John, Paul, And Maternal Loss: An Exploration

–by Karen Hooper

Over the past 30 years, there has been a growing body of research demonstrating how maternal loss psychologically impacts children and can shape their relationship patterns later in life. Historians agree that the deaths of Julia Lennon and Mary McCartney were among the most tragic and significant events in their sons’ lives, and that the loss of their mothers changed both John Lennon and Paul McCartney in fundamental ways. The purpose of this discussion is to review the anecdotal evidence about John and Paul’s experience of maternal loss within the context of this research.

Maternal Loss and Themes of Childhood Bereavement

Findings from a study published in the The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, summarized below, reveal how the handling of parental loss, both within the family and societal context, impacts the child’s grief process and later adjustment in adult life. The similarities between the themes of loss and the grief experience of Paul and John are striking:

While individual experiences of bereavement in childhood were unique and context bound, [there were] three common themes:

  1. disruptions and continuity;
  2. the role of social networks and communication, and
  3. the extent to which these dynamics mediated the bereavement experience and the subsequent impact on adult life.

Specifically, [the findings] illustrate how discontinuity (or continuity that does not meet the child’s needs), a lack of appropriate social support, and a failure to provide [age-appropriate] information…was perceived to have had a negative impact lasting into adulthood with regards to trust, relationships, self-esteem, and the ability to express feelings.

An important factor is whether the child feels safe and secure within a loving, supportive family, with a surviving parent who is able to parent effectively. Even temporary changes in parenting capacity was found to be distressing for bereaved children. It was considered essential that, where possible, children remain in their social networks and that families receive support which increases the stability, continuity and cohesion in the family system.   [This] includes essential practical support, (e.g, housework, cooking, shopping), as this reduces the social, economic and caring burden on the surviving parent.

Research findings [also] suggest that if the social network addresses the necessary ‘mothering/fathering’, then a child does not appear to be affected in adult life.

In applying these research findings to the grief experience of Paul and John, it’s clear that both experienced maternal loss within a family system, and within a societal context, that tended to prioritize the needs of parents and overlook the needs of grieving children. Children in both families (Paul and Mike, John’s sisters Julia and Jackie) were removed from their nuclear families and existing social networks. Children in both families were not provided adequate information about their mother’s circumstances prior to and/or following their death. Children in both families experienced depression, confusion, and social withdrawal.  Finally, children in both families dealt with their grief in the absence–at least temporarily–of an emotionally available caregiver.

It is no surprise, then, that John and Paul found solace and comfort from one another in the sharing of their grief experience. As Paul describes,

We had no idea what my mum had died of because no one talked about it. She just died. The worse thing about that was everyone was very stoic, everyone kept a stiff upper lip and then one evening you’d hear my dad crying in the next room. It was tragic because we’d never heard him cry.  It was a quiet private kind of grief.

My mother’s death broke my Dad up. That was the worst thing for me, hearing my Dad cry. I’d never heard him cry before. It was a terrible blow to the family. You grow up real quick, because you never expect to hear your parents crying. You expect to see women crying, or kids in the playground, or even yourself crying—and you can explain all that. But when it’s your dad, then you know something’s really wrong and it shakes your faith in everything. But I was determined not to let it affect me. I carried on. I learned to put a shell around me at that age. There was none of this sitting at home crying – that would be recommended now, but not then.

[Our mothers’ death] became a very big bond between John and me, because he lost his mum early on, too. We both had this emotional turmoil which we had to deal with and, being teenagers, we had to deal with it very quickly. We both understood that something had happened that you couldn’t talk about–but we could laugh about it, because each of us had gone through it. It wasn’t OK for anyone else. We could both laugh at death—but only on the surface. John went through hell, but young people don’t show grief—they’d rather not. Occasionally, once or twice in later years, it would hit in. We’d be sitting around and we’d have a cry together; not often, but it was good.

Mike McCartney echoed that sentiment:

We were the original Fab Four—Mum, Dad, Paul and me. When she died, I blamed everyone, including God, until I slowly worked out why she died. I think the reason was for us to learn from her death and treasure every second of life.

If Mum hadn’t died, there wouldn’t have been a musical existence for me or my brother. She’d have wanted us to go into the professions. I guess that was fate or luck. Mum’s death is not what you want, but Paul and I had an affinity with that.

We had an affinity with John, who lost his mum, too. Only people who have had death forced upon them like that understand. It’s the things you don’t say.

Disenfranchised Grief

One key aspect of the grief experience all too common in cases of childhood parental loss, and evident in the grief experience of John and Paul, is the notion of “grief disenfranchisement”:

Disenfranchised grief occurs ² when the loss does not receive normal social support, is not openly acknowledged or cannot be mourned publicly. Grief can be disenfranchised when the relationship with the deceased is not recognized, when the loss is not acknowledged or socially acceptable and when the griever is thought to be incapable of mourning [i.e, in the case of children.] The circumstances of the death and the way the bereaved chooses to mourn are additional factors that can result in disenfranchised grief.

These circumstances are defined by the culture and society in which they occur and imply “grieving rules” that determine who, how, when, for how long, where and for whom the individual grieves. These “grieving rules” do not allow the bereaved to adequately express their feelings in a way that others can and do…. Some individuals may fail to grieve or their grieving process may be interrupted or obstructed. Factors that influence the way an individual grieves include the relationship they had with the deceased, the circumstances around the loss, previous losses, personality traits in coping with distress and social circumstances.

Summary and Implications

The long-term effects of maternal loss and disenfranchised grief may be more easily hypothesized in John’s case, where its effects, coupled with the circumstances of John’s childhood, resulted in relationship patterns fraught with conflict, possessiveness, and overarching attachment difficulties.¹

In Paul’s case, however, the effects of maternal loss and disenfranchised grief might not be as obvious, but the clues are there. A study of Paul’s teenage relationships reveal that he tended to need and form close relationships with the mothers of his girlfriends. As a young adult, his was in constant conflict with Jane Asher, ultimately sabotaging their long-term romantic relationship because she was unwilling to vacate her career and devote herself to his care and wellbeing.  The success of his 30-year marriage to Linda Eastman, it can be theorized, was in no small measure due to Linda’s willingness to do the very thing Asher was not willing to do.

While many have claimed that this is more reflective of a “Northern Male” kind of chauvinism, it’s important to note that Paul’s marriage to Heather Mills and Nancy Shevall were diametrically opposite:  Paul used his considerable clout and social capital to snag Heather some lucrative career opportunities. Nancy is an American business woman whose family business requires her, with Paul’s support, to split her time between the UK and the United States. Perhaps Paul outgrew his chauvinism, but he also could have, over the course of his life, satisfactorily filled the emotional void left by his mother’s death.

It seems clear that both men made life-long attempts to fill the psychological void created by their mothers’ passing, whether subconsciously or by design. But, as this discussion of childhood maternal loss and its impact demonstrates, the consequences of these losses extend beyond the widely acknowledged, driven search for maternal figures, impacting other, less explored aspects of John and Paul’s lives and consequently, Beatles’ history. ³


As always, looking forward to your comments.


¹ For a good primer on attachment theory, read the summary by R. Chris Fraley, University of Illinois, Department of Psychology.

² The concept of ‘disenfranchised grief’ was advanced in 1987 by Dr. Kenneth Doka. He has written extensively on the subject and is considered a ground-breaking expert in the field of thanatology.

³ Many thanks to Erin for her historian’s eye and insightful suggestions in writing this piece.

Addendum:  I found an article written by Mike McCartney (Portrait of Paul) in an 1965 issue of Woman magazine, where he describes the aftermath of their mother’s death.  He says that he and Paul went to live with their Aunt and Uncle while Mary was still ill, and were still there when they were told she had died.  He also says this:

It was a terrible winter the year our Mum died. So bitterly cold. Paul and I would trudge home from school every day, our self-pity increasing the nearer we got to the house. For we knew there’d be no meal ready and no fire lit. […]

This was after we’d spent some time with our aunts and uncles – we’ll always be grateful to them. Aunt Joan, kindness itself, who knew better, at that time, than to show us any special sort of sympathy. But Uncle Joe was quiet – for him. Uncle Joe’s normally a real knock-out – small in size but big in feelings and with a great sense of humour. 

And then a while with Auntie Jin (Jane) and Uncle Harry – they have a large house at Huyton and we went to them for our first Christmas without Mum. Auntie Jin is a small, perceptive woman and very motherly. I remember one day she caught the two of us moping around and looking very much down in the dumps – not a bit like the two happy young chappies we usually were. 

She hesitated for a second as though not certain whether she should say anything or not, before she told us: “Listen, loves, I know you’ve gone through a fantastic time and I know the way you’re feeling, but you’ve got to try to think of other people. You’ve got to think of your father. I know this has been a great shock, but we all get great shocks and we have to get over them. Now you’ll really have to pull yourselves together. 

2 thoughts on “John, Paul, And Maternal Loss: An Exploration

  1. Erin says:

    Love the material here, Karen.

    We have John flat out declaring in “Lennon Remembers” that his mothers’ death was the worst thing that ever happened to him; Paul’s grief has not been readily obvious — you have to sift a little more to find it — but is certainly still there, for those who bother to look.

    The issue of disenfranchised grief is a particularly interesting one, to me. Wasn’t it one of the quarrymen who commented that they didn’t have much patience for John following John’s antics after Julia’s death, because so very many people had lost family members/parents previously in the war/blitz? I think that would be an element of grief particular to that particular time and place: not only were John and Paul disenfranchised due to their ages, as the study discusses, but also due to their historical context (immediate post-WWII Northern England). There’s a vague memory tickling my brain as well, regarding Paul and Mike, of the two of them moping around an Aunt’s house in the aftermath of Mary’s death, and the Aunt telling them that yes, they’d had a rough loss, but the only thing to do with it was pick up and carry on. Both anecdotes seem to reinforce the overall impression that being seen to be focused on individual grief was frowned upon during that time and place. I believe we also have a quote from Paul — possibly in Conversations with McCartney — where he mentions that his mother wouldn’t have wanted him to wallow in grief.

    The other area that caught my attention was how immediate disruption following the death of a mother can have such lasting repercussions to the child’s recovery and ability to deal with the grief. Jim McCartney’s brief breakdown following Mary’s death notwithstanding (how long was that? A few weeks?) numerous works, including Lewisohn, have detailed how the extended family pitched in, helping cook, clean, etc. There’s even a bit in the 1985/6 Playboy interview with Paul where he discusses how Linda does their own laundry, rather than paying to have someone else do it, and part of the reason for that is because Paul very fondly remembers laundry day at his house: his Aunts all gathered together, pitching in and talking and helping the McCartney’s get it done, even without Mary. One wonders how much Jim McCartney’s brief absence impacted the boys, because the study specifies that even brief disruptions can have serious consequences. At the same time, it appears that Paul had a lot of the supportive systems in place (the large extended family; a supportive surviving parent) needed to navigate such a loss, while John lacked many of those same structures, or, at least, didn’t enjoy them to the same extent as Paul.


    • Karen Hooper says:

      Thanks Erin.

      Funny you mention the judgemental attitude from John’s contemporaries re Julia’s death, because that has always been a big bugaboo of mine.

      It’s ridiculous of John’s contemporaries to pass judgement on his grief experience, especially when it’s based on a kind of shallow comparision to children who lost parents during the war. First, it implies that children who lost parents in wartime didn’t suffer greatly–they did. In fact, they suffered greatly even when they didn’t lose a parent. For example, studies examining the long-term effects of “Operation Pied Piper” (the wartime initiative in Britain to sent kids to foster families living in the countryside for their own safety) found that these children experienced more trauma than children who were allowed to stay with their families in war-torn cities. Second, these judgements also discount what the research tells us–that children suffer most following a parental loss if the pre-loss attachment is not secure, and if the family system of support has not been consistent and reliable. All of this just goes to show that society has much to learn about grief, especially when it comes to children and youth.

      Paul’s grief experience was kind of textbook of how not to deal with children in grief, although with some notable exceptions. The lack of information, the discontinuity of social supports via his removal from the home (reportedly for several weeks), being sent to school the next day (wow)–all a study of what not to do. Then there’s the positives: Paul and Mike had a consistently supportive and loving attachment to their mother (what the experts call “secure attachment”) which promoted childhood resiliency, post-loss; except for those weeks of deep grief, Jim was a loving parent who was able to mother and father his sons following their mother’s death. (Mike tells a cute story of how Jim would apologize for not holding their stomachs when they threw up–something their mother always did–because he was squeamish). There was the practical support from the family–the washing and cleaning and ironing–which is considered vital in keeping the surviving parent afloat. There was plenty of demonstrable love in that family.


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