#64 Grief, Identity, and Moms Without Moms

Today's Guest: Melissa Reilly

Today, I interview Melissa Reilly whose life began in rural upstate New York with her parents and two sisters. Then one of her sisters became severely ill, and she and the other sister were often dropped off with anyone who could take them, so that their parents could take their ill sister for treatments. Melissa was shy with new people and began keeping her voice to herself, learning to observe people and read situations by their behavior.

Her sweet sister died a couple years later, and the family went through a tremendous grieving process. Her parents eventually split up. Her mother began to struggle in many areas, and as Melissa grew up and went off to college and entered a graduate program, the miscommunication and frustration between them eventually led to a falling out.

Melissa’s mother suddenly died eight months later, and it broke her heart that they hadn’t been able to reconcile their relationship beforehand. And just seven months after that, her other sister also passed away suddenly after a long struggle with her mental and physical health.

Melissa waited 12 years before feeling ready to start a family of her own. She experienced infertility and losses but finally had a son. Wishing for the support of her mother, she realized that she was finally allowing herself to grieve her mom’s loss for the first time. She had no mentor, and she felt like something was wrong with her and that she didn’t have a voice. She had a successful career, but becoming a mother broke her. Melissa took a step back and it occurred to her that she wasn’t alone after all. She shifted her work, feeling the passion to encourage her community of fellow moms without moms that motherhood is hard but rewarding, and that mothers can lean on each other to ask questions and find the support they need to believe in themselves.


Melissa Reilly, Psy.D. is a mom of two boys, clinical psychologist, and mom coach passionate about helping moms separated from their mother by physical distance, estrangement, or death, move from feelings of insecurity, isolation, and overwhelm to a place of resilience. Through her personal and professional experience, she has come to recognize that Moms without a mom experience grief as part of their motherhood experience, even if they don’t realize it. The relationship moms have had (or didn’t have) with their mothers impacts how they see themselves but doesn’t define them. She believes it isn’t knowledge and skills that create resilience, but rather it is born through overcoming hardship, having a community, and living by one’s values. Melissa is honored to walk with moms on their journey to becoming the mom they always wanted to be.

Her psychological practice, Shoudt & Reilly Psychological Services, has been serving residents of Berks County, Pennsylvania for over 22 years. She is now expanding her services to include parent coaching, focusing on Moms Without a Mom, which can be accessed by women all over the world through her website.

Find Dr. Melissa here:
Enjoy Being a Mom Again Quick Guide: https://www.momswithoutamom.com/enjoy-motherhood-again-guide
Care For Yourself While You Care For Your Baby Guide: https://melissareillypsyd.lpages.co/bonding-with-baby-while-caring-for-yourself-opt-in
Schedule a complimentary coaching call: https://MelissaReillyPsyDMomsWithoutAMom.as.me/free-coaching-call

Watch the episode:

Connect with Melissa Reilly

Transcript of Interview

Find Your Voice, Change Your Life Podcast 

Podcast Host: Dr. Doreen Downing

Free Guide to Fearless Speaking: Doreen7steps.com

Episode #64 Melissa Reilly

Grief, Identity and Moms without a Mom


(0:36) Dr. Doreen Downing

I am Dr. Doreen Downing, and I’m a psychologist and this podcast is Find Your Voice, Change Your Life. I invite guests who have some kind of story about what it was like at some point in their life not having had a voice, whether they connect the dots, and it has something to do with an earlier life, that’s a childhood experience or whether there was some kind of trauma or some kind of event that helped not help but actually robbed them of their voice and had them feel like they were not so confident to be more of who they can be. And what’s exciting about this, this podcast for me is for me it’s a discovery. I don’t know who shows up. I don’t know their life story. So we get to have a conversation about that. And I’m real curious. So today I get to introduce Melissa Reilley. Hi, Melissa.


(1:39) Dr. Melissa Reilly

Hi, Doreen. It’s very nice to see you today.


(1:41) Dr. Doreen Downing

Yes. And like I said, It’s always fascinating to me to uncover what your story is about not having had a voice and how you found it and what that means to you. But you sent me a little bit of a bio, and I’d like to read that so people could get a clearer sense of what’s up for the listeners today.


(2:03) Dr. Melissa Reilly



(2:04) Dr. Doreen Downing

Yes. Well, you’re a clinical psychologist like I am. Melissa Riley is a clinical psychologist, parent coach, and a mom without a mom. Although grief has been a part of Melissa’s life from the age of four, she was shocked to find a resurgence of grief with the part of her birth experience. Melissa and her mother had been estranged prior to her mother’s death, which complicated things further, she missed her mother and was angry with her simultaneously.


(2:40) Dr. Doreen Downing

She longed to have a healthy mother figure in her life, as she learned how to be a mom herself. Well, that sounds like a lot of fascination here to learn what happened but let me go on. Through her personal and professional life, Melissa has come to recognize that moms without a mom experience grief during the years postpartum and beyond even if they don’t realize it.


(3:11) Dr. Doreen Downing

She is passionate about helping moms without a mom heal through grief, build community, feel joy in motherhood, and move from feelings of isolation, insecurity and overwhelm to a place of confidence and resilience. This is so well written too. Thank you, Melissa.


(3:34) Dr. Melissa Reilly

You’re welcome. Yes, it sounds pretty good when you read it like that.


(3:38) Dr. Doreen Downing

And it sounds very applicable to anybody out there, not just moms without a mom. But I really have not yet spoken to anybody with a particular kind of niche, you might call it, that you’ve come across. And as most people, it does have something to do with your own life experience, right?


(3:59) Dr. Melissa Reilly

Very much so.


(4:00) Dr. Doreen Downing

So the way we launch here is to have you begin to look back, look back at your own early life and begin to just give us a sense of where you grew up, how you grew up, what your childhood experience was like.


(4:20) Dr. Melissa Reilly

Sure. So I grew up, I was born into a family of both mom and dad, I had an older sister and a younger sister. And we were in upstate New York, a very rural area. And when I was just a couple years old, my older sister was diagnosed with leukemia. And unfortunately back in the 70s, that was almost always terminal. It continues to be a very significant disease, but thankfully now there are some additional treatments available.


(4:58) Dr. Melissa Reilly

But so my early life contained the experience of my sister’s illness, and then eventual death when I was four and she was seven, and the subsequent grieving process that both my parents went through. And so during those early years, we would be taken care of by other people in the community that could take us in because my parents needed to be in New York City to be with my sister as she was going through treatment.


(5:32) Dr. Melissa Reilly

So I became an extremely shy child. So painfully shy, there were times when I literally couldn’t speak, right. So I truly didn’t have a voice because I was just too terrified. And part of what I did to be okay, was I became really good at sensing what those around me needed and their moods. And so it’s no surprise that I became a psychologist, right?


(6:05) Dr. Doreen Downing

Melissa, you’re telling my story too…becoming very hyper aware and alert and using other faculties that we have inside of ourselves besides just the speaking, we got into deep listening.


(6:21) Dr. Melissa Reilly

Yes, yes. And so I had those early experiences, and then entered early adulthood, and was in a graduate program. So I went academically right through college, and then right into a doctoral program. And so it was really kind of discovering who I was as an independent individual. And unfortunately, my mother was struggling with her own health concerns and mental health concerns, and we started to really clash. Unfortunately, I wasn’t yet old enough to truly appreciate where she was in her own life and our own struggles. I just was, was really being well, both of us were struggling with the relationship. And so it caused a falling out.


(7:22) Dr. Melissa Reilly

And this was about eight months prior to her death. And unfortunately, we didn’t have an opportunity to reconcile that estrangement before her death, which was really difficult. I was 25 at this point, and she was 51. So she died suddenly from a heart attack. And obviously, it was very devastating for our family. And then, unfortunately, just seven short months after that, my younger sister who was only 18 months younger than also passed away.


(8:01) Dr. Doreen Downing

Melissa, my goodness, what a story already, a journey of loss, extreme loss. And I want to come back to that theme in just a second. But you said a few things about early childhood. And I’m real curious and want to ask, because it has to do with voice. Because I feel like that’s where a lot of us have those foundational experiences of, I have a voice, I can speak up. And you said, you were very, very shy. And you also said you were terrified. And I was just wondering if you could dive a little back again and say, well, what were you terrified of?


(8:48) Dr. Melissa Reilly

You know, making life more difficult in some ways for those around me. I mean, my sister was dying so life was very difficult. And intuitively, there was an awareness that those around me couldn’t handle anything else. And so the other thing that I think contributed to it, and obviously I didn’t know any of this before this many years of reflection, was the fact that there would be times when I would wake up, and I wouldn’t necessarily know where I was because something happened in the middle of the night, and we would just be dropped off at whoever could take us.


(9:31) Dr. Melissa Reilly

And so, being in different environments sometimes was really scary as a little kid. Different customs, different rules, different parenting styles. Again, it was pretty rural area, and back in the 70s parenting was a little different than it is now. And so there was just things that were scary.


(9:50) Dr. Doreen Downing

That makes total sense, the context of which you were thrust in into, and partly how we express ourselves partly comes from the people that surround us. And we kind of mimic them and we get the welcoming. But not knowing this, this total lack of signals from the external environments, and especially being thrust in them at all times of the day, that makes total sense. And also what you said about holding yourself back, because your voice is just something that’s going to add to the burden of your parents, and you didn’t want to be disruptive is what it feels like.


(10:44) Dr. Melissa Reilly

Exactly, absolutely. They were dealing with I think what most people describe as probably the most terrifying and difficult thing to experience, and that’s the death of your own child. So, yeah there was always that sector there. That sense of the unthinkable, just about to happen.

(11:08) Dr. Doreen Downing

Do you think you were aware of the unthinkable that’s just about to happen also?

(11:14) Dr. Melissa Reilly

You know, at the age of four, I didn’t have a clear understanding of what death meant. But I certainly understood what it meant for things to not feel so good. For the sadness, for just this, this always, what’s the next thing that’s going to happen? And my sister, my older sister, Kim, being in and out of the house wasn’t unusual. So one day she’d be there, one day she’d be gone. And we wouldn’t know when she would come back. And then all of a sudden, she’d be back and we’d all have to wear masks, and you know, just different things.


(11:50) Dr. Melissa Reilly

And it was always this fear, right? If we start to sneeze or cough, right, then that could be dangerous. Because she was immunocompromised. So there was just always a sense of urgency, and things not okay. That took a long time to go away. And again, not having the awareness of what it all meant, again, I can look back and recognize but I was little, I was preschooler.


(12:23) Dr. Doreen Downing

Well, I so appreciate you going back to those moments and fanning them out the way that you have in such detail. Thank you, thank you. And what you’ve mentioned a couple of times is, it’s not something you were aware of then that, that kind of connecting the dots and having explanations like you have just done is like you bringing empathy to the little one who was left in that situation. And now you have such a depth of understanding of what you, or she, your little one had to go through. What a challenge.


(13:02) Dr. Doreen Downing

And then, of course, the accommodation to become super good at sensing, and listening, and adjusting yourself so that others can feel comfortable. And I get that it wasn’t just about you pleasing others, it was about you. I feel like part of our life stories about what we’re here to be doing anyway, and you were learning way back then how to be a healer, a guide to others who have to face pain. So thank you. All right, so graduate school. Launch forward again. Your older or younger sister, what was she facing?


(13:49) Dr. Melissa Reilly

Unfortunately, my poor sister really struggled with mental illness. So she had Bipolar I and just really struggled with life in general. She had some substance abuse issues. But thankfully, and I’m very proud of her, she was clean and sober for the last couple of years of her life. So she worked really hard to get there. But she just again, the bipolar was really significant. She developed pulmonary embolisms and there were different times where we became aware that there was something going on. But unfortunately, she had gone for testing at some point for sleep study, and showed up and told them that she had overdosed on pills as a suicide attempt.


(14:46) Dr. Melissa Reilly

So she was hospitalized and they never got back to studying that. And then after my mother passed, she was in and out of psychiatric units for several months of those seven months, not straight, but in and out. And she was living in a supportive housing community where she was working and when she was doing the best that she could. She just could not cope with that loss. And so she was actually in the hospital, and the psychiatrist was walking by, and she was sleeping, and he heard her disrupted breathing pattern as she slept, and so that sounded alarm bells for him, and started doing the testing.


(15:39) Dr. Melissa Reilly

So she was being monitored 24/7, and unfortunately, she had a pulmonary embolism. And they know it was a pulmonary embolism because of how it showed up in all of the recordings. And she just died instantly. And the sad thing about it is likely she had been having those pulmonary embolisms for quite some time, and they mimicked the experience of rage episodes or panic responses as the blood clots would hit her lung. And so because of our psychiatric history, which was significant that was real, the medical condition wasn’t identified as clearly as it could have been. And nobody’s fault, it was a complicated situation is just, it’s sad. It’s just really sad. So she passed at 25.


(16:39) Dr. Doreen Downing

And so you’re a few years older, you’re by now 27?


(16:44) Dr. Melissa Reilly

I was 27.


(16:48) Dr. Doreen Downing

Yes. And another loss and your mother had just died…


(16:50) Dr. Melissa Reilly

Seven months earlier. Yes. So I began life in a family of four girls and or three girls, and then became the only girl.


(17:04) Dr. Doreen Downing

Right? We call your mom a girl too.


(17:08 Dr. Melissa Reilly

Right, females, right?


(17:10) Dr. Doreen Downing

Yes. Well, let’s see before I asked you to just move forward in what happened next, because obviously has something to do with your mom and the death and how you cope. Where’s your dad all this time?


(17:29) Dr. Melissa Reilly

My dad struggled through all of it. And he had remarried, God bless them. And then a second wife passed after 15 years. But now he again is married a third time. And so he’s doing the best that he can. And we continue to have a close relationship.


(17:56) Dr. Doreen Downing

All right. So obviously, you went on in your own life. Tell us a little bit of how you became a clinical psychologist and the, what do we call ourselves, the wounded healers?


(18:07) Dr. Melissa Reilly

Yes, absolutely. My focus was my profession. I didn’t start my family until much later in life. And I had grieved and dealt with all of those losses. And it was about 12 years between the time you know, those losses that occurred, my mom and my sister, and the time I became pregnant. And unfortunately, I had some difficulty. I had three miscarriages prior to my fourth pregnancy, which was successful. And it was during that time, and they were all in rapid succession, it was during that time, particularly my pregnancy with my son, my fourth pregnancy, that I really started grieving very significantly.


(19:03 Dr. Melissa Reilly

Because I really wanted my mom to talk to about all this. There was just a sense of support that I wanted. I was very fortunate. My aunt, only 10 years older than I and she’s much more like a sister to me, was very supportive during this time. But I really would have liked to have talked to my mom about that. And then once I delivered my son, I was just a couple of days shy of 38. And that was a troubled pregnancy. So I was on bed rest, it was just very frightening. Because I went into labor at 26 weeks. And so I had a very small chance of carrying him to term which I did thankfully.


(19:51 Dr. Melissa Reilly

But again, I’ve really had so many questions that I didn’t have anybody to really go to, to ask for support. And as my son was born and he was a newborn, and in the early years, I felt like there was something wrong with me. This is where again, I felt like I didn’t have that voice. Things seem to be so much more difficult for me than they seem to be for everybody else. And here I was, 38 years old, I owned my clinical practice. I mean I had taught Human Development at the graduate level, for goodness sakes. I had the knowledge, right? And I knew who I was as a woman.


(20:37 Dr. Melissa Reilly

So I thought I had all my stuff together. And I was brought to my knees when my son was born. And I didn’t have the awareness that things are different if you’re a mom without a mom, and I kept it silent. And I felt shame. And I feel terrible about who I was, I felt like I was a bad mom. And the reality is, that isn’t true. That is not true. And that’s why I’m so thankful for being on your show.


(21:07) Dr. Melissa Reilly

Because I know, there are other moms out there that feel that same way, that sense of why is this so difficult for me? I mean, motherhood is difficult for everybody. I’m not going to pretend like it isn’t. But there are differences. And if you don’t recognize that, you just feel shameful. And when we feel shame, we don’t talk about it. We don’t speak up, we again lose that voice, and are silenced and then suffer alone.


(21:35) Dr. Doreen Downing

Oh, yes. But what you’ve just described is not just not having people around you to support you but specifically, what you’re talking about is the particular kind of energy of a mom. And it sounds like your message is reaching women who feel that same kind of lack of connection to their mother as they are becoming a mother themselves. I can imagine, you know what, this kind of transformation of going from a professional woman into being a mother and it’s a whole different requirement of energy and I heard you, I heard the deep need for somebody to be there and to have a mom energy as opposed to, let’s say your husband.


(22:36) Dr. Melissa Reilly

Yeah. And then I think that is important to point out no matter how supportive your life partner is, they’re still not your mom. It’s different.


(22:46) Dr. Doreen Downing

So how did you come to realize this had to do with your own experience?


(22:52) Dr. Melissa Reilly

In the work that I do, I have a clinical practice, I’ve been working with moms in a general practice, and I just started to notice that the more I worked with moms that didn’t have a mother, either because they were separated by death, estrangement, or even just physical distance, living in a different part of the world, that there were these commonalities. This longing, or the sense of grief for something they didn’t have in their life that they had wished they had, and that being a loving, supportive mother in their day-to-day life, but also this lack of having that go to person that is just in our corner. And so there was an extra weight and burden that they felt, a draining of energy.


(23:51 Dr. Melissa Reilly

And then also the third piece was not having that mother is a mirror for them in creating their identity, know who are we as a mom, when we don’t have our mom mirroring back to us. And so I start to see these common features. And so I started kind of recognizing in myself, I was like, yeah, no, I know, exactly.


(24:15 Dr. Melissa Reilly

And so I started putting things together. I started doing a little bit of research and kind of tried to find more information and realized there isn’t a lot of information out there regarding moms without a mom. And so I realized that this is an area I’m very passionate about. And the more I talk about it and think about it, the more I realized this was something I needed to pursue and I needed to really be that voice for those that haven’t found theirs yet in this area.


(24:52) Dr. Doreen Downing

What an honor and a privilege for you to be able to take on that mantle and to be the spokeswoman for moms without moms. How do people find you? Where’s your business now? Can you tell us a little bit about, well, now that we know you, and we know what you specialize in?


(25:17) Dr. Melissa Reilly

Sure, well, I started my coaching program, and it’s called Moms Without A Mom. And my website is easy to find it’s, Momswithoutamom.com. And I would love for your listeners to reach out. I offer a 30-minute call, no sales pitch, just me providing support. So please, if anyone’s listening, just give a call, and I’ll help you create your community, and feel good about where you are.


(25:51) Dr. Melissa Reilly

But I’m also on Instagram, moms without a mom, and Facebook, so all the general places, but probably the easiest place would be just my website, Momswithoutamom.com. And you’ll find I have some free guides for moms on there. The one right now that I really like is “Joy Being A Mom Again Quick Guide”.” So it helps moms with a small little strategy to bring their attention back to their present when they find themselves distracted by those difficult thoughts.


(26:24) Dr. Doreen Downing

Again, like I said, in the beginning, your tips could be used by any of us, not just those who have children. And one of the things I want to reflect back to you, Melissa is that people who aren’t listening, you have such a beautiful glow. And I think that people who are listening probably could hear it. You’ve got a wonderful kindness and a gentle spirit that feels like you know how to really hold space for people who need help that you can offer.


(26:56) Dr. Melissa Reilly

Thank you, Doreen. That means a lot to me coming from you. So thank you very much.


(27:02) Dr. Doreen Downing

Well, thank you for sharing your voice today.


(27:06) Dr. Melissa Reilly

It was my pleasure.

Also listen on…

7 STEP GUIDE TO FEARLESS SPEAKINGPodcast host, Dr. Doreen Downing, helps people find their voice so they can overcome anxiety, be confident, and speak without fear.

Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speakingdoreen7steps.com.

7 STEP GUIDE TO FEARLESS SPEAKINGPodcast host, Dr. Doreen Downing, helps people find their voice so they can overcome anxiety, be confident, and speak without fear.

Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speakingdoreen7steps.com.