"We did everything we could, but your mother died."
Those were the shocking words that Diana Kelly heard on July 8, 2005, at a local hospital emergency room.
She had taken her mother, Georgia Brewley Wurster, to the ER when she was in extreme pain after a routine colonoscopy earlier that day. Kelly was all alone that night, and could not grasp that her 70-year-old mother had died so suddenly and unexplainably. The precise cause of death is still somewhat unclear.
"My grief was so wide and so deep that I was in a total daze for months," said Kelly, 45, of Lumberton, a corporate concierge. "By January of 2006, I knew I needed help. People didn't want to hear about my sadness any more, but it was still there, still haunting me."
That was when Kelly reached out to Tapestries of Hope, a nonprofit organization supported by donations and volunteer staff dedicated to honoring and helping any woman grieving the death of her mother or mother-figure. After three sessions, Kelly said she is feeling significantly better. "This has been a gift to me," she said. "Now I'm moving on in the right direction."
Started by Alison Miller of Westampton, Tapestries offers a series of eight- to 10-week workshops called Reflections of Our Moms, which use group and individual exercises and written and artistic expression to allow motherless daughters of all ages and all stages of grief to find comfort and support.
"For a daughter, the loss of a mother is one of the most profound, and too often it is under-recognized," said Miller, a mother of four who served as bereavement coordinator at Moorestown Visiting Nurses & Hospice. She is certified as a bereavement counselor by the American Academy of Bereavement.
Miller launched Tapestries of Hope in August 2005, and has worked with almost 200 grieving women since. "Some come soon after their loss, others come years later, but our hope is that through these groups, women get the help that allows them to move on with their lives."
On a recent evening, the last session of a 10-week series began with the lighting of a memorial candle in remembrance of all the mothers of daughters seated around a simple table at the Lighthouse Hospice on Kings Highway in Cherry Hill, which has donated space to the group. A photograph of each participant's late mother was also on the table, and the tablecloth covering was decorated with jottings and drawings of hope and encouragement from various previous and current groups.
Among the women were Ellyne Dombro of Cherry Hill, who had lost her mother in February 2006 and was still coming to terms with that loss; Linda Kulach of Burlington Township, who had struggled with terrible grief when her mother died in August 2005; and Eunice Green of Mount Holly, whose mother had died in October 2006, and left her daughter wondering whether she could have done more to help her in her last days. "I needed to be around people who are also experiencing this loss," Green said.
For Ann Michael of Erial, the loss of her mother was a seminal life passage that is still a work in progress after eight months. "I sometimes think this group has saved my life," Michael said. "I couldn't have gotten through without it."
From the first session, when the basic introductions are made and brief personal histories are exchanged, through the last session, when the women create collages that reflect their late mothers in words and pictures, the emphasis is on sharing and remembering.
One of the sounds heard often is laughter. "People are always surprised at that, but we truly do share humor just as we share grief."
Miller became interested in the process of grieving when her own mother died 11 years ago, just six months after Miller's brother had died. Each had succumbed to cancer.
"I was completely devastated, and sought out a support group as an anchor," Miller said. "When I told the facilitator that I thought I was going crazy, she explained to me that I wasn't going crazy - I was just grieving. I've never forgotten that." Her own grief experience led Miller to what she regards now as a calling.
In the small conference room at Lighthouse Hospice on a recent evening, the Reflections of Our Moms participants explained their collages to one another. Some of the women's collages focused on their late mothers' special qualities, some on their occupations, some on humorous remembrances or even favorite sayings.
Alison Miller and co-facilitator Alisa Miller reminded the women that there was no "right" way to grieve, that one way to get through difficult times like Mother's Day was to create one's own traditions, and that grieving can turn out to be a growth experience. Journaling, poetry and nurturing oneself were suggested coping mechanisms for grieving daughters.
"What you need to do," said Alison Miller, "is to let your memories help you heal."
On Mother's Day 2007, like every Mother's Day since her mother died, Alison Miller herself works in the garden created in her mother's memory, planting a new perennial each year.
"The simple pleasure of digging in the earth, of learning to make things grow and thrive, has turned some of the pain into great pleasure," Miller said. "There's something beyond the pain, and when you find it, it can be beautiful, wonderful and restorative."
What: Tapestries of Hope and its schedule of Reflections of Our Moms support groups.
Where: Lighthouse Hospice, 1040 N. Kings Highway, Cherry Hill.