Reflections on the death of my mother


Photo from a photobooth, from 1961, showing a young woman with glasses holding a baby. She's smiling, while he's looking startled and overawed by the experience.

It’s my birthday today, and it’s unlike any I can remember from my now 63 years on this planet.

It’s the first birthday I’ve had since my mother* passed away on Christmas Eve, just 11 days ago.

My younger sister died just over a year ago, and I wrote then about how my practice helped me with the grief I felt. I’m not going to write about grief today, mainly because my primary emotions have been of relief and gratitude that she didn’t suffer longer. Her last days were pretty grim as she struggled to breathe, and things were only going to get worse. Today I want to look in a different direction.

Also see:

On previous birthdays my focus has usually been on myself: I am a year older. I have completed another cycle around the sun. Happy Birthday to me!

Now I’m more aware of the “birth” part of birthday. Today is the anniversary of the day that my mother gave birth to me. So today seems more about her than it is about me.

She carried me inside her body for more than nine months (I was fashionably late). I grew from a single cell into a baby nourished entirely by her; her body became my body.

Today I very much have a sense that I am a part of her that has, in a way, budded off and continues her existence in the world, even though she is no longer here. My life is a continuation of her life.

As I wrote in my book, Living as a River, parts of our mother often live on within us.

During gestation…

[C]ells from your mother’s body can cross the placental barrier and infiltrate your own body, in a process called “microchimerism.” These maternal cells can settle down anywhere in the body, including the blood, heart, liver, and thymus gland … These cellular interlopers have been shown to live within the offspring’s body for decades, and they may be with us for life. You are not just you, you’re your mother too.

These cells have been found in the pancreases of diabetic individuals, pumping out the insulin that the person can’t manufacture themselves. They’ve been found in damaged heart tissue, and are thought to be trying to repair it.

My mother may still be within me, trying to keep me healthy. (Admittedly, though, some autoimmune disease is believed to be a reaction to the presence of certain material cells.)

My brain and mind were profoundly shaped by her. My first experience of love was her love. We know from the horrible experiments done by Harry Harlow on baby rhesus monkeys how maternal deprivation destroys children. As one description of Harlow’s work says,

[T]he monkeys showed disturbed behavior, staring blankly, circling their cages, and engaging in self-mutilation. When the isolated infants were re-introduced to the group, they were unsure of how to interact — many stayed separate from the group, and some even died after refusing to eat.

Harlow’s experiment also proves the converse: the gift of love creates our humanity. Not our biological, chromosomal humanity, but our sense of ourselves as thinking, feeling beings connected in love with other thinking, feeling beings.

This was one of my mother’s gifts to me.

A child initially learns most of its language from its mother. The fact that I’m using language to communicate with you now is me passing that particular gift from her.

There are many character traits I picked up from her as well, not through conscious imitation but through unconscious imprinting. Some of those traits are helpful and some less so, but the point is that here too my life is a continuation of her life.

She inherited character traits from her parents, and they from theirs. As with the presence of maternal cells in our bodies, this is by no means all positive. Perhaps my task in life is to take the best of what has been passed on to me and amplify it, and to take the worst and eradicate it. And thus I can pass on the best of my mother to the world — not just through my children, but through all my contacts with other human beings.

My mother died on Christmas Eve. So I’ve now gone through one Christmas, New Year, and birthday without her. There’s a certain amount of grief been present, and there may be more to come — perhaps especially when those celebrations come around again — but that will fade. The love and gratitude, however, will remain.

*Her name was Eleanor Dorothy Stephen. She was born 16th March, 1938. Her birth certificate lists her family name as Tragheim, but she always went by Tragham, my grandad having begun to adopt a less German-sounding last name during the war.

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14 Comments. Leave new

  • Condolences for your loss. Part of her, as you mentioned, remains with you.

  • Happy Birthday Bodhi!
    What a wonderful tribute to your mother. We certainly do exist with so many physical portions of our moms. And with many non- physical traits as well. She must have been an amazing woman to have raised such a compassionate human being. Again, so sorry for your loss. Thanks for sharing your deepest feelings with us.

  • Condolences on your loss, but also happy birthday to you.
    This is an interesting entry, and it made me consider my relationship with my own mother, which is a rather complex one and also hardly a.thing anymore due to enormous geographical distance and an unfortunate disease.
    In any case, I am looking forward to reading your great blog (which I’ve been following for quite some time) in the years to come.

  • Dear Bodhipaksa
    I dont know how to express my gratitude for your sharing of your most intimatei insights . All I know is I started to cry reading what you wrote . A release of bottled up emotions including guilt about my own mother whom I witness deteriorating painfully every time I see her which is about every 2 months . She is nearly 101 and lives in a care home but is sometimes quite depressed , being very aware of her situation and of the fact that there is no family near her.
    What you have written makes so much sense and helps me see what’s happening in a new perspective including my relationships with my own children and grandchildren.
    To become truly aware of this natural continuation of life would be so liberating.
    Thank you and thank you for all your sharing
    Metta to you and your family and to your Mum on her next journey

  • Sad for your loss, but I understand the relief that she didn’t suffer too long. My Dad went through a few years of dementia. I was glad when he moved on….however horrid that sounds.

    I hope you found some peace over Christmas, New Year and your birthday.

  • Very beautiful-thank you for sharing this. A few years ago, my daughter observed to me that when a woman is pregnant with a girl child, she’s also carrying the eggs of her potential future grandchildren. Somehow I’d never thought of that.

  • I’m so sorry for your loss. The loss of our mother’s is profound. I associate you sharing your thoughts and your experience with us. Sending you love and light x

  • Dear Bodhipaksa,
    Happy belated birthday to you as well as condolences and gratitude for putting into words what you did so eloquently. Tears came by the end of the second paragraph because I remember so well that first year without my mom. Grieving the loss of your mother is the journey of a lifetime. Blessings and much metta to you on this journey.

  • Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts about the passing of your mother, and the gifts of love and humanity that she gave you. The gift of love from our mothers is very much something for me to contemplate for myself.
    Thank you Bodhipaksa.

  • I began reading this article with interest and then reached the sentences about the baby monkeys which has hacked at my mind and made me feel sick
    Now read, never to be forgotten
    Such vile painful suffering
    I didn’t know about these experiments
    I wish I’d never learned about them from reading this article

  • Sincere Condolences on your loss. The grieving process is unique to each of us. I wish you well as you walk the path.

  • My deepest sympathy on the loss of your mother, and my best wishes for a happy and healthy year ahead for you. I just joined your Monday evening class this week, and you mentioned a family funeral to come, but I did not realize your loss was so close. Thank you for your presence and teaching, during a time of grief and personal loss. I am grateful.

  • Cate DiMarzio
    March 6, 2024 10:40 pm

    Condolences on the loss of your mother. It’s hard to experience three “firsts” so close to her passing. I understand the relief that she was released from her suffering. I so appreciated the discussion of microchimerism and your take on that. It’s a new concept for me, and has touched my greatly. My mom died when I was 10, after being sick with ovarian cancer for a few years. Grieving was not a thing in my family. We barely talked about her and didn’t honor those anniversary dates. I think losing my mother was so painful for my father, my older brother, and I that we pretended she never existed. In doing so, I lost my connection with her. The idea that I might have pieces of my mother’s cells in my body gives me a whole new way re-establishing my connection with her, something I’ve been struggling to do for many decades. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. Metta to you and your family.


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