On December 1, 1963, when Madonna was five years old, her mother and namesake died of breast cancer. The two had been particularly close, so the loss not only upended the young Madonna’s world, it changed who she was as a person. In 1989, the singer herself admitted to Rolling Stone about her mother, “If she were alive, I would be someone else. I would be a completely different person.”

Her mother’s death gave Madonna strength in the face of obstacles

After she relocated to New York City in 1978, Madonna found that life there wasn’t easy — and she definitely didn’t find overnight success. To make ends meet while trying to launch her career, she took jobs that included shifts at Dunkin’ Donuts and nude modeling gigs. During Madonna’s first year in New York, she was forced — at knifepoint — to the roof of a building, where she was raped.

Madonna has admitted that her early years in the Big Apple were a struggle. However, she’s also said that, despite everything she endured, it was still less difficult than losing her mother. And her mother’s illness and death also helped her daughter learn how to cope with adversity. Talking about her mother with the Chicago Tribune in 1989, Madonna said, “I don’t think she ever allowed herself to wallow in the tragedy of her situation. So in that respect I think she gave me an incredible lesson.”

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Losing her mother made Madonna have a ‘lack of inhibition’

Madonna’s life has been a master class in how to succeed while skirting the bounds of propriety. She demonstrated this with projects like the erotically charged coffee-table book Sex (1992) and the intimate, almost voyeuristic, film Truth or Dare (1991), which was made during her Blonde Ambition tour. According to Madonna, one reason she could push past societal restrictions and inhibitions is her mother’s death.

In 1991, Madonna told the Los Angeles Times, “I know that some of my lack of inhibition comes from my mother’s death. For example, mothers teach you manners. And I absolutely did not learn any of those rules and regulations.”

Madonna felt a drive to succeed due to her mother’s untimely death

Though Madonna’s career has seen a few missteps (such as the 2002 film Swept Away, made with then-husband Guy Ritchie), she’s remained a star for decades. One reason she’s still on top and has witnessed so many other careers rise and fall is that few people on the planet can match her drive to succeed.

In 2014, Madonna shared with David Blaine for Interview how the loss of her mother has motivated her. “I became very obsessed with death, and the idea that you never know when death will arrive, so one has to do as much as possible all the time to get the most out of life. That would be a motivating force.” Years earlier, when interviewed by Carrie Fisher for Rolling Stone, Madonna had admitted, “I’ve turned my need on to the world and said, ‘OK, I don’t have a mother to love me, I’m going to make the world love me.’”

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Madonna says she’s a ‘super control freak,’ due to losing her mom

Madonna once talked to Time magazine about a lesson she learned when she realized how ill her mother was. “I knew I could be either sad and weak and not in control or I could just take control and say it’s going to get better.” She has consistently tried to exert control in both her career and personal life. “Obviously, you could say it has to do with my childhood, if you’re going to psychoanalyze me: My mother dying and me not being told, and a sense of loss and betrayal and surprise,” she told Billboard in 2016.

In the Billboard interview, Madonna also stated, “You could say I’m a super control freak. That’s what everybody likes to say. I don’t want to have an event that I’m not proud of. It’s like everything that I do. My shows, my films, my house, the way I raise my children.” Given her success, being a “control freak” obviously has not hurt Madonna’s career. But her children (today Madonna has six children, just like her own mother) have sometimes felt differently. In 2016, her teenage son Rocco apparently balked at his mother’s level of control and decided to live most of the time with father Guy Ritchie in London.

Madonna’s work has often referenced her mother

Madonna’s deep feelings when it comes to her mother have been evident throughout her career. She visited her mother’s grave for her film Truth or Dare and has used imagery related to her death in music videos. Her 1989 album, Like a Prayer, was dedicated to her mother. Madonna considered how her mother felt as she was dying from breast cancer to inform her turn as the cancer-stricken Eva Perón in the movie version of Evita (1996).

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Madonna’s ballad “Promise to Try” from Like a Prayer, imagined a conversation with her mother; it was an attempt by the singer to come to terms with her loss. “When someone dies and the years go by, you tend to make them into something they’re not,” Madonna said to Rolling Stone in 1989. “The song ‘Promise to Try’ on the new album is about letting go of that.” However, it’s likely Madonna will never fully let go of the pain that was seared into her soul in childhood when her mother passed away.