This essay is part of a series profiling the inspiring women of Together Live, a band of all-female storytellers who will travel across the U.S. this fall, spreading love, laughter, and hope. In 10 cities, big and small, the intimate, one-night-only events serve as a reminder that no matter what divides us, women are strongest when we come together. Learn more about Together Live here—and get excited to join the party.
When I was five or six, my parents got divorced. By the time I was a teenager, I realized that my parents’ divorce was one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to me because it allowed me to be free of a home where there was domestic violence and emotional abuse. But what I can tell you is that, when my parents were getting divorced, I was so distraught and so sad. I experienced real grief and real heartbreak as a child.
But the great, big, giant loss of my life is my mom’s death. There are certain kinds of losses that are simply forever. The loss of my father is also in this category. You don’t get to go back in time. You either have parents who were there for you and did a good job of living for you, or you didn’t. And if you didn’t, it is a loss that you have to reckon with for the rest of your life. I don’t mean that it will always rule you or always be something that holds you back; in fact, it’s the contrary. I think some of our biggest losses can actually be our greatest gifts because they teach us all about how to be strong and resilient—how to have compassion for others. They teach us that, in life, there can be beauty even in the face of suffering and loss.
Losing my mom is a loss that defined my life. It defined in so many ways what I would need to do to feel safe in the world, what I would need to do to feel loved in the world, how I would try to fill the gigantic hole she left in my life when she died. When my mom died, so much of that destructive stuff I did—using drugs or having promiscuous sex or any sort of reckless behavior—was so much about love, so much about trying to find love in this weird way, trying to show the world this woman’s life meant so much that I’m going to ruin mine to honor her. So that’s what was really going on for me in those “wild” years after she died.
A really important thing that I just want to say out loud over and over again—a thing I know to be true in my own life, and that I also know to be true in other peoples’ lives—is that it never stops being a loss. It still is not okay that my mom is dead. It still makes me sad. I still feel her absence in my life. But it’s a different kind of feeling. It’s not like I’m in pain every day and I can’t bear it.
“I love my kids the same way my mother loved me, and perhaps that’s the most powerful way I’ve carried her.”
I also got married ridiculously young—way too young. I was a crazy young person who was just wildly in love. And very quickly after I married my first husband, I realized that while I did love him, I shouldn’t be married to him. And so when my mom died, what happened is my grief was so tremendous that it was like everything in me just disintegrated and I couldn’t pretend anymore. I couldn’t hold that marriage together. I couldn’t continue to stay inside of something that wasn’t exactly what I wanted. And my marriage fell apart because of it.
I really, really, really, really grieved the loss of my first marriage, even though I was the one who said “I don’t want to be married anymore. Let’s end this.” But it was a different kind of grief than the grief I had for my mom. I’ll always grieve my mom. It’ll be a loss that will always be a hard one for me. The loss of my first marriage was a temporary grief; it was a temporary loss.
There shouldn’t be this timeline for grief. I think pathologizing pain is something that our culture does quite well. You should be sad if somebody you love deeply dies. That’s a normal response to a really sad, hard thing that happened. The first [step to healing] is to accept that sorrow is real and it’s going to take some time for it to lift. And then once it does lift a bit, to accept that—to accept that that’s not a sign of your lack of love, or commitment, or dedication to that person, but that it’s really that your loss is shifting into something a little deeper, where you’re starting to say, “I realize that this thing is true. This is a fact. My dad isn’t going to reappear like a magic genie and be there in my life again, ever again,” or “My mom isn’t.”
We have to carry it—to say that the person is gone forever, but at the same time will always be present, so that in the absence of the beloved, there is a profound presence that we can make manifest in our lives by the things we do, and live, and believe, and say.
I love my kids the same way my mother loved me, and perhaps that’s the most powerful way I’ve carried her; I’ve carried that full-throttle-wild-abandon-imperfect-but-without-any-question-it’s-there love that I got from my mom, and I give it to my kids and they carry it forward. They’ll carry it onward. She’s alive in them; she’s alive in their spirits, even though they never met her.
The power of vulnerability is also truly magic. Vulnerability, I’ve become convinced, is the way to get love. And, of course, many of us decide not to be vulnerable because we’re afraid. But vulnerability is the way to get love, romantic or otherwise. The minute you’re the one who says “I’m afraid right now” or “I’m missing my mom” or “I am in the midst of a divorce,” the minute you simply say what’s true, people open themselves up to you, and they offer you consolation—an essential connection.
“Nobody’s going to love a cardboard-box version of you. Nobody wants to feel like they’re knocking at a closed door when they’re in a relationship with you. We want the real, juicy, meaty you. We want the tender stuff on the inside.”
I think that so much of loving well is about courage. It’s about telling the truth as soon as possible, as often as you can. That’s the secret to a good life, and that’s about vulnerability. Vulnerability is simply telling the truth about who you are, as often as you can, in any given situation. And nobody said any of this was going to be easy. If you’re looking for love again, there’s just no way around the fact that you have to be vulnerable in order to connect with others. Nobody’s going to love a cardboard-box version of you. Nobody wants to feel like they’re knocking at a closed door when they’re in a relationship with you. We want the real, juicy, meaty you. We want the tender stuff on the inside.
And so I think it’s just about saying, “Suck it up and be brave.” It really is. And a good way to practice it is doing it every day, in every relationship, in every context. Say the true thing.
Originally Appeared on Glamour