Joan Schweizer Hoff

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–For a while, Imani Dorsey’s mother came to her in dreams.

Imani never got the chance to say goodbye to her mother, Dora Menchaca. She was killed when American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11. That first awful month, Imani would hug Menchaca in her sleep, knowing her mother was going to die. She was haunted by what she’d never know about what happened on that plane, one of four hijacked by terrorists in last year’s attack. Over and over, Imani would dream that her mother was about to tell her, only to lose the answer when she opened her eyes.

A year later, the 19-year-old accepts that her mother will never tell her those secrets. But part of Imani remains suspended in time. Without her mother, who was an associate director of clinical research at the biotech company Amgen Inc., Imani wonders what kind of woman she will become without Menchaca alive to steer her.

Though Imani continues to read, spend time with her friends and family, and play defender for the University of Portland’s soccer team in Oregon, another part of her remains in a kind of arrested development, she says, because the guiding force in her life–her mother–is gone. Menchaca, 45, is no longer cheering her daughter on from the stands or redecorating the Dorsey family’s home in Santa Monica, Calif.

"When I went home for Christmas I wondered: How would my life continue to evolve? It almost feels like it’s standing still because the yard hasn’t changed, the house hasn’t changed," Imani said. "It makes me wonder how I would continue to change with her next to me and makes me wonder how I’ll grow up without her to direct me in my life."

Public Grief May Reduce Typical Motherless Daughter Isolation

Though it’s unclear how many of the 3,025 people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks were mothers, 638 of the 2,801 people who died at the World Trade Center and on the planes that crashed into the buildings were women, according to the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. An estimated 1,500 dependent children lost a parent, according to the Twin Towers Orphan Fund, as did countless adult children. Of those children, it’s not known how many are female.

Girls and young women whose mothers were killed in the terrorist attacks face unique challenges. While for both boys and girls a mother’s death usually means the loss of their primary nurturer, unlike their brothers, girls lose the central figure around whom they build their beliefs and aspirations about what to expect as an adult woman.

Joan Schweizer Hoff

"They get concerned about who’s going to braid my hair, who’s going to pick out my clothes, who’s going to go help me pick out my first bra, who am I going to talk to when I get my period–who am I going to go to for things that dads tend to have a more difficult time with," said Joan Schweizer Hoff, director of program services at the Dougy Center in Portland, Ore., the country’s oldest organization offering peer-support groups for grieving children.

Their grief is complicated by the tremendous violence and ubiquity of their mothers’ deaths in the media, making it difficult to find closure, experts say. But the public nature of those deaths may reduce the sense of shame and isolation children tend to feel when they lose a parent at a young age and their peers perceive them as having been abandoned.

"Their loss has been tremendously validated by society. Their mothers are likened to heroes," said Hope Edelman, author of the book "Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss." Edelman added, "It’s helpful to have this kind of societal attention and validation. Their grief is public and shared and that is not the case for many girls who lose their mothers.

"Many times when a girl loses her mother she is discouraged from talking about it. She develops a sense of shame around the loss," Edelman said. "I would imagine that many of these girls may be able to bypass this process because they are allowed to talk about the death of their mother because the whole country has been able to talk about the death of their mothers in the grand sense."

But, Edelman warned, "Down the road, their loss will still feel acute but others who remember will have moved on. They may have delayed grief responses when their grief is not validated to the extent it is now."

Dad Says He’s ‘Not Cut Out to Be a Mother’

How children experience and cope with a mother’s death depends on a host of variables including the child’s age, their relationship with their mother and how the family responds to her death, experts say.

Many children, hating being labeled as "different" because they’ve lost a parent, have been helped by bereavement programs such as Comfort Zone Camp, a Richmond, Va.-based organization that has been hosting periodic camps in the New York area for children and their surviving parent since Sept. 11. And young women can tap informal networks of motherless daughters that have sprung up around the country over the last several years.

But if the mother assumed traditional roles in the household, her surviving spouse might find it as difficult to take over the nurturing role as a tradition-bound woman would have taking over the primary wage-earner role.

Peter Griffith, whose wife, Joan, was a 39-year-old office manager at Fiduciary Trust on the 97th floor of the World Trade Center’s Tower 2, is struggling to be both mother and father to his two daughters, ages 18 and 24. Taking care of their younger daughter, Joanne, has been hardest.

The line between disciplinarian and nurturer has blurred, Griffith said. In addition to making sure Joanne does her homework, he is now the parent to approve of the boys she dates and the one who takes her shopping–responsibilities his wife fulfilled before she died.

"I have had to try to become everything and that’s very difficult because for the 18 years she’s been around I’ve been in a particular role which meant that I was there but Mommy was the primary person who dealt with her [and] Mommy was the buffer between us," said Griffith, a trade settlement analyst from Willingboro, N.J. "You had your boundaries set up and now those boundaries are gone.

"I’m basically winging it and hoping it turns out right," Griffith said with his gentle Barbados accent. "I’m making a lot of mistakes. I’m not cut out to be a mother."

Dream of What Should Be Is Part of Loss

Nor is Imani Dorsey ready to be a mother, but that is what she has become to her 5-year-old brother, Jaryd.

"He told me this weekend: You’re like my mom now," Imani said last week. "I catch myself calling him my son and I’m like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’ I definitely feel more responsible for him now."

Other young women, such as Peter Griffith’s older daughter Paula, feel what Schweizer Hoff describes as "the loss of the dream of what should be–of having your mother there when you get married, when you have your first child." An anthropology major at California State University, Fullerton, Paula is now engaged to a man her mother never had the opportunity to meet. Planning the October 2003 wedding–a big bash in part to celebrate her mother’s life–is painful.

"It’s miserable," said Paula, who considered her mother her best friend and caught up with her by phone at least once a day just to hear the comfort of her voice. "My mother was my compass," she said by phone from her home in Tustin, Calif. "She was the calm in the storm. She was my rock."

The time Paula needed her mother most was the morning last fall when she arose early in her California home and flipped on her brand-new, 61-inch television set and found herself staring at a gaping hole in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center

"It was like I kept looking for her to help me with what was happening with her. For the first two weeks I was expecting her to walk through the door but it never happened," Paula said. Spiritually, she says, "I know she’s here. But to have the physicality of her . . . God, I wish."

Jordan Lite is the assistant managing editor of Women’s eNews.



For more information:

The Dougy Center for Grieving Children:

Circle of Daughters, Buffalo, N.Y.:

Motherless Daughters of Los Angeles: