Motherless daughters of the ineffable sea

There is a severe lack of data on daughters who have lost their mothers. Unnumbered, are we many or one?

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published May 11, 2024 5:31AM (EDT)

Little sad girl pensive looking through the rainy window. (Getty Images/Train_Arrival)
Little sad girl pensive looking through the rainy window. (Getty Images/Train_Arrival)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. After a long day welding underwater naval mines off the Gulf coast of Florida in 1984, a six-foot-something Alabama bombshell walks herself into a saloon on a hot July night to sing with the band. And there she sees a 20-year-old Kentucky boy, tabletop-dancing right out of his Army fatigues. Nine months later — atop America's largest presumed stockpile of Cold War nukes, four alleged alien spacecraft and an 8,000-year-old Native American burial mound — a military midwife delivers her of a screaming girl who grieves her to this day. Especially this day. 

They call us motherless daughters. Or more clinically, “female maternal orphans.” And for us, Mother’s Day is a painful communion with the unknowable.

She was one of many, my mother. How many exactly, I don’t know. If the US Census Bureau has an exact count of dead mothers who’ve left behind living daughters, then the strands of its URLs are so awash in a sea of pages and jargon that neither my editor nor myself could reasonably fish it out. Our 11th-hour data trawl came on the heels of my other trawl. Having searched at length for quantitative research into the particular long-term trauma faced by motherless daughters, I’d resurfaced with only a thin stack of close-enough studies. 

Research on the sex-specific impact of father loss abounds in pediatric literature, as does sex-unspecified parental loss — but finding useful research on the unique needs of female-sexed children and women drowning in mother loss takes the kind of work most laywomen shouldn’t have to do when sobbing with grief. Too many peer-reviewed studies are outdated, removed from our readers’ Western experiences, or simply useless to me behind journal paywalls. You can imagine how little material I found addressing our sister-orphans who are trans. 

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Even the most recent studies acknowledged the dearth of sex-distinct pediatric research. Finding research on adult orphan daughters is harder, and even good work is mostly parental-sex unspecific. Some of it reads with attunement. But more of it approaches insult, blind to repeated findings on mixed-sex adolescent bereavement which chart higher rates of suicidality, premature death and employment struggle — along with worse education and health outcomes, earlier and more frequent sexual, drug-related and criminal encounters. 

“The majority of children overcome the loss of a parent during childhood without experiencing increased mental health problems, reduced functional limitations or a greater need for mental health services during adulthood,” reads one from 2006

Feminist researchers haven’t let us down, though. Their qualitative work on the severed mother-daughter dyad has yielded wholly nuanced theories and praxis rooted in the unique “self-in-relation” analysis model. Even skimming a summary feels like quenching life-long thirst.   

Just last year, Australian women conducted what’s thought to be the largest known study of motherless daughters. Searching for answers, the researchers put out the all-call and hoped to get 100 responses. They got that many within two hours. By October, more than 2,000 women came to them, searching for answers where mothers once were. 


I didn’t know my mother was dead until I was in my 20s. The last time I saw her, I was three and she was buckling my seatbelt in the back of my father’s car. Later, still much too young to hear it, he’d say this was his clever cross-country rescue after tracking her down. She was wild-eyed and feral, I was told, dangerous as she was beautiful. Gravid with me in her ninth month, she’d thrashed as if possessed, and had to be pinned down to keep from lunging into an obliterative cocaine frenzy. We’d lived on a little fishing trawler then, as it goes, and it wasn’t long after my first lungful of squall met the air, that a squall far bigger found us at sea. 

Caught between antidepressants and the bottle, she’d flipped her car three times before she stopped moving. But she’d left something behind for me in Alabama — a baby brother.

Towering waves, taller in each retelling, bashed us broadside amid a merciless downpour. My father was clambering to get us leeward against capsize when my mother took to the starboard bow. He says he heard my screams above the storm and turned to see her there, cradling me in her arms for a moment before she flung me overboard — jetsam into the devouring mouth of the sea. He dove into the waves and wrenched us back aboard somehow. 

More than 20 years later, my setting out to find her took some gall. And tracing her paper trail took some journalism. Months of records work ended in an online archive with a grainy newspaper clipping. She’d died while I was a teenager. No one had come looking for me. I couldn’t find a grave, nothing about ashes.

Caught between antidepressants and the bottle, she’d flipped her car three times before she stopped moving. But she’d left something behind for me in Alabama — a baby brother. I counted the years on my fingers to 18, dove back into records, and didn’t resurface until I fished him out. She’d named him Strongheart. We both drove all night to meet in Tennessee. Last time he saw her, he was three years old. He’d fought to graduate, an outcast with nowhere to go but our cousin’s couch. He hugged me hard and frantically. His hands were the same size as mine.

“I have a sister,” he cried.

“I’m gonna take care of you,” I told him.  


I’d spent most of Thursday evening diving deep into the narrows of archived reports and dead-end URLs for fractions of percentages that might give me a headcount of my sister-orphans in the Dead Mom Club. Diving like there was a bottom I could hit. Like she’d be there if there was. But all I found was more sisters and brothers mixed together, our sibling-count growing as the world moves on

In the wake of COVID-19 deaths, an estimated 300,000 children were orphaned by one or both parents. Between April 2020 to June 2023, that number rises to 379,000 when you include “primary or secondary caregivers,” according to research from Imperial College London

As reported by the Guardian, Imperial’s collaboration with the Center for Disease Control notes Black children in the U.S. are twice as likely as white children to be orphaned under similar conditions. Worldwide in the same period, the Global Reference Group on Children Affected by COVID-19 and medical journal BMJ peg that number at about 10.5 million orphans. 

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In a pre-print study from a powerhouse line-up of academic and government health researchers, the spike in orphan numbers from COVID-19 arrived as the rate of US orphanhood was already growing, accounting for a roughly 50% overall rise in the number of orphaned kids. 

“From 2000 [to] 2021, orphanhood and custodial/co-residing grandparent caregiver loss annual incidence and prevalence trends increased 49.2% and 8.3%, respectively. By 2021, 2.9 million children (4% of all children) had experienced prevalent orphanhood and caregiver death,” the researchers wrote. 

1.7 million of those 2.9 million were aged 10 to 17 — kids far less likely to be adopted. Now add those 300,000-plus COVID orphans to the data published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, concluding “an estimated 321,566 children lost a parent to drug overdose in the U.S. from 2011 to 2021.” 

129,000 of those kids lost their mothers. If half of all children are girls, we have 64,500 more motherless daughters now.


It was just a month or so after I’d found my teenage brother, and time to fetch him home for good, when he died with our cousin. Caught between a bender and the bottle on a hot July night, they’d reached highway speeds before passing out behind the wheel. My race to Alabama is still a blur. Behind the chainlink fence of the impound lot, I saw his car crumpled bloody. The relatives that had cast him out never shed a tear, and they hid his ashes from those who did. I still didn’t know where they’d hid hers. 

After nearly 30 years searching, there would be no finding her among the numbered, no archive of her bones but my own.

In a motel for days, I scoured databases and worked phones. Still diving, still searching. An angel in some distant judicial call center happened to be from the same town I was sitting in; she slipped me his father’s number so I could tell him his son died. Before I hung up to write the eulogy, she prayed a blessing on me that’s never come off. It took intervention, but the relatives broke down and revealed where my brother’s ashes were. They’d put him with our mother — flung him into the water. 

After nearly 30 years searching, there would be no finding her among the numbered, no archive of her bones but my own. A lady at the gas station helped me draw a map to the spot. Down an old country road, off a winding gravel trail, I found the little swamp marsh that will someday be devoured by the rising sea. It was close to sunset when I took my shoes off and waded deep past the bank of reeds and cattails. 

There is nowhere you can not be now, I thought when the rain started. The human heart is 73% water, and mine is 50% you, and ours are these salt tears — near identical to our shared blood, that’s near identical to sea water. 

I washed my feet that were her feet. Anointed, I’d done what I could.

This is my body, this is my blood. I cupped a handful to my mouth and drank them both.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Salon's Lab Notes, a weekly newsletter from our Science & Health team.

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at 


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