May 7, 2010 — -- When I was in the second grade, I heard the adults whispering.
They were talking about a woman in our small Ohio town who had died of cancer. She had a daughter my exact age. It was the first time I heard of cancer and the first time I learned, in real life, a child could lose her mother.
My throat tightened, my tears spilled, and I ran to my room and sobbed into my pillow. I was so worried about how that motherless little girl was going to survive. Who was going to care for her? Comb her hair? Remember her birthday? Help her get through life?
A few weeks later, it was Mother's Day. I felt so guilty that I had a wonderful mother to craft a card for, a mother to celebrate. I couldn't stop thinking about the girl who didn't. How cruel that she and anyone else who'd lost a mother would have to face shelves of Mother's Day cards and gifts each year -- and have no mother to buy for.
Here is what I've come to know that I couldn't have fathomed in the second grade: that there can be many combinations and bonds of "mother" and "child" outside of biological mother and child. And while this is not news to adoptive parents and adopted children, the notion of spiritual mothers and spiritual daughters and sons wasn't in my thinking or vocabulary until a few years ago.
I first heard the term from the acclaimed author and Jungian analyst Marion Woodman at a conference at the Omega Institute in 2003. "I have no children of my own," she said, "but I have many spiritual daughters."
Her words perfectly illuminated the most important female relationship in my life next to the one with my own mother. For years I'd tried to explain the depth of this surprisingly powerful relationship and did not have the right words until Marion Woodman called herself a "spiritual mother."
I met Libby on the coldest day of the year in 1978. She was the mother of my new boyfriend and I was so excited yet terribly nervous to meet her. She was a career woman, a critical care nurse and pioneer in the hospice care movement.
I was a young editorial assistant eagerly aspiring to become a big-city newspaper reporter. I was in desperate need of female support and role models.
As I carefully crept up the icy back porch steps to Libby's house that first time, the door flew open and the warmest, kindest, most beautiful woman reached out her hand and pulled me through it into her fragrant kitchen -- and into a whole new life.
From that night on, and for a decade, Libby and I talked, laughed, cried, gossiped, strategized and shared stories and crafted plans for our lives and careers -- often curled up girlfriend-style under blankets in her living room. She enthusiastically listened to me for hours and hours. We vacationed together. We lunched, shopped and danced through life together. She bought me my first business suit, taught me to play tennis and took me to my first self-help workshop.
Along the way, I married her son and she officially became my mother-in-law. Still, the title felt too small for the bigness of our relationship.
In the autumn of my ninth year with Libby, she became strangely ill. Because she was a nurse, I guessed she might know what was wrong with her so I asked. Her answer hit me like a ton of bricks. She responded quietly and firmly: "If I die, you'll be OK." I burst out crying, "I will NOT be OK if you die."
In the next eight months, I was to learn even more than I had in the past 10 years from Libby. She bravely taught me -- and our entire family -- how to live full out while dying. "We are going to have hospice and it will be a beautiful death," she proclaimed. And throughout, she guided us unflinchingly in the work to say good-bye: 1) I forgive you. 2) Please forgive me. 3) I love you. 4) Thank you. 5) Good-bye.
It was dusk on the hottest day in 1988. I was lying beside Libby in her bed and holding her hand as she took her last breaths while we chanted her request of "forget-me-nots in Heaven." It was peaceful and beautiful.
As my spiritual mother slipped away, crying inside, I asked myself: Who is going to guide me through life? In the years since, I've discovered the answer. Libby left me with a profound mother's gift a lifetime of love and wisdom and support.
I never knew what happened to that little girl in my hometown who lost her mother so long ago. My Mother's Day wish for her is that she found a spiritual mother to hold her hand and launch her tenderly into life.
A pioneer in the field of life and executive coaching, Debbie Phillips is the founder of the organization Women on Fire and the author of "Women on Fire: 20 Inspiring Women Share Their Life Secrets (and Save You Years of Struggle!)". She has no children of her own but many spiritual daughters and sons.