Grief Doesn’t End Relationships. It Changes Them (Essay)

Words by Vivian Nunez. Photo illustration by Sam Liacos.
The ways I relate to my deceased mother evolved rather than stopping.

I grew up with a dead mom. It feels strange to write, because the concept of “growing up” screams life, screams presence, screams someone else being there to grow up with. Except with my mom, it was the opposite. She was there, but she also wasn’t. 

Memories of her aged like fine wine, where they became more refined, but also harder to pull out individual notes. Seventeen years after her death,  I have a hard time distinguishing the roots of who she was, like her laugh or her personality. Lately especially, I’ve been sitting  with how our relationship has changed as I’ve grown, even if she hasn’t. 

I was a motherless child when I was 10 years old, but now at 28 years old, I can’t say that I experience her and our relationship like I did then. I need differently, I want differently. I am a motherless adult, and that has come with its own shifted outlook on the “us” that matters now. Parts of her life that were of little consequence to me back then are suddenly the core of our relationship. This is what I mean when I say our relationship has changed. I mean that because I grew up with her, the pieces of her that I ignored by default are the ones I hold onto now. They bring me comfort and they help answer questions that I maybe would have asked her now if she were still around. 

I think of her as a woman, like I now am. I think of her being 28, four years before she had me, and wonder if her late twenties prepared her for mothering, and if mine will in some way do the same. I wonder about her thoughts on love and realize that she experienced more heartbreak than I ever cared to notice. She had split from my brother’s father and lived life as a single mom. She pulled herself through college and worked six days a week. She nursed her heart back to a wholeness that allowed her to move through other relationships that I now realize required bravery, and that takes time and commitment to rebuild. After my own heartbreak in my early twenties, I wondered what advice she would give me or what learning I could pull from the way she lived her life. 

When I was 10, no one ever told me that my relationship with my mom would keep changing even though she died, but it has, and hindsight makes me think, of course it would

Our relationships with those we lose don’t stop being complicated, layered, or present just because our people may have taken their last breath.

My love for her and my need for a mom–my mom–has never changed. Our relationships with those we lose don’t stop being complicated, layered, or present just because our people may have taken their last breath. We still need to work through resentment, maybe manage forgiveness if there is something to forgive, settle into joy when we think of their bubbly personalities. The clearer they become in relation to who we’ve become, the more those remaining puzzle pieces start falling into place. 

And of course they would, because we keep living. We keep breathing. We keep changing and becoming. 

At the heels of my birthday this year, I considered more than ever who my mom was as an adult and the similarities we shared. I’ve had conversations with her in my head about whether we are similar women or miles apart. To some, those conversations may seem one sided, but for me, they were like conversations with God where what mattered was true, even if she didn’t speak back.

My mom loved me. My mom tried her best as a mom, as a woman, and as a nurturer for her career and personal growth. 

I get to say that my mom and I are very similar because at the heart of it, I’m doing all of the above, too. Where grief may sometimes feel like a thief that robs us of everything  when it arrives, I think it actually leaves more behind than we know how to pull together. This is why time and the slow changing of relationships not only works, but is needed, so we can understand our relations to them better as we slowly get to know ourselves more.