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The Mothers We Find in Unexpected Places

The Mothers We Find in Unexpected Places

We all have the need to be loved and nurtured. Sometimes, our biological mothers aren’t there for us that way (either literally or emotionally). Although this coming Sunday should be filled with flowers, pancakes, sweet words and full hearts, things can feel especially sensitive or empty around Mother’s Day. Deborah S. Derman, PhD shares her expected discovery of motherly love.


I was at the local airport one beautiful October morning almost 30 years ago to pick up my parents who were piloting their own plane. I was showing my 16-month-old son how the planes were landing. We were going to take my parents to our house where I had prepared dinner for my family.

Out of nowhere, a small plane fell from the sky in front of us. I saw a huge tornado of swirling black smoke and a small child started yelling “a plane crashed! A plane crashed!” I looked at my watch. This was the exact moment that my parents were supposed to land. It just could not be them. But my father, the scientist, was always on time. It was, indeed, their plane.

I cried and screamed for my parents. No one could console me, not even my husband. I do not know how I made it home.

I walked into the house. Sitting in the kitchen, before the table which was set for dinner, my mother-in-law looked at me and said (and I quote) “If you’re looking for another mother, don’t come to me. I won’t do it. I was not a good mother to my own children, and I will not be a good mother to you.”

Even writing these words 30 years later makes me want to curl up into a little ball and cry. Who could possibly utter those words to me? The crash site was still smoldering, and my parents’ bodies were not yet even identified. Have I ever really forgiven those words? Not really. But I think I do understand that she was speaking of her own failings and limitations.

Several years later, my husband died suddenly of a heart attack. Pregnant with my third child, I did not know how I would ever survive. And I certainly had no idea what to expect when my neighbor’s daughter suggested a grief support group at a local convent. But my own faith had been badly shaken; why not try something new?

I was greeted at the door by a wonderful nun, Sister Mary. She held my hand and said, “I am not able to be a mother and I know that you lost yours. Let me be your mother and let me help you.” She pressed a prayer card into my hand, which I still cherish. Sister Mary helped me in every way that she could, and brought me through a very, very terrible time.

On this mother’s day, it’s important to thank not only the biological mothers of the world for all their unbelievable contributions to bringing up life, but also the metaphorical “mothers,” the adoptive mothers, and all the women who have embraced the role of “mother” to comfort or help someone in their time of need. Sister Mary helps to remind us: giving birth is not the only thing that makes a mother. It’s about protecting those who cannot protect themselves, demonstrating unconditional love, and providing a positive role model for those who may have lost their way.

Family can come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes family is blood, sometimes not, but who would have thought that a mother would come to me in the form of a beautiful, wise 80-year-old nun?


Deborah S. Derman, Ph.D., is author of the new book Colors of Loss & Healing: An Adult Coloring Book for Getting Through Tough Times. She is also a grief counselor who has been in private practice for over 20 years, and earned a doctorate focusing on grief and bereavement. She has experienced significant losses and challenges throughout her life including the suicide of a close friend, the death of both parents in a plane crash, the death of her husband, and a breast cancer diagnosis. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Dr. Derman worked in Staten Island, counseling the families of those who lost their lives on that tragic day.

Learn more about Dr. Derman and Colors of Loss & Healing at and connect on Twitter and Facebook. Colors of Loss & Healing is currently available on