a bad parent? But anger is … an active thing. But you get angry enough, LONG enough, and eventually–if you're careful, if you very methodically think and feel you're way through it—start to genuinely detach.

    Anyway, that whole "but she's your mother" crap DOES make me angry. It's such … insensitive bullshit. And I HATE that nonsense you're always hearing about how a mother will do anything to protect her babies, and how strong and noble a mother's instincts are, and that whole … range of crap. SOME mothers have those wonderful instincts; SOME mothers will do anything to protect their babies. Some mothers throw their babies into dumpsters. Some mothers drink themselves stupid and whore around. Some mothers beat their babies when no one's around, and so on.

    Anyway, righto. Thank you. Keep in touch.

  • I'll let you know if I ever become such a loser that I give a crap if anyone misspells stuff they're kind enough to leave as comments on my blog.

  • No, it is. Totally.

  • Jeri, you said, "I understand bizarre! I understand losing someone you never really had." I had her; my mom and I were exceptionally close throughout my childhood and all of my teen years.

    And, yes, I am deeply grateful, and for the last 30 years have been .. insanely comforted by the emotional, intellectual, and psychological genius of my wife. There's just … no other word for it. She's basically unbelievable.

    Congratulations on the family you've made for yourself! That's wonderful. Thank you so much for your kind words to me.

  • Wow …

    I really don't know how to react, except that I'm glad you're okay. I guess you did the mourning and processing of her departure thirty years ago, huh?

    Still … wow.

    Thanks for sharing this, John.

  • Gosh, that's awful nice of you to say. Thank you.

    And this probably sounds … too nitpicky/defensive, but, for what it's worth: I'm confident I understand my mother right. I mean … I do know her. Good lord, if there's one person in this world that I know, it's my mother. And I'm pretty sure she understands me, too. She always knew who I am.

  • No, not 30 years ago. I STARTED about that long ago. I'd say it took me 20 years to work through it.

    Thank you, Ken. You've been a great friend of my blog for a long time now. God bless you for it.

  • I think I remembered your story wrong. I forgot you were older when she disappeared. I really don't understand how a mother could abandon her children…especially since you were exceptionally close.

    I do know that there are some people who can only allow others to love them…but can't love back and who never really feel loved no matter how much you love them. I don't know how a mother could go to bed at night and close her eyes and sleep without hugging her children goodnight! I do know that you and your sister did not deserve to be treated that way….no matter what. It's good that you've come to a place of compassion and forgiveness.

  • Lisa

    And then you have the kids/teenagers who literally hate and want to throw their parents under the bus for not let them stay out till 3 am.

    If they only heard real life stories like these.

    Thank you for sharing John.


  • jennie

    Thank you for once again giving us an inside look at your life. As a mother who cherishes my role, I find it hard to fathom what your mom did. But as a human being who is learning, as i finally "grow up," more about human nature and the grace of God, I feel bad that whatever troubled her caused her to miss out on watching you and your sister grow up. Sounds like she at least found some measure of happiness with her husband. But most of all, I marvel at the fact that you worked through so much and allowed God to have His way with you! And in turn give all us a chance to read your observations and insights on life…amazing grace.

  • Bren

    Hey Jon,

    Just read your post about your mom.. It sounds like you let go and made peace with this a while ago..

    Im sorry for what she wasnt for you in your life, and that you had to let go to move on.. I did too. My childhood was very dark and abusive. So letting go was needed to have a shot at a good life as an adult.. I get it.. ((((hug)))

  • Judy

    John, even though you didn’t have a June Cleaver type mother and you weren’t close, I’m sorry for your loss. And, I’m glad you’re okay.

  • That's so sad about your mom abandoning you that way. I put myself in your situation as a little boy and could cry. 🙁

  • Greta Sheppard

    Gulp!…. my throat has an ache from the lump in it . . . no pat answers or slick cliche's here, John…just to say you are one remarkable man with many virtues…mother or no mother!

  • Not defensive at all, obviously I'm the one being too presumptuous about how well you know your mother!

  • L. Greenberg

    Dear John,

    Unlike you, I lived with both of my parents until I married (45 yrs. ago) and “thought” that my house/home was just like everyone elses. Boy was I ever WRONG… when I went off to college, I learned really quickly that my home life was NOT the norm… I tried until I was 50 yrs. old. to please these people that put huge demands on me and never once looked to see how or if they could help… with, my children, that we seriously ill etc. Instead… I was told that I must have done something to make them as sick as they were!

    My younger syblings never GOt it… I did protect them most of the time… and sometimes even had to correct the lies my parents told them about me and my family. They did decide to tell me that my mother died, hoping I would not come to the funeral… I actually learned she died because I had a thought that something was wrong and learned myself when she died. They didn’t tell me when my father died. I learned AFTER he was buried… and you know what… I am fine with it all…. I have lost all of my family and it is fine with me. I only want to have the family that WANTS to be with me anyway and there are LOTS of them. My Grandchildren also fill the holes in my heart. And that is a good thing. You never think that these awful things happen in “nice” families… But, my question is… What is a nice family?!?!?!?!?

  • Joy

    John, I just said a prayer of thanks to God for giving you some peace. Thank you for being so open. It makes me admire the fact that you are such an articulate writer even more! It also inspires me to be more honest in my own writing. All this is my bumbling way of saying God Bless You!

  • Richard Lubbers

    I read your account of Mother's Day last year, and I realized that you came through some difficult s*** as a kid. You remain one of my favorite writers, Christian or otherwise, and I want you to know that I'm sure I would enjoy being in your company. You are one of my favorite "un-met" friends.

    Knowing God as a parent can be hard for those who had (have) terrible parents. You're proof that He always holds on to those choose relationship with Him, even those who try His patience, as you say.

    It does us no good to have others feel sorry for us. I will tell you congratulations for making your life what it is. Your readers appreciate the gift that you are.

  • Latoya

    WOW. I am sorry to hear of her death John. I know you didnt, but I had some hope that one day before she died you would meet up with her and somehow become friends. Does your sister feel sad about it? or did she get over the whole thing long ago as you did?

  • Jennifer

    I know the cliche of the phrase everything happens for a reason. I live the cliche several times a year. For some reason I think the path that you would have lead with your mother by your side perhaps would not have lead you to become part of my family- The Family of God. For that I am grateful. I’m glad you found peace.

  • Den

    John, I am sorry to hear that she passed away without the two of you seeing each other one last time. However, I understand that her death isn’t difficult or painful for you because you’ve emotionally severed ties a long time ago. I get that, I’ve been there. I am glad though that in spite of all the difficulties you’ve gone through in life, you’ve survived & thrived.

    I wish you all the best…

  • Linda Chimienti

    This is an interesting ancestral aside but I’m still struck by the irony of your mom “locating her birth mother, meanwhile, hiding under a rock from you.

  • What a stunning, shocking story! Without the Internet, I wonder if you would have ever learned of her passing. Although she gave you birth, she obviously did not have the ability to mother you.

    My best friend had a similar mother. Although she did not disappear physically like your mother did, she might as well have. She did not buy groceries, prepare meals, do laundry, clean the house, take her child to the doctor or dentist , did not buy him clothes or shoes, she did absolutely nothing to care for him. She paid no attention to his needs. And in her old age, he cared for her until she died. I witnessed the interaction once. She was self-centered, demanding and cruel.

    And when she died, he (like you) did not experience a sense of deep loss. He had come to terms long, long ago with her inability to be a mother. He told me the overwhelming feeling he had was one of relief at last.

    I, on the other hand, find his story and your's heart-breaking. How I wish that you and he and all the little children who have been abandoned by their sick and broken parents, could know the loving care that they deserve.

    thank God for the love that fills your life today, and for your ability to accept and cherish that love.

    Sorry I'm so slow on posting this comment….


  • Dee Robertson

    John, I know this might sound strange, but it was very cathartic to read this blog. My mom has not transitioned, passed away, died or whatever, but we are estranged. She was never loving, kind, or the nurturing mother I kept hearing everyone else had. She pretty much beat us, cussed us, and hated all eight of her kids–of which I am the youngest. I was abused–at least emotionally and verbally–until two years ago. I was 45-years-old and finally allowed myself to be loved by myself, my God, and my husband.

  • Carla

    Wow, John. I've spent the last two days reading many of your posts, and was taken aback by your transparency here. I had one of those moms that so many have posted about here… paranoid schizophrenic, manic/depresive, alcoholic. I am 54 and she has been dead since I was 18 (died of self-destruction, like my dad, who died when I was 12). I, too, have made my peace with her, and with my memories of her. Mostly I just pity her, for she knew no better. Her mom was the same. Her dad left her when she was 5. And although I have a wonderful family now, with two children in full-time ministry, and a husband who loves me and the Lord, I lived my mom's life earlier in my own life, being married the first time at 15 to a 21 year old abuser who got me pregnant 5 months after I got out of my last foster home. So I have a daughter, almost 40 now, who is living my former life, my mother's life, my grandmother's life. She is childless, and I am glad for that, for she doesn't know the transfomation that Christ brings, and any child she had would likely be lost to the same destruction.

    What shall we do with all this? I kept this part of my life from all but my husband and my sister (who manifests the "family curse" with manic depression and extreme paranoia), until just a few years ago. My own transparency about these things is still new enough that I am shocked by your transparency, I think. It's good you bring these things up. It allows others to begin, or continue, to work through their own pains. It helps, like Jerri Harrington said above, to release the "hope of the idea of someone". And I haven't read "Unhappy? Reject Your Loser Parents" yet, though I suspect it speaks to these things.

    This is where I find my hope now: "For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of Him who has subjected the same in hope. Because the creature itself shall also be delivered from the bondage of this corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God." Romans 8:20-21

    Keep writing, John. It's a gift from the Lord that builds up the rest of us.

  • John, I found out my father died literally during his funeral. I was living overseas at the time. Although my father did not disappear, he and my Mom divorced. He was an alchoholic and an emotionally absent Dad. Still, I loved him. I suppose we love our parents regardless most of the time.

  • Jill

    I get it. Most of it. The part I don't get is how abandoning your young children figures in to qualifying as an amazing woman. What kind of emotional and moral disconnect do you have to have?

    I get being a failure, or just being imperfect, or not being able to handle things, or whatever. What I don't get is how you receive someone who has made an error this egregious and call her "amazing".

    My SIL has abandoned her four children. The youngest was 6 or so when she left. The oldest 16. They all needed her. She's not amazing. She even contacts them somewhat regularly but she's still not amazing. At all. My other SIL (her sister) has abandoned her children as well, twice, for several months each time. Also not amazing. It's generational, too. Their mother abandoned a couple of her families.

    The emotional disconnect reminds me of the one that goes on in my own family. We miss our cherished grandmother. She was spry, fun, engaging, intelligent and wonderful. Except that she also knowingly allowed her husband to molest her grandchildren. Talk about moral whiplash. No wonder I was screwed up till I was thirty (implying that I am no longer screwed up).

    But me and my cousin? We're amazing. I realize my arm just broke patting myself on the back. But she and I have both rejected generations of divorce on both sides of each of our families to remain married long term (>20 years each). We have rejected generational child-sacrifice and protected our own children from abuse. What I see what happens elsewhere, I have to accept that while we are far, far from perfect, we may very well qualify as amazing. Cheers to overcomers everywhere.

  • Cheers to you, Jill, and no two ways about it.

  • Jill, you are one of my heroes. I'm imprinting your full name, Amazing Jill, into my long term memory. Seriously.

  • Miss Clever

    I didn’t speak to my mom for six years. I would still be NOT speaking to her if it weren’t for how financially supportive she has been for my 21 yr old son. When she came back into my life, I discovered that I can finally have a relationship with her…not as my mother, but as a person. During those six years, I faced the realization that I was never going to have the kind of mom who was nurturing and supportive. I got all my nurturing and support from other people’s mothers. After my six year hiatus, I “got it” that I didn’t need her to be my mother. I’m a happy adult, with two beautiful, talented children, and a fantastic husband. I am a grown up. Now that I don’t long for her approval, love, or attention, I’m not disappointed when I don’t get those things. It’s very freeing. We actually have a decent relationship now.

  • iowawaltz

    I just now read this entry. I have to say, I'm a little jealous. Which is pretty silly and self-centered of me, because I have a mother who really loves me, who stayed home not just to take care of me, but to nurture my intellect and creativity; a mother who has done everything in her power to be a good mom. Unfortunately, she's also full of passive-aggressive anger, wielding guilt trips and paranoia (and sometimes downright cruelty, always veiled with self-pity) as her weapons of choice. So my relationship with her is like being caught in this terrible push and pull of good and bad, and sometimes I fantasize about just never talking to her again. But I think that, in my case, that would be the wrong thing to do. So yeah, maybe just a smidge jealous.

  • I'm not sure what you're jealous about (though I certainly find winning the candor of that admission).

  • iowawaltz response

    Your jealousy makes total sense, iowawaltz.

    Your mom is malicious and manipulative but has purposefully done her level, albeit, abysmal, best to see you through to a healthy adulthood of opportunity and self esteem. She gets a solid B for effort and but a D- for actions. You, being a compassionate person and appreciating the depth of her intent feel obliged to round up to a C+ or B-. The hell of being near her is antagonizingly painful… once you get home. The good she has done in your life is so clear. Unfortunately, emotional scars are not so easy to quantify, are they? If only YOUR mom had pulled such a significant abdication of parental responsibility, you could shut off this painful relationship without guilt.

    Round down, iowawaltz. Death by a thousand paper cuts is no less excusable than by a single blow.

    Find a good counselor and back away.

  • Brett Deiser

    I can sympathize with your relationship with your mom. My mother was some sort of bi-polar borderline personality and when she passed I shed no tears at her funeral as I had cried all my tears for her as a child in her care.

  • Wow. That says it all, Brett—and very powerfully.