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My Mother's Death Taught Me a Lesson I Wish I'd Learned Much Earlier

It wasn't until she died that I came to understand our complicated relationship

By Francine Russo

“Her mother is dying, and she’s visiting colleges!” my sister exclaimed to me over the phone, and I imagined her glancing heavenward, as if she and divine forces were in cahoots.

What she said was true, though.

My sister was in our hometown of Philadelphia, and I was taking my 16-year-old daughter on a summer tour of New York State colleges, a few hours from our home in Manhattan. Mom was in a nursing home in Philly, and the doctors had told us she could die at any time. This had been the case from the day she left the hospital 10 months earlier, too ill to return home. 

The previous October, when Mom was still in the hospital, she and I had said what we thought was our final goodbye. Despite enduring a lifetime of her chilly, judgmental “love,” I still harbored a tiny hope that she would finally say or do something to make me feel totally and unconditionally loved.

(MORE: Saying Goodbye to an Unloving Mother)

Not a chance — not even when she believed it was the last time she’d ever see me, her older daughter. “I hope you have a good life” was all she said, and distantly at that. I left the hospital feeling destroyed.


Believing I’d never see her again forced me to accept that I would never get the kind of motherly love I needed: not from her, not ever. So I grieved then — for her, for the love I never received — as if she were already dead.
Except she wasn’t. So over the next 10 months, I went back to visit a few more times. I felt emotionally detached, and I had no idea what to say or how to act.
Each time I visited, I noticed how she was more abrupt and demanding with my father than ever: “Get me some water! Give me a tissue!” Dad, as always, obeyed. Inexplicably, he adored the woman no one else could stand, including her own children.
So on that August day, I was enjoying a precious weekend with my college-bound daughter in Ithaca, N.Y., when my sister called to report that yet again my mother had nearly died but hadn’t — and to lay on the guilt. She was good at that. She’d learned it from the master, our mother.
In my family, if you didn’t do what the group thought you should do, you were a bad person. And if you didn’t “feel” the right things — I didn’t cry when my mother's horrible mother died, for example — you were a terrible and uncaring. That was usually me, and now it was me in spades: My mother was slowly dying, I wasn’t acting the way a good daughter should, I wasn’t there with them.
But I never bought into their program and always had plenty of defenses at the ready. Of course I was looking at colleges. That’s what a mother did, especially a (widowed) mother for her (fatherless) daughter. How could my sister understand? She always said she didn’t have kids because she didn't like them.
At the funeral, my sister wasn’t speaking to me, and my father wouldn’t look me in the eye. But as I watched the two of them sob and cling to each other, I started to understand what a terrible ordeal they’d been through, with no support from me. I was devastated; all my assumptions about myself suddenly felt shaky.
I spent the next several years soul-searching — and researching. In therapy, I explored why I had been unable to get past my hostility toward my mother. As a reporter, I looked outside myself, interviewing other adult children of aging parents, because I saw that a whole generation was suddenly confronting profound and troubling feelings as their parents aged and died.

(MORE: How to Heal a Rift with Your Adult Child)
Eventually I was able to make some peace with myself and with my family. I was more present for my father, calling and visiting and doing more to help him. I also tried to make amends to my sister, repeatedly asking what she needed. But it was only after my father died, three years later, that she and I could finally talk about what had happened with our mother.
“Mom was so sick and so miserable,” she said. “One day, she told me, ‘When it’s your time to die, die fast.’”

Then my sister said something that blew my mind. “I couldn’t stand the woman, but it was hard to see her suffering like that. And no matter how much time I spent with her, she was always asking for you: ‘When is Francine coming?’”
Hearing this, I felt a stab of compassion for my mother. And I became achingly sad that her calls for me went unanswered. Why hadn’t I heard them at the time? Had my sister told me this before and I blocked it out? Or, unconsciously, had she failed to share them?
When I was interviewing people for my book, They’re Your Parents, Too!, I asked a hospice priest what he thought accounted for the difference between the families that came together over a parent’s deathbed and those whose sniping got worse. “The ones who fight?” he said. “They think it’s all about them. They don’t realize, This is about Mom. She’s the one who’s dying.”
Focusing on her, not me, had never occurred to me, and I started to see my behavior in a whole new light. I had stayed away because I hadn’t been able to get past the pain of having a mommy who didn’t love me enough. I hadn’t been willing, or able, to get beyond my personal resentments and see my mother not just as my mother, but as a vulnerable human being — likable or not — who was dying and needed something from me.

I now realize that all I had to do back then was show up — and treat her with compassion. That's what a grown-up does, but I was still a hurt little girl.

Francine Russo Journalist and speaker Francine Russo, the author of They're Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents' Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy, covered the boomer beat for Time magazine for nearly a decade and also wrote for The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Redbook, Family Circle and The Village Voice, where she was a longtime theater critic.  Read More
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