Sisterhood Blog

The Dead Mothers Club

By Chanel Dubofsky

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Molly Shannon in ‘The Dead Mothers Club’

This morning on the train, I started reading “The Goldfinch,” Donna Tart’s enormous novel that won the Pulitzer this year. Five pages in, you learn that Theo, the protagonist, has a life that’s been separated by the “dividing mark” of his mother’s death, Before and after. This would ring familiar to anyone with a dead mother, or a dead parent, or a sick parent or friend. The moment before the death, in hindsight, seems like it was lived by an entirely different person, someone who’s now unrecognizable.

Last week, I went to a screening of the documentary “The Dead Mothers Club” sponsored by Modern Loss, the web site founded by Rebecca Soffer and former Sisterhood editor Gabrielle Birkner. “The Dead Mothers Club” follows three women whose mothers all died before they were 20 years old, and includes perspectives from Rosie O’Donnell, Molly Shannon and Jane Fonda, whose mothers also died when they were young.

(Here’s a thing about me: I don’t like watching movies. It’s really hard to get me to sit down to do anything that I have to give all of my attention to, especially if it’s dark and I can’t write. I also tend to get really anxious, so I become that twitchy, hand-waving, sound-making person in the movie theater.)

This is all to say that the experience of seeing “The Dead Mothers Club” with an audience, means hearing a lot of other people crying, people who have also had the before and the after, or maybe are in the midst of having them, or in the immediate aftermath. The film is less a trigger of tears for me, though, than it is affirming. But then, I’ve never been a crier. Not even when you’d think I would be.

In the film, Rosie O’Donnell says that having a dead mother is like being in a club: “You’re initiated, you get a tattoo, you’re not getting away.” Ginger, one of the three women followed in the movie, lost her mother to suicide when Ginger was in college. In the film, she reflects on her dreams that her mother is alive again, saying: “You can’t just come back into our lives like this and pretend nothing ever happened.” For me, it’s the perfect summation of what it means to lose someone with whom you had a difficult, even toxic, relationship, but still, you can’t imagine what it would be like to live without them, until suddenly, or not so suddenly, you are. And then you’re making your own life, and more and more often as you live the life you always wanted, you think, it’s better this way.

There are many parts of “The Dead Mother’s Club” that really show the texture of the loss, and then there are the small moments, those that happen too quickly, but should be grabbed onto tightly. There’s the stigma of being the kids without the mother, Rosie O’Donnell said, but there’s also the “looking motherless,” when you stumble through the world without a net, and everyone can see it. It’s the closest the film comes to talking about class, about what happens when you lose not only a parent, but all the security, emotional and financial, that that person represents. When my mother died I got her life insurance, but I didn’t know what to do with that money. I spent it quickly, and when it was gone, I stumbled financially, publicly, again, and again, because I didn’t know how not to.

“Losing your mother can be both challenging and liberating,” said filmmaker Carlye Rubin, who answered questions after “The Dead Mothers Club” screening. It’s something I can’t hear often enough, even now, myself 15 years on the other side of the dividing mark.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Dead Mothers Club’ below:

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