This article first appeared in USA Weekend, October 10-12, 1997 and is reprinted with permission of the author and the publisher.
Last month the world lost two of its best known and best loved mothers. Mother Teresa never had children of her own, but she was the archetypal mother, a symbol of compassion and nurturance who captured the world's imagination for her work with the poor and the sick.
And, of course, Princess Diana, a "real" mother who also cared for the suffering and who left behind two young sons, Princes William and Harry.
My study of boys who lost their mothers at an early age suggests that the serious "grief work" comes later, typically decades later. So in the years to come, but perhaps not until their late 30s, 40s or even 50s, these two English lads will have their work cut out for them.
But even as boys mature, the work of grieving--and grief is real
work--does not come easily. Men have difficulty with mourning in general
and, most painfully of all, a mother's death. For a man, the death of his
mother may be the most difficult of all life's losses to fully face and
feel. The death of a father is "easier" because our father feelings are
more accessible to our conscious mind than are our mother feelings.
|Mourning is becoming aware,
going through and getting past,
the varied feelings we have toward a loved one,
feelings that were there all along
but tend to be called forth dramatically by death.
Mourning, after all, is simply becoming aware, pondering deeply, going through and getting past, the varied feelings we have toward a loved one, feelings that were there all along but tend to be called forth dramatically by death. For our fathers we have learned to name those feelings, whether they are anger, loss, betrayal, admiration--the possibilities are endless.
But with our mothers, the feelings have deeper roots. Their origins go back to infancy, even to the womb, long before the onset of language. They remain inchoate, often blurred and fuzzy, as well as ambivalent and suppressed. That is why it is not easy, even for an adult man, to look at his relationship with his mother with a clear eye.
Compared with women, men tend to be less in touch with their emotions, particularly with their deep-seated feelings of sadness and loss. For many men it is still not "manly" to cry, to let all their feelings hand out. Unfortunately, anger is too often the emotion of choice.
|...men tend to be less in touch
with their emotions, particularly with the deep- seated feelings of sadness
It is still not "manly" to cry,
to let all their feelings hand out.
Unfortunately, anger is too often
the emotion of choice.
The death of a mother also reopens the big wounds of childhood, the time when a boy had to let go of this mother, his first love, in order to "grow up and be a man." Girls grow up to become women without such an abrupt break, and for that reason their relationships with their mothers--difficult, even stormy, as they can be in the externals of life are not so deeply conflicted. This may be why so many men, even in mid-life and old age, are unable to "return" to the mother after that youthful separation, to accept her gifts and acknowledge her great influence as well as their common bond, and instead remain locked in relations of alienation, distance or routinized obligation, often interlaced with anger, guilt, resentment, and disappointment on both sides.
Such an outcome is not likely to be the fate of heirs to the British throne, because they were still enmeshed in loving relationships with their mother at the time of her death. It is true that mourning will be especially painful because of the way Diana died without time for her sons to say good bye, for their mother to bestow her blessings.
Centuries back, in the Middle ages, death was omnipresent and people did not fear it is as much as we moderns do. For the privileged strata, a "Good Death" was celebrated as the high point of a good life. In Drawings of the Good Death, a patriarch lies on his deathbed, at home, surrounded by family, friends, pets and the trappings of power and possessions. This was the time to impart wisdom, above all to say ones' good byes.
Today, we wonder what will happen to William and Harry as they divide their time between such all-male environments as boarding schools and their father's home. How much of their mother's spirit will they be able to carry with them as the exigencies of their father's temperament and the austerity of the House of Windsor become more and more insistent?
For example, will William and Harry be able to carry on their mother's legacy of social justice? This was a matter of great concern to her, as her brother emphasized in his moving eulogy.
I suspect, from my years of studying men and mothers, that Diana's spirit, like the spirits of most mothers, will not be easily expunged. Boys can grow up deeply connected to their mothers whether these mothers remain alive or passes on long ago.
This may be somewhat easier for boys and men in the Untied Kingdom. Although the British are justly famous for their stiff upper lips and their ability to keep their emotions under wraps, they are not ashamed, as Americans too often are, of being close to their mothers.
In the United States, we feel a conflict between fully embracing
our mothers, wholeheartedly expressing our love for them, and being a "real
man." Why are we so afraid of being labeled "mama's boys," or cowed by
vulgar Freudian notions of Oedipal complexes? Men in other countries around
the world do not carry such a burden.
|Many male African-American students
have proudly brought their mothers
to my university classes
and told me that
their mothers were their best friends,
something I have never heard from a single white male student in 35 years of teaching.
One day in the future, it is possible that the expression "Like Mother, like son," will be as unexceptional as its counterpart, "Like father, like son," and that people will be able to say of a boy, without raising eyebrows (as people in England have been saying about Prince William): "That boy is the spitting image of his mother."
As the world continues to mourn the loss of the charismatic Princess
Diana, let us honor the love between her and her two sons, a love that
will sustain them long after her untimely death and may even encourage
us ordinary mortals to honor our own mothers' spirits.
About the Author:
For two decades, sociologist Bob Blauner, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley has taught courses on men and grieving. The article was an adaptation from the book, Our Mother's Spirits: Great Writers on the Death of Mothers and the Grief of Men.
Mothers' Spirits: Great Writers on the Death of Mothers & the Grief
of Men by
Bob Blauner. Published by HarperCollins Published, October 1997.