04 May 2016

When You Still Need Your Mom and She’s Not There Anymore

I dropped my aunt and uncle off at the airport on Tuesday and then cried so hard as I drove away that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep the car pointed in the right direction.

I was completely stunned by my own mascara streaked face in the rear view mirror.

They spent five days with us. On the tale end of a trip from South Africa to the States.

My aunt is my mom’s youngest sister. She’s like a keyhole into all the literary references and keenly intelligent reading of life that I’ve missed out on the last two decades, since my mom died. There she was – this walking, talking, laughing, living version of my mother with still all her own passion and compassion and enthusiastic whoops for my sons as they whacked the baseball on Saturday.


You forget what it’s like to live with family around the corner.

You forget what it’s like to live with a mother there to give your daughter butterfly kisses at night.

And then you remember. And it’s terrible because it’s so good.

You remember over shared sinks of dirty dishes or folding the laundry or staying up till midnight over endless pots of tea because there’s just so much that has to be said, so much that has to be caught up. Because who else would be so honestly interested in the ins and outs of what your children said or did or struggled with this month?

Who else would want to know all the details? Who else would relish the lives of a 10, 8 and 5 year old that are lived on such an ordinary scale and that constantly strike you as miraculous? Who else can we share these stories with if not with our mothers?

I watched my kids remember this reality that they’ve so rarely lived.

They kept forgetting what to call her – was she grandma or ouma or an aunt? Was she my mother? Whatever she was, she was family, she was bone of their bones and blood of their blood and they curled themselves into the hollow of her arms and set up camp. Comfortably. Familiarly.

This is what family does. It’s the safe place you can fall asleep at night without keeping one eye open. It’s seeing a row full of people in the bleachers and knowing they’re there for you. It’s a front row at the ballet recital all taking your picture and waving and blowing kisses proudly because you belong to them.

We belonged for five days.

It was terrible when it ended.

We aren’t built for separation. Good-bye must be the loneliest word and it split my soul right open on the exit ramp from Dulles International Airport. One minute we were unloading their suitcases and the next I was driving away from some of the core people who make me, me.

It was like driving away from myself.

I’m a third culture kid who is comfortable just about anywhere but never completely at home in any one place. There are bits and pieces of me strewn between countries and accents and languages and it can make my outlines start to feel blurry. I smudge into the landscape of Americana and I can fit, I can say the right words – “trunk” instead of “boot”, “windscreen” instead of “windshield”, “corn” instead of “mealie” or “can’t” instead of “cahn’t.” But it makes me tired.

It can make you tired to always work at making sure the edges of who you are blend comfortably into your surroundings.

My aunt walked through the door and swooped me up in her arms and at the same time took the lid off the box I am so good at fitting into and invited me back out again. All those parts of me I so easily forget to remember. The smell of the Karoo and the feel of a million blackjacks prickling into your socks. The wild eye of the storm up on the highveld and the dust that grits up your nose in winter.

There is a language that runs deeper than words and if we lean in we can hear it again as it echoes up from the places and the people who have shaped us, formed us. I spoke that language again for five days and I felt my outline grow solid again in all those spots that have faded the longer I live away from South Africa.

Yes, America runs in my blood too. I have birthed children here. But it’s not one or the other. It’s both, and.

We are all the sounds and sights and pains of where we come from. We are our mother’s daughters.

And mine’s been gone much longer than I’ve lived away from South Africa.

But the heart of her walked back in the side door on a dark, late Thursday night and I opened my arms and found myself home again.

But five days isn’t enough.

We motherless daughters, we understand the kind of homesick that transcends places and is rooted in people.

Five days will never be enough.

There is nothing that can fill up the sucking, empty vacuum that losing a mother leaves. There is no pretty prayer or kind word, there is no book or meal or sermon that can possibly make up for the loss of a mother. There is no life lesson or happy ending that somehow makes it right. And I know many of you have lost your moms in ways as similar or different than mine. Many of you may have mothers still living who still feel just as lost to you.

All I can say is, I know.

And that I believe in a God who doesn’t make things better. He makes things new.

My sons asked me this week if I wished my mom was still alive. I do. Dear God, yes I wish I could ask her a million questions about her parenting choices, tell her the times I wish she’d done it differently, and then I wish she could just be sitting here with me watching Blue Bloods because I know she’d love it.

But then, what would I be wishing away?

I’m stranded here between two lives and they feel as vastly separate as the two continents who have become part of my name.

So I look at my sons who wear my mother’s eyes and I tell them, “No. I wouldn’t undo it. Even if I could.”

Because I believe in a God who makes all things new. As terrible as the remaking process might be. As much as I may weep off my mascara in the front seat of an old minivan littered with chocolate wrappers and the car seat that always comes apart, God help me I wouldn’t undo any of it.

Because all that grief has made a new thing in me.

All that loss has made a new beginning in this new family that laughs and farts and eats dinner messily around the dining room table together in a new country I never imagined would become my own.

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Revelation 21:5 (NIV)

I am both terrified and comforted by these words. I have felt the pain of becoming new. It is not easy. But it has been good. I don’t say that lightly. I don’t say that as some kind of pat church answer. I say that because in my own life it has been true.

I desperately need my mother and the scar of her loss has given me new eyes to see the world and the people in it in a new way.

I desperately need my mother and God has never failed once to give me her arms or her heart or her words through the women He has poured into my life to mother me.

I desperately need my mother and God has given me three children who have broken apart every single thing I thought I knew about her and put all those shattered expectations back into the kind of stained glass story I never would have written.

I desperately need my mother and for five days I heard the echo of her life so loudly in our house again.

I don’t think God is ever done making us new. As much as we might resist it. As much as we might resent it. He wants more for me. He wants more for you.

He reminds me of my mother.



{ Leave a Comment }
  1. 1

    Yep. You did it again. :-) Sighing deep and feeling your pain, sister. So grateful for you ministry of words.

  2. 3

    Lisa-Jo. I just recently found your Instagram and clicked over to this blog post. My heart was pounding as I read your words….not only of how your aunt’s presence seems to fill a hole (mine does too, & never long enough), but then who knew we were both aTCKs? With family scattered globally. And Dulles is your airport too? And I spent my formative years in RSA? Whoa. But even more, I must your words as a believer hit me so deeply and profoundly. He has made me new too! How have I not seen this? In this hard season, the one of anniversaries of loss, motherless daughter ‘day,’ and Mother’s Day, I do feel hope and I am so refreshed to have your beautiful words speak to me things I have not been able to piece together before. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Hugs!

    • 4

      *must say.

    • 5
      Lisa-Jo says:

      So nice to connect with you Elaine – yes, so many parts of the stories we motherless daughters share are similar, aren’t they? This ache transcends our differences and connects us in a deep way. But thankfully, SO thankfully, so does the God who makes us all new.

  3. 6

    Thank you Lisa jo!
    I love your writing
    Hugs to your for your pain..

  4. 8

    Thank you so much for REAL encouragement. I found myself praying for your time with your aunt even though we have never met.

    My Aunt and grandmother live close, and though it doesn’t fill the replace the loss it definitely fills a “soul hole.”

    Praising God for your time together.

    Happy (and holy) Mother’s Day, sweet lady!

    Keep up the good work! I’m proud of you!

  5. 11
    Heather says:

    Someone sent me your post- I don’t know how I haven’t followed you already. Thank you for putting into words the feelings in my heart. May God continue to make us new as we continue to fight the good fight with a few voids.

    • 12
      Lisa-Jo says:

      So much amen to that, Heather. May He kindly and faithfully continue to make us all new.

  6. 13


    My heart hurts for you as you continue to grieve your mother and now the separation after such a precious time with your aunt. Thank you for sharing your beautiful words with us.

    I was struck most by how your son asked if you wished your mother was still alive, and you decided that you wouldn’t undo it if you could. Five years ago, I battled a rare cancer. Statistically speaking, I shouldn’t be here raising my children. I thought my kids’ story would be, “My mom died when I was (2, or 5, or 7) years old.”

    I’ve struggled to trust God with their futures, and I still wrestle with the uncertainty. I’m healthy, but I will always have a risk of recurrence. I’m secure in Christ and not afraid to die. But I don’t want my children to go through the pain of losing their mother. Your words give me hope that if cancer takes me from them while they still need me, the Lord will be faithful to use their pain to shape and mold them in positive ways. I praise God for how He is at work in your life and your ministry to others!

    • 14
      Lisa-Jo says:

      Hey there Marissa,

      I struggle to trust God with my future and my kids’ futures almost every day still :) Believing it is one thing, putting that belief into living trust is another, isn’t it. One day at a time, one hesitant foot in front of another. I don’t know any other way.

  7. 15
    Jayne Gautreau says:

    Umm yes made me cry. My mum is still alive but lives in Ireland and I live in the states . I’ve been here 15 years but that loss of not having a mom
    For the things daily is hard and painful at times. I recently went through the naturalization process. It was exciting but also an emotional time too. Like you I feel American and Irish :)
    Thanks for writing this, it puts a lot of my heart into words.

  8. 17

    Thank you for the encouragement Lisa-Jo! I live very far away from my own mother and have never had a close relationship with her when I was younger and still at home. Now that I am a mom to 4 kids, three of them being daughters and teenagers. I find it so very hard some days to mother them like I feel they need. I don’t have the experience of really being mothered to know. The early years were great, I was a natural mother to my babies. But as they grow up I find it harder. But I do try to remember to just be there for them and learn from my own lack of mothering how to be a better mother. Thanks again for the encouragement in knowing “He is making everything NEW”.

    • 18
      Lisa-Jo says:

      What’s helped me has been paying attention to the women I admire in the ways they mother. And asking them how they do it – what they’ve learned and trying to absorb as much of that as I can. Because I can’t really remember my mom’s mothering and I’m so hungry to learn from women willing to teach me.

  9. 19

    When Christmas and Mothers Day roll around I feel left out. My Mom is gone and I just one more time want to tell her that I love her. But them I see people that have their Mom and they aren`t . My jealousy turns to anger. It is your Mom. Whether you live far away. Or you don`t get along with her as you should be. It is your mom! Suck it up, tell her thanks. You only have one.

    • 20
      Lisa-Jo says:

      It’s a hard place – living in the loneliness of not having a mother and trying to make sense of the stories around us that come with a mom in them, isn’t it? How to give them space for their own hurts and do-overs as well.

  10. 21

    Oh, Lisa-Jo. This is it. I don’t even have words. But I love this and I love you and I love how minister healing to us all.

    • 22
      Lisa-Jo says:

      Thank you Sarah – I love watching how your mother has mothered you through all the stages of your own children – it’s so life giving to see.

  11. 23

    Wow. Such a beautiful, beautiful post. It hit me with all the feels, and I’m sitting here with burning eyes, and a lump in my throat. My own mom has been in Heaven now for nearly 18 years. My husband and I have raised our 4 children…3 of them don’t remember her at all, and it breaks my heart. She didn’t have a sister, and her mom (my grandmother) and all of her other family, have all died. I wish I had the “link” that your Aunt is to you. What a precious, precious thing. Like you, I wouldn’t wish to bring my mom back for anything…but MAN, do I miss her.

    • 24
      Lisa-Jo says:

      Man, yes. The missing is like a living thing here in my chest. We will miss our mothers together this weekend and there is after all a strange comfort in that.

  12. 25

    You know “motherless” is new for me. I forget sometimes . . . not her, just what her absence has done to me. Until weeks like this one when her birthday came and went on Monday, and just a few days later I stood buying Mother’s Day cards for my daughter and daughter-in-law but not for my own mother. Your words help me navigate these foreign paths in my soul. It’s confusing most of the time, but this is sure, “that grief [is making] a new thing in me.” Thank you, Lisa-Jo.

  13. 26
    Samara says:

    I saw a link to your post on Ann Voskamp’s weekend email. My mother died when I was 7. She and her mother were both killed in car wrecks at the age of 37. I’ll be 37 this year, and It does weigh on my mind, even though I joke that I’ll just strap myself in the recliner all year. Her sister, my aunt Charlie, has definitely stepped in and done everything in her power to fill the void. I’m so grateful for her. Like you, I know this terrible thing has served to make me who I am and who God wants me to be. Thank you for sharing your story!

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