Without My Mum – Leigh Van Der Horst (book review)

Earlier this year, I lamented the lack of books and stories about grief when I shared my own story of grief. I was, and remain, annoyed that grief is a largely taboo subject. We are expected to sweep feelings of grief and loss under the carpet, and to keep these feelings that are part of every human experience hidden.

So last month, when I was given the opportunity to read and review Without My Mum, I jumped at the chance. And here’s why.

Without My Mum / Leigh Van Der Horst

(Vivid Publishing, 2015)


Perhaps the only thing that can impact and shape a woman’s life with the same power as her mother’s love and guidance is her mother’s death. In Without My Mum, Leigh Van Der Horst shares her own honest, heartfelt story of losing her beloved mother to cancer in 2008. She invites us on a journey that is at times heartbreaking and others heartwarming, yet is ultimately comforting and inspiring. With genuine warmth and candor, Leigh tells of her transformative passage through devastating grief to rediscover and redefine her own identity.

This book is divided into sections. The first section is written in first-person (past tense) and tells Van Der Horst’s story. It is punctuated with journal entries (a mixture of past and present tense), and the narrative adopts the same familiar, reflective tone as the journal entries. It is powerful. As I read this section, there were giggles, naaawwww moments, then tears. Then more tears. And still more.

The grammatical pedant in me has to point out that there are spelling and sentence form errors. But the errors are consistent, and there came a point where I ignored the grammatical slips because I was reading someone’s life. I was holding Van Der Horst’s hand as she came to grips with first her mother’s illness, and then her death. And then with life without her mother.

The second section includes snippets from mothers the world over who have also lost their mothers. Some said goodbye to their mothers after they had become mothers themselves; some before they had the chance. Others farewelled their mothers before they’d left their own childhoods behind. All have wisdom to share and observations to make. Some are accepting, others confused and still others are angry. It’s real and raw. You may need tissues.

The third section offers parenting advice or, as Van Der Horst puts it, ‘a sharing of motherly wisdom between loving mums’. It is further divided into sections by child’s age and, as they get older, also by gender, before ending with general tips.

Without My Mum made me reflect on my own relationship with my mother, treasuring it all the more and making me admit to myself that I take her presence in my life for granted. It made me reflect on my memories of my father, and feel angry that he’s not here to enjoy his grandchildren. It made me feel happy, it made me feel sad and it made me feel angry.

It made me feel all of the feelings associated with losing someone.

Standout lines:

  • It was too hard to comprehend. Basically, I chose to take that path – to not comprehend. Then it didn’t have to feel real!
  • Mum’s final smile was such a lovely lasting memory for me to hold.
  • I had come to realise that only very few people could handle the reality of deep, dark grief.
  • You must acknowledge that grief has no limit. There is not a switch to turn it off and your journey to feeling whole again will take as long as is needed.

Without My Mum is an important book that opens up discussions about loss and grief. Recommended for anyone going through something difficult, and those trying to understand the journey of someone who is. You can purchase Without My Mum from Booktopia here or from Book Depository here.


Have you read Without My Mum? What did you think?

(NB: I received a copy of Without My Mum for the purposes of review. I have not been paid for this post. Thank you for sharing your book with me, Leigh, and congratulations.)

* Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you click to purchase the item, I earn a little commission, but you don’t pay any extra.


  1. says

    Thanks for this review.
    It sounds like a great book.
    I still have my mum. Something I am grateful for every day. I have a number of people around me who don’t and they feel that loss daily.
    I was sent a manuscript from a friend of a friend recently which was about her journey through her mothers illness and then losing her mum. I couldn’t put it down. It was a simple reflection of what’s important, what’s not and where gratitude comes from. I hope she gets it published. These reflections are important ….

  2. says

    The Hunter Writer’s Centre publishes an anthology of poems and stories on grief each year (I made the 2014 one, and the 2015 is due out next weekend). It sells out every year, so I think people find common ground and comfort in the words…

    • says

      Ooh, thanks for the heads up. I saw something about that this year but only a week from cutoff so didn’t submit anything. Congrats on being selected last year!

  3. says

    I tend not to read non-fiction so don’t think this one is for me, but I agree it’s important to talk about grief. I know some worry about wallowing but I think it’s entirely possible to move on in life and still experience that sense of loss. I was very close to my father and lost him a few years ago. I still have my mum, but without my own family I’m often reminded of how alone I’ll be after her passing. (And then feel bad I’m making it about me!)

    • says

      I think we all make everything about us. Even as we get older and empathise more, it’s usually from a base of imagining ourselves in someone else’s position. I think ‘wallowing’ has a bad name. Sometimes it’s necessary. And healthy. x

  4. says

    I have the book and I started reading it, but I stopped. I lost my mother over 23 years ago and when I began reading the book I think I was looking for some sort of resolution. But I realised there is none. I have dealt with my grief, but it is always there. Nothing ever prepares you for the death of a parent, or the loss of a parent and having to continue on. Maybe one day I will finish reading it, but right now I don’t think there’s anything there that will satisfy me personally. Let me say though, that talking about grief, loss and the grieving process is so important and I commend Leigh on writing this book.

    • says

      Thanks for sharing that, Jodi. I’m not looking for a resolution but I see what you mean. Totally agree that nothing can prepare you or offer the exact words or actions you need as you experience grief.

  5. Monique Fischle (Wallace) says

    I really want to read this book. It’s been nearly 12 years since I lost my mum and the grief I feel is still constant. It is still such a taboo topic, especially in the long term, as life goes on and people who haven’t experienced that profound loss struggle to comprehend just how much it affects your life.

  6. says

    I have this book, am one of the mum’s providing words of motherly wisdom in the back of the book, have done a review of this book on my blog, and happen to have known Leigh for around 4 years online and finally got to meet her IRL at the recent #PBevent ! It’s a fabulous book and such a credit to Leigh! I agree that there needs to more written about grief to help people navigate it and know how to talk about it when it comes. I’m so sorry to learn that you lost your father at such a young age Em. On a lighter note – it was so fabulous to meet you at PB! :-) xo

    • says

      Thanks Min – it was lovely to meet you too! More words on grief, yes. Less to help you navigate it and more to make you realise that there is no one way to grieve. And that everyone grieves. (Sounds like a bad REM song rewrite.)

  7. says

    Oh, Em. Your review makes me want to read it all the more. The relationship Ihave with my own mother is a complicated, at times tumultuous one. But I’m constantly searching for answers on how I will be able to deal with the inevitable. Nothing will prepar me for it completely but I do want to try and figure out some way to find peace.

    • says

      I don’t think anything will prepare you for the loss of a parent – I’ve already lost one, and can’t comprehend losing the other – but I do think this book might help people struggling to empathise with friends and family going through tough times. Thanks for sharing about your relationship with your mum, Grace. x

  8. says

    Whenever I see this book pop up on my social media, I really struggle with it. You see I just feel jealous that Leigh (and most people) got to have a great relationship with their mum while she was still alive. I never had that. My mother had serious mental health issues which meant we were estranged from before the time my son (Mr 21) was born. Four years ago, I found out she had died – nearly 5 years earlier! Some people were surprised when I just fell apart; I mean, she wasn’t part of my life so why was I so upset? It was because she was still my Mum, and somewhere, somehow, I nurtured a tiny flicker of hope that one day we would reconcile ….

    • says

      Oh, Janet. I can’t imagine what that’s like. Thanks so much for sharing that with me. I absolutely understand. I think grief isn’t just for what’s gone. It’s for what could have been. It’s 100% okay to grieve possibilities. x

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