Mother loss support matters

Danielle Snelling and Eloise Hughes founded Motherless Daughters Australia in Melbourne after connecting on Facebook looking for support and understanding following the loss of their mums. The foundation is promoted as the leading charity for mother loss support, research and awareness.

We spoke with Executive Officer Danielle about raising awareness of the organisation, further research into the impacts on women, girls and children of losing their mother, and the mission to connect those in this situation to help them find validation, support and connection.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the process of co-founding Motherless Daughters Australia? 

I was 21. My mum got diagnosed with cancer and died two years later, when I was 23.

I felt really misunderstood and like I couldn’t really relate to my friends anymore. So that was quite lonely and isolating. I’ve got a younger brother and my dad, so being then surrounded by males added another difficult layer to that, with no older female influence. I tried grief counselling and all those sorts of things, but I just didn’t really find that helpful for me.

I think I knew early on that I wanted to find somebody who understood what it was like and someone who was my age. I joined Facebook … and found a global group for general grief. I put a message in there and said: this is who I am, this is where I’m from, if there’s anyone in Melbourne who has also lost their mum.

Eloise got back to me and said, ‘Yep that’s me and I’d love to meet’. We met in a cafe and chatted for five or six hours, and it was the best thing ever. It was all the validation and support I didn’t realise would be so powerful and impactful. We thought from then that there’s got to be more of us, and if we’ve gained this kind of incredible support that we didn’t know existed, how can we give these to so many other women? So, we went from there.

What is the organisation’s mission and what is its aim? 

We connect and support women, girls and children whose mums have died. We want to further build on our national organisation, so all women and girls are supported and are no longer lonely, isolated or misunderstood in greater society.

There are 3.9 million women in Australia whose mums have died, and 1.2 million of those experienced loss before the age of 44. It’s really important to us that we reach all those women, raise enough awareness that we exist, and bring them into our community so that they can gain support and community, and engage and utilise our support services.

Why is it important to shine the awareness spotlight on Motherless Daughters Australia and the impacts of mother loss? 

The impacts are really under-acknowledged and unrecognised in Australian society and within the healthcare system. At the moment, grief is heavily pathologised, which is what’s really wrong. We’re misdiagnosing people who are grieving with anxiety and depression well before those sorts of things should be investigated. People being misdiagnosed further perpetuates this notion within society that grief is something that people get over and it needs to be fixed.

We know that with mother loss, the impact is incredibly profound. That mother-daughter bond is so unique, and when that’s broken, through death in our case, especially premature mother loss, women are most likely to experience anxiety, depression, social isolation and suicidal ideation, and engage in maladaptive coping mechanisms such as eating disorders, binge drinking and drug taking. Those are the types of things that lead to a depression or anxiety diagnosis, then the subsequent medication that follows from that.

We really believe [society is] approaching grief in general, but specifically mother loss grief, the wrong way, and if we can reach these women at the start and offer that community and validation, and normalise everything they feel, rather than alienate them like society does, we can prevent a lot these outcomes and alleviate a lot more pressure on the system, so that these women are given adequate treatment and adequate opportunity to process their grief with more specialised pathways.

Do you think further research is needed into the impacts of mother loss? 

Absolutely. There is international research, and a lot of that research will translate across to us in Australia. However, it lacks the cultural aspects. We’re in the process of conducting our own research.

We know that mother loss across the board, regardless of what age you lose your mum, seems to be incredibly impactful, so there’s more about that relationship that we don’t quite understand.

We know grief alters the brain, so there are a whole lot of things at play. Usually, we look at older women who are saying in their 50s or 60s that they lost their elderly mother, and they’re expected to just get on with life because that’s normal. But there’s clearly something there with that mother-daughter bond that makes it so hard to do that.

So, we want to research more into the impact and into the relationship that we share with our mums. To do this, it’s reliant on awareness. As a growing organisation, we need to focus on raising awareness so that we bring more women into our community and then conduct that research to find out more about the impact and what they need in terms of support.

What services does the organisation offer to women who have lost their mothers? 

We’ve got an online support group with around 9000 members. We hold events. We have an annual ‘High Tea’ event, which is just before Mother’s Day in five states, and hundreds of women come together who are all strangers, so they have that support circle and network as they lead into more difficult times, such as Mother’s Day. We do a ‘Meet in Grief Dinner’ series in the second half of the year. We have a program called ‘Friends in Grief’, which is a one-on-one matching service where women complete details about their circumstances and then we match them up with someone and connect them via email.

[There’s also] ‘Memories of Mum’ journals for kids, boys and girls who experienced mother loss under the age of 12, and we’re working on an adult’s journal. Aside from that, we have our fact sheets, awareness, and advocacy.

How important is connecting with and receiving support from other women who have experienced mother loss for those who have lost their mum? 

It underpins our entire organisation. It’s so important.

We find, and research [shows], that peer support is extremely beneficial. I think what our community is so good at doing is offering a place and a space for women who’ve never had that space before to come and talk about their loss and normalise everything that they’re feeling as a result. When that’s normalised in huge numbers of women, they can say ‘Yes, me too’ and ‘Yes, that’s normal’. That can be life-changing for women who are grieving. To alleviate that loneliness and isolation is so important. It makes a world of difference.

Can you tell us about your partnership with the Priceline Sisterhood Foundation and how it has supported the work that you do? 

They’re incredible. Eloise and I both worked full time, and Motherless Daughters Australia was growing so much. I’m a school teacher, so I’d be hiding in the art cupboard, replying to emails. I thought, ‘How am I going to do this? I can’t neglect all these women who are finding out about us every day because we don’t have the time. So, I quit teaching and went to emergency teaching … but then Priceline came along and gave us funding, and understood where we were at as a grassroots organisation, which is a huge deal to us because not a lot of people do get that. They gave us funds for the critical infrastructure – that’s like the walls of the house that you need to stand up, and they gave us those walls and the foundation to further develop and grow the organisation.

Things like funding a CRM [software solution] so we can house all our data and profiles on women, to pull important reports and safely store their data and information. They helped us with a website rebuild and rebranding, so that looked really beautiful. They’re funding some of our research now. Those are really key things that an organisation needs to help build that credibility and to make sure that they’ve got the right infrastructure around it to grow. We’re very, very lucky and they’re our lifeline.

How can retail pharmacy assistants support someone who has lost their mother and support the work that you do? 

Our priority is awareness, so just being aware that we [Motherless Daughters Australia] exist. I think it’s really important to remember that it’s not something that can be fixed. If you do know someone who’s lost their mum, it’s so important to hold space for that person, and really listen without the urge to fix or say some of those things that are meant with good intent but aren’t really helpful and can be quite dismissive – things like ‘your mum wouldn’t want you to be sad’, are comments that totally shut down a conversation and dismiss how that person is feeling.

Just listening, normalising and validating are so important. Just asking about their mum. The simple things, like asking, ‘What was her name?’ or ‘When’s her birthday?’ Those sorts of questions are worth their weight in gold to anyone who’s lost their mum.

Not being judgmental or critical of their grief and how long they may have been grieving is also really important.

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This feature was originally published in the August issue of RPA magazine.