A Wound Needs a Witness: Mothering in the Before Times and in the Present

By: Hazel Katherine Larkin

Content Warning: This post discusses mother-child estrangement, suicide intervention, mental health/wellness, loss, and grief. Please witness it if you are able but take care as you approach it.

“How’s your son?” or “Do you have kids?” are two seemingly innocuous questions that I have come to dread over the last two years. In earlier times, I used to see such inquiries as opportunities for catching up with a friend or bonding with a new acquaintance over shared mothering experiences, but now they fill me with anxiety. I don’t know how to respond honestly without dropping weight into the conversation that places an undue burden on my conversational partner, and so I usually just end up awkwardly fumbling through a vague series of half-truths before managing to change to subject.

But here’s the truth.

I lost my son, my only child, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Outside of family, close friends, and a few select colleagues, I haven’t really told anyone. I realize that must sound strange, which I suppose is one of the reasons I feel compelled to write about it. I want to explain not just the strangeness of estrangement, but I also want to resist its alienating force, the way it pushes you into the corner, entangled and alone with your grief, the way it renders you silent.

As an academic who studies both communication and motherhood, I naturally turned to the literature to try to make sense of this situation. What I mean is that some two years after the estrangement began, when I was finally at the point where I could bear to face the possibility of a future without my son, I turned to the literature.

According to a recent study, 1 in 10 mothers is estranged from at least one of her adult children. Despite the relatively high incidence of this situation, there is little research about parent-child estrangement and hardly any consideration for the way that the gendered norms and expectations surrounding mothering and motherhood might complicate such relational experiences. While I personally have some theories about the latter, my aim here isn’t analytical. Instead, I offer a glimpse of my story because as a feminist scholar, I believe that our experiences as mothers matter. I share mine in solidarity with the many other mothers who find themselves without their children for whatever reason, and for any mom anywhere who sometimes struggles to mother.

(COVID) Time and Event
I remember the day it happened vividly, but not clearly or in a linear way. Instead, I recall it in intensive bursts of feelings and flashes of moments.

It’s July 2020. We are knee-deep into the first summer of a global pandemic with no established life-saving treatments, no vaccine, and no end in sight. Most of the world is still in lockdown and various social systems show signs of failing. People have lost their lives, lost their jobs, and incurred other personal crises that cannot be adequately addressed.The present is heavy; the future uncertain.

My son comes down the stairs, brooding, angry, pained. To an outsider, the broad-shouldered, towering figure with his thick, black beard and sunken, ringed eyes might appear older than his 22 years. I can see this, even as his mom, and, also, I see a boy. My child. He is suffering, and I in turn feel pain in my chest.

I want to heal the hurt with a kiss like I could when he was little. I want to tell him everything is going to be okay and then have the power to make it so. I used to have such powers. But that was all before.

Before he was grown.
Before his heart was broken and he was hopeless.
Before COVID.
The “before times,” as they say.

The young man, my child, sits down across from me on the couch. There is a verbal exchange between us that is charged and tense. I feel anger directed toward me even though much of it is not about me, and I do my best to respond compassionately and not defensively. Because I am his mother.

And so, I mother.
I search his tone, gestures, and words for clues about his state.
(I mother.)
I search my heart for the best and right way to respond.
(I mother.)
What can I say to comfort him? How do I guide him to a different place, offer perspective?
(I mother.)

I fail.

He tells me about his plan. He is on a mission to visit loved ones, one by one, to say goodbye.

What followed is a blur of phone calls and events. A conversation with a counselor at the National Suicide Hotline, another with a crisis social worker. An intervention that went terribly awry and involved all the wrong people––police, non-behavioral medical personnel: an outcome that seems inevitable given the many shortcomings of the U.S. mental health care system. Then there were the frantic, angry texts from my son, the final one from the hospital. I betrayed him; we were over.

It was traumatic.
But, my son is alive.
He’s just not with me anymore. Ever.

The (M)Other Part of the Story
There are a multitude of relational experiences a person might have as a mother. For some, being a mother is their ultimate calling, their purpose: joy. Other women experience ambivalence and regret after having children, while others opt not to pursue the option at all. My own experience was complicated.

As a young woman, motherhood wasn’t one of my aspirations. My teenage pregnancy was unplanned, but the real shock was the impulse I felt to pursue the pregnancy and parent a child. On the one hand, I was terrified. Uneducated and poor, I knew this was a risky enterprise for both myself and the potential person that was brewing within me, but wow were the possibilities of that potential powerful! They filled me with a kind of wonder and desire I had not yet known. So, I moved forward making a sacred promise to this future child that I would do everything in my being to give them a good life, to care for them. They would be loved. They would be safe. They would, I hoped, be happy.

For two decades it was just the two of us. Our life as young single mother and child was a struggle much of the time, but it was also miraculous. Nothing could have prepared me for the sense of wonder and depth of love I experienced as my son’s mom. He was an absolute force in my life. He was at the center of every decision. His presence made me strive harder and helped me to be braver in the face of adversity than I ever would have were I just looking out for myself. I imagine that many other moms might feel similarly.

It is difficult to understand what it means to be a mother now, to be me, with the disappearance of the one person who has been the most constant presence in my life for the last twenty-plus years. What is a mother without a child? How can one lay claim as a mother if there is no one to mother?

It is equally as difficult not to feel like I have completely failed as a mother when this loss was not the result of a random accident or medical tragedy; rather, it was, is, an intentional decision. When my son was small, I couldn’t turn around without hearing some version of someone telling me how I was “doing it wrong,” and now each day of silence from my son affirms that, as far as he is concerned, I was.

“A Wound Needs a Witness”
Estrangement is a complicated loss, the magnitude of which I think is difficult to comprehend unless you’ve experienced it. There are no cultural rituals with which to mark it publicly or grieve it collectively. There is no closure. I often feel as if some expect that I can fill the void in my heart with the hope of reconciliation. After all, this person is still alive, existing on the planet, so maybe things will change.

Maybe. But the prospect of reconciliation is a heavy hope that feels weightier with each passing day. Every time someone tells me to hold onto it, I think they must not realize how it is pulling me under. The mandate for hope also seems to require that I relinquish my right to grieve this loss fully, to acknowledge its vastness and, well, perhaps its permanence. But my heart knows the impossibility of the healing that needs to happen: I need to let (him) go.

My son still speaks to other members of my family, and for this I am thankful, but it also means the experience of loss is mine alone, which is not just lonely but isolating. And that brings me to the other realization I’ve had about mending this wound: I can’t do it alone. No one can. Though, for a long time, I think I thought I could. Or perhaps I thought I had to. Because I am used to it. Because I mother.

Mothers endure losses of varying kinds silently on their own: miscarriage, estrangement, loss of autonomy. The social expectations of motherhood are often what keeps us quiet. Mothers are supposed to know how to mother naturally and expected to do it perfectly and joyfully. Struggles, gaffs, mistakes and even miscarriages––things beyond our control––are too often seen as personal failings and inadequacies. On top of that, suffering itself, from childbirth forward, is in fact an expected part of the job, a small price to pay for the glory and privilege of being a mother. We keep quiet because the price for speaking is high, but so is the cost of silence. Mothers suffer losses and the toll of those losses is compounded by the fact that they suffer alone. It’s bullshit. It’s harmful. It must stop.

Loss is an inevitable albeit tragic part of the human experience. Every human experience. Likewise, our salvation is collective. We need one another to heal. I don’t know what you lost during COVID, maybe not your child, but I know that anyone reading this lost something and that all the research coming out is telling us that mothers, especially, lost. I am interested in how we might open-up spaces for collective care and repair. Are you?

It has been two years, two months, and one day since I lost my son; that is also how long it has taken me to find a way to put the experience on the page. For 791 days I have grappled, not just with the loss itself, but with the prospect of talking about my feelings with others, even other mothers. My grief, most days, is still raw. I miss him with my entire being. Life is not the same. And I am being honest when I say that I feel less hopeful about reconciliation, but that doesn’t mean I feel hopeless in all ways. I feel promise in the possibility that you are reading this. I feel better knowing that you know.

Thank you for seeing me. Thank you for listening. Thank you for being a witness.

Gilligan, Megan, et al. “Estrangement Between Mothers and Adult Children: The Role of Norms and Values.” Journal of Marriage & Family, vol. 77, no. 4, Aug. 2015, pp. 908–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12207

Holman Jones, Stacy. “Writing a Hard and Passing Rain: Autotheory, Autoethnography, and Queer Futures.” Gender Futurity, Intersectional Autoethnography: Embodied Theorizing from the Margins, edited by Amber L. Johnson and Loretta LeMaster, Routledge, 2020, p. 250.

Scharp, Kristina M. “‘You’re Not Welcome Here’: A Grounded Theory of Family Distancing.” Communication Research, vol. 46, no. 4, June 2019, pp. 427–55. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650217715542.