I’m really sorry, Emergency911; that’s a terrible thing to have happened, and I really feel for both your daughter and you.
lavenderviolet’s post has just about everything I was about to say. I lost my mom to cancer when I was 19, and my father after an accidental fall about 18 years later (in 2003). My experiences with and reactions to these losses were very different, both because of my age and the different ways they died–and lived.
I would echo and emphasize lavenderviolet’s suggestion to be on the lookout for grief. Kids are known for ‘magical thinking’, believing that their actions or behaviors or even mere thoughts can somehow impact others despite not really having any direct effect. I was the only member of my family not to travel with my mom to the Bahamas for this experimental treatment, staying behind (with my parents’ approval) because I was directing a musical that summer. I had no idea that my mom’s situation was dire (though looking back as an adult, I can’t believe how oblivious I was) and that our goodbye before she left would be the last time I’d see her. She died over in the Bahamas and after the numb shock of learning the news, I went straight from depression to guilt for being so selfish and blind as to not having gone with the rest of my family. I spent years punishing myself for not just my being away from her during her last weeks, but all the little spats we’d ever had, particularly during her illness. I thought I hadn’t been a good enough daughter to see that she was dying, or to treat her better when she was alive, and even harbored the (now obviously ridiculous) notion that if I’d been with her she somehow wouldn’t have died.
There’s really no way to prevent this guilt from happening; it’s really natural and an unfortunate part of the grieving process. But you can alleviate it by addressing the cause of her death (once you find out what it was) as factually as possible, explaining that it wasn’t preventable, and even reassuring her that her mom would never ever want her to feel responsible in any way; depending on the cause of death (and your ex-wife’s personality) you might go so far as to tell her that her mother would likely have wanted to avoid having her daughter there to experience what would have been a terrifying situation. Moms and dads want to protect their children and she wouldn’t have wanted her daughter there.
(When my mom died, she did so after my father left her hospital room to finally get some sleep, and when my sister had fallen asleep in her chair at the hospital; afterward, they felt on some level that Mom was waiting for her family to not be around in order to finally go of the pain she was experiencing. Pragmatically I doubt that’s true, but I sure hope it is–and I know it does give them comfort from the guilt they felt for not being present when she actually died.)
I also second most strongly the advice to make it clear to your daughter that she can talk about her mom, and whatever her feelings are, they’re perfectly natural and she shouldn’t be ashamed in any way, even if there are some “bad” thoughts in there (like anger toward her mom or having fleeting thoughts of not wanting to deal with relatives at the funeral or wanting to watch TV or text or whatever normal 13-year-old activities she wants to take part in).
After my mom died and my father met and grew attached to another woman about a year later, it became extremely difficult to talk about Mom to him, mostly because his girlfriend was a jealous, callow bitch and didn’t like to discuss the past or even “allow” him to spend time alone with us. (I put scare quotes around “allow” because my father was an adult, and if he’d wanted to put his foot down about seeing us, he certainly could have. I think he felt guilty about moving on and also he was one of those old school dads who thought not talking about someone you missed would help you move on with your life.) My sisters and I spoke to each other about our mom, but I know all of us felt hurt and frustrated by our father’s reticence on the subject of the woman he’d loved and spent 36 years with. It was like our years with her were no longer significant.
In addition to the feelings about her death I was also mourning her life to a degree–my mom had lingering depression and guilt after the death of my brother and I never really grokked that until I was an adult and was able to look over her life and how clearly unhappy and angry with herself she was. She never forgave herself and never let herself move on from his death. I spent years feeling as if I were betraying her memory by moving on with my own life in a way she never could.
So my point is, your daughter may well want to talk about her mom, and ask you questions, and she needs to be not just reassured but encouraged to discuss whatever she wants to about her mom.
I might add that in addition to one-on-one therapy, the most help I received was with an ongoing group session for people who’d lost their loved ones. Hearing all the others’ experiences really helped me understand how common my own feelings were, and also by helping to reassure them that they weren’t responsible for their loved ones’ deaths, I eventually started to realize that my advice applied to me as well.
Anyway. Basically, listen to lavenderviolet. And maybe it might help if you spoke with a grief counsellor as well, not just about your daughter, but about any of your own feelings and reactions to all this.
Oh yipe I almost forgot: you might want to look for the book Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman. It’s an amazingly powerful and touching book that looks into the many ways girls and women react to the loss of their mothers.
Please let us know how you’re all doing, if you can.