This Is A Dead Mom Essay

I was sixteen when my mother died. I was a baby when she was diagnosed with cancer the first time. Five when she was diagnosed the second time. Seven, the third. Then eleven, when my dad picked me up at softball practice to let me know that my mother’s bone marrow transplant hadn’t worked, and the cancer was back, forever associating the clank of aluminum bats with bad news. Then thirteen, when I got off the bus and could tell just by looking at my dad’s face. The recurrences and diagnoses blend together after that. There was more chemo, another transplant. My mother died with the white blood cells of an anonymous German man — her third set.

I’d already felt like I was growing up in some significant way during my sixteenth summer. I had tried to break up with my therapist earlier that year. I think maybe I thought I’d outgrown her — she had toys in her office. Legos and dolls and games.

I was sixteen, writing impassioned letters to my first girlfriend. I was sixteen, and the last Harry Potter book had just come out, which, after growing up with him, seemed to mark the end of an era in my life. I was sixteen, and I was learning to drive. I was sixteen, so when my mother walked behind me at a snail’s pace, I wasn’t worried that my beloved Mama and best friend might be silently slipping out of existence — I was just frustrated. I was sixteen.

I was sixteen when I found myself back on the therapist’s couch beside the legos, hurling myself down where I always sat, on the seam between two cushions, despite having the entire couch available to me. I stared at her. She stared at me. I said, “We were out running errands last week, and three days later, she was dead!”

On the morning my mom died, I came home from the hospital with my dad and my grandparents and my aunt and my uncle. I sat on the couch, eating a yogurt, becoming more and more agitated, feeling like the only thing that might possibly help would be if I could crawl out of my own skin. The only thing anyone could think to do with me was send me to school, for Student Leader Training, which had been the day’s original plan — the one written in on the calendar my mom kept, before August 28th became the Day She Died. I sat there, in the training, wide-eyed, staring into space. The facts of the day marched back and forth in my brain. It seemed impossible that I still seemed to exist, despite the fact that the thing I had dreaded most my entire life had finally happened.

I spent the next few years on a righteous search for meaning and purpose, literally traveling to the other side of the world to try and convince myself that I could transform the gaping hole in my life into something else. This was reinforced by the books I read, which were primarily tropes of transformation by straight white women whose great losses were usually men who had broken their hearts. I’m still young, I know, but I was so young, then. Eighteen. Trying to do things on my own. Certain I could. I thought I could force myself into some sort of moment of self-acceptance and actualization. By the time I got to college, I had disengaged — I pushed my grief deep inside myself somewhere. I thought I had moved on to other things. I was wrong.


I went to a training at the hospital in my first year of college. People swapped hospital stories while we waited to go inside. Broken wrists. Appendicitis. Kidney stones. I realized the last time I was inside a hospital was the day my mother died, nearly four years earlier.

As we went up the elevator, I began to hyperventilate. My vision got fuzzy. My ears began to buzz. We stepped out of the elevator and I froze. “I can’t go in! I can’t go in!”

My friend grabbed me, pulled me back into the elevator and took me outside, where I calmed down and cried. I spent the rest of the weekend in bed watching old romantic comedies my mom and I used to watch together: Maid in Manhattan, Father of the Bride: Part II.

I trod carefully around hospital and dead-mom triggers after that, throwing myself into feminist and queer activism and academics. I was politicized because I came to understand that my privileged background meant that I had had my mother much longer than I might have otherwise, and I wanted to work against the systems that prematurely and unnecessarily tear people from their loved ones. But I almost never talked about this. I avoided actual discussion of mothers. When cancer narratives came up on syllabi, I skipped class. I walked away, infuriated, when friends started to talk about how much their mothers annoyed them. People were either too sentimental about their dead mothers or too ungrateful for their living ones. I didn’t want to engage with the feelings all this brought up. The few times I tried, it was too hard. I wanted to seal off that part of my life. It seemed easier.


In my third year, I found myself miserable. I cried a lot about the world. I cried a lot about a girl. I hid in my room in the co-op on the edge of campus and listened to more Tegan and Sara than I’d ever listened to in my life.

And then something shifted. Maybe it was because I started thinking differently about the residual feelings from the breakup that had steamrolled me the year before — I finally let myself be angry at the girl who had broken my heart. Maybe it was because I was making some serious plans about my future. Maybe it was that my queer community felt stronger than ever. Maybe it was that it was spring. Maybe I was just growing up. I don’t know exactly what happened, but something changed. I kept crying, but suddenly I was actually crying about my mom. On my 22nd birthday, I kissed a girl I liked, went running, and Laneia published “I Am Jack’s Preoccupation with Mortality.” I wrote her a note:

“I sit here, crying these tears that I really needed to cry, and some of them are sad tears for my mama who will never meet this girl I’m crushing out on, and will never meet a child of mine, and will never cry to me on the phone; and some of them are happy tears, because I’m 22 and alive and strong and this girl kissed me in the sunshine today and maybe someday it will be my own child’s 22nd birthday.”

Having grown up with my mom being sick and then dying when I was 16 feels like exactly as significant and inextricable a part of my identity as being queer or anything else. So it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that trying to hide from it took me, more than once, to a breaking point. Once I was able to step into it, I began to blossom.

I needed stories about people losing their moms. It’s still unclear to me if I’ve read so few dead mom narratives because I’ve been afraid of them or because they simply don’t exist. It seems to me like most dead mom stories have either a long-dead mom, or a mom who dies when the daughter is old. Dead parent stories where the parent dies young and while the child is old enough to comprehend what’s going on seem, to me, to almost always be about dead dads.

Whether it was about an actual lack of resources or my own refusal to engage with them, that spring, I was finally ready to read stories about women like me. And then Cheryl Strayed came to speak at my school.

At the time, I knew nothing of Cheryl Strayed except that she’d written a book called Wild. From what I’d heard, Wild sounded like a cross between Eat, Pray, Love and A Walk in the Woods — both books I’d found interesting, entertaining and exasperating. Wild might have been compelling to an earlier me, I was sure, but it wasn’t something I felt a need to go out of my way to read. When my journalism professor invited her to have a conversation about writing Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, I only went because I’d been giving him a hard time about including women in the syllabus. He’d framed it as a course about “New American Media,” and yet, we only were reading work by two or three women in the entire semester. My exposure to “New American Media” had been meaningful mostly because of the women and people of color I’ve gotten to read on small indie blogs and Twitter, who I never would have read if my media was only widely read publications with “New York” in the title. I let him know my frustrations with the syllabus, calling him out in class and also in my final project. So when he advised us to come to a reading by a woman whose work he enjoyed, I figured I should go.

I was thoroughly overwhelmed to find myself face to face with another woman who’d lost her mother to cancer at 22: the same way I’d lost my mother, and the age I’d just turned myself. I cried in the reading. My voice broke as I told her about my mom while she signed my book, “Happy trails.” I read the book slowly, partly annoyed at how many stupidly near-death moments she had on the trail and entirely fascinated at how closely I related to her grief. Consumed and fixated on the pain of losing her mother, and everything else attached to it, she kept walking, determined to find a way, somehow, to be alive. It was the first thing I’d read about a woman whose mother died that didn’t have me searching for all the ways my narrative was different, that didn’t make me feel more alone.


Last May, I graduated from college, and that summer, as I tried to figure out what the next steps in my life would be, I also started seeking out more narratives of women who’d specifically lost their mothers. I came to the startling and immensely comforting revelation that many of the things that I had been fighting to keep from consuming me in the years since my mom’s death are normal. It was immensely comforting to me, and also a little frustrating — Everyone else feels this way, too? And I’m only finding out now? I felt so relieved.

As I read, I also made plans to drive across the country at the end of the summer, alone. I scrawled out a schedule on a piece of yellow legal paper. I didn’t give much thought to my plans for August 28th, the seventh anniversary of my mother’s death.

I’d never been alone on this day. Since the morning she died and I was sent off to school anyway, there’d always been stuff going on to distract me, especially when I’d been at school doing trainings for freshman orientation, or moving myself in. I didn’t have the distractions this year. It was just me, in my car, alone on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

I was driving along the access road on Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, following the southern shore of Lake Superior and listening to a boring podcast, when it became apparent that I had come to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to scream for my mother where no one could hear me. And so I screamed. I screamed for the woman who’d been my best friend. I screamed for the woman who will never sit beside me driving along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. And then I cried, calling for my mother while I drove with my hands in the ten-and-two position, keeping myself magnificently alive while I faced the fact that we would never live in the same time and space again, head on.


“In your twenties, you’re becoming who you’re going to be, and so you may as well not be an asshole.” – Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things

I was listening to Tiny Beautiful Things on tape in the car, and this was the line that resonated, bouncing around in my head. I wrote it on my journal. I don’t think this is exactly as she meant it, but I took it as a very serious instruction to not be an asshole to myself. “Not being an asshole” to myself meant letting myself look straight on at what it meant and means to me to not have my mother living and breathing alongside me. “Not being an asshole” to myself meant admitting that my mom’s death and her illness permeate every single part of my being, and always will. It’s not the only thing that will. The fact that I am her daughter, with her sense of humor and her determination and possibly her bunions, also permeates all of me. There are other people who know something about what this means. “Not being an asshole” means connecting with them. I think about who I am, and what I want my life to be, who I am becoming, as this woman here, in this skin I never managed to crawl out of: a strong, independent, queer woman who lost her mother at sixteen.

As I drove further west, now on the other side of the seven-year anniversary, I tried so hard to give myself room to just be. I wasn’t trying to be intrepid. I wasn’t trying to be Chris McCandles or John Muir or even Cheryl Strayed. I drove across the Midwest and the Plains and into the Rockies over interstates paved with tar and federal infrastructure bills, over land colonized by my ancestors and occupied by my country. Though I was physically far from home, I was hardly isolated, with my iPhone by my side and the same box stores and strip malls popping up again every couple hundred miles. But the physical distance had me flip-flopping between loneliness and bliss in my solitude. I wanted to go “home,” but where was home anyway? And so I kept driving, satisfied, if not entirely comfortable, with myself.

I will always be the girl whose mother died when she was sixteen. I will let myself sit with that, in this skin right here. Simmer in it, soak in it. Cry in it, happy and sad tears all at once.

Autostraddle staff writer. Copy editor. Fledgling English muffin maker. Temporary turtle parent. Zine creator. Swings enthusiast. Political human who cares a lot about healthcare and queer anti-carceral feminisms. I asked my friend to help me write this bio and they said, "Good-natured. Friend. Earth tones." Another friend said, "Flannel babe. Vacuum lover. Kind." So. Find me on Twitter or my website.

Maddie has written 100 articles for us.

56 Comments

  1. Thank you for this essay. I lost my mother when I was 17, cancer too. I relate a lot to this. She meant so much to me. I struggled a lot my entire life, but last year, at 33, I came to the realization that I was Trans and I finally knew who I was, my life finally made a bit of sense. As I try and crawl back from the hole I was in, I begin my transition and I am finally able to grief, it is a relief. She’ll never know that i was her daughter and not her son, I’ll never be able to know her as an adult.

    “I will always be the girl whose mother died when she was sixteen. I will let myself sit with that, in this skin right here. Simmer in it, soak in it. Cry in it, happy and sad tears all at once.”

    This is exactly this, thank you…

  2. Thank you so much for being so raw with us. I still haven’t processed my grandpa passing away and my friend was just over yesterday to look over a tattoo I’d designed in memoriam of his mother (who died very suddenly just after we’d started college). I really appreciate your insight and strength. Memory and mortality have definitely been on my mind.

  3. I needed to read this this morning as it is my mother’s birthday or it would have been. She died from cancer when I was 24 and it broke me. It permenantly altered who I am as a person more than anything else probably ever will. I wasn’t that young anymore but I was still too young to take care of the person who was supposed to take care of me. It didn’t make sense. It still doesn’t. In that whole process though I figured out I was gay because I was already falling apart so why not make it more complicated. I never told her because her brain tumor had already made her too confused and I didn’t want to confuse her more. I told myself it didn’t matter but it does. I’m sad for all the things she doesn’t know about me, all the things I don’t get to share with her and it just sucks.

    This was a beatuful, honest and heartbreaking read. Thank you for that. (And this is also my very first comment on autostraddle so kudos to you for finally making me comment instead of just reading.)

    • Happy birthday to your mother! I hope you took a little time to celebrate her memory. This isn’t something that appeals to everybody (or that always appeals to me), but I often write to my mom or talk to her on her birthday, catch her up on what is new about me. It’s not the same as if she were actually here, and it makes me miss her so much, but it also can feel really great.

      And thanks for commenting. I hope we continue to see your name around here <3

  4. I am 24 and my mom died suddenly 5 months ago. It’s so unusual, but so true, that we find comfort knowing that other people have felt how we are feeling. Losing a mom and a best friend at the same time is horrible, as many of you know, but it’s important to remember that we only get one opportunity at life, and our moms would all be pissed if we wasted our opportunity being sad!

  5. I really appreciate you writing this piece. My mom also died of cancer when I was sixteen, five years ago. I too have trouble finding other stories of women who lost their moms as teenagers. I hear about women whose moms died when they were adults and I mostly feel resentment and very little affinity. I hope that in time those feelings will subside.

    When my mom was sick I was so scared of her one-day death defining me. That I’d become the girl whose mom died. When my sister was 12 she read her best friends diary (admittedly, uncool move) where she was written about as “the loud one whose mom died.” But when you write, “I will always be the girl whose mother died when she was sixteen,” that really resonates with me. No matter how uninterested I am in peoples pity, no matter how much I don’t want to be defined by my greatest loss, my mom died when I was sixteen and people can’t know me until they understand the ways that that dictates my entire life.

    Thank you for writing this. I hope to one day be able to write one of my own.

  6. My mom died 10 days after my 15th birthday. This past summer was the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death. My mother’s death also led to a new identity as an orphan – my dad signed custody of me over to my grandmother (his mother) and never looked back. I haven’t seen him since then.

    Becoming an orphan at age 15 is *such* a significant part of my identity. So yes, to all of this article. <3

  7. “we only get one opportunity at life…our moms would all be pissed if we wasted our opportunity being sad!”

    Yes, but we can only be human.

    One thing I have learned in my own experience with mother-loss is to let myself just be, whatever that means on a particular day, at a particular moment. Sometimes I need to let the permanent grief crack inside myself open up and release pent up feelings of loss and sadness. Sometimes I feel a need to do something fun that she and I would have done together and take the time to remember her. And sometimes I just need to be angry at the world for being so unfair.

    I was 15 when she was diagnosed with cancer and she died one week after my 20th bday. That happened 15 years ago, and while my grief bubbles have become less frequent, when they surface my feelings are just as raw and intense as when I first experienced them. I actually wouldn’t have it any other way.

    It is undeniably sad, but it is also incredibly human. I don’t push it down (not usually, anyway) and it is part of who I am forever forward. Like you, I have found comfort in hearing other people’s stories. Thank you for sharing yours.

  8. The outpouring of love here means so much to me. Thank you everyone. I feel so humbled and grateful for those of you who have said I made you feel less alone, because your sharing your own stories makes me feel so much less alone, too.

  9. Maddie, thank you for sharing your experience here. To have lost your mum so early must have been overwhelming. Reading your experience,as you have recounted it here,has helped me too. Loosing your parents is inevitable and at whatever age that it happens it shatters and remakes your world. The only good thing about it happening as an older person is that you have a bit more life experience to bring to your grief. I’m so sorry that it had to happen to you so early.

  10. I’m 34. My mom died 3 weeks ago from lung cancer. I am so completely changed and I yet I am watching myself get up and work and laugh and talk every day and I feel both proud and disgusted at myself for that. No one tells you about how guilty you will feel for wanting to get back to your life and live, but also how relieved you are when the waiting is over.

    Every one of takes up such a massive space it the world – my Mom was kind and thoughtful and distracted and a great cook and a procrastinator (just like me) and she loved the birds outside her window and and and. The enormity of all of that ending will take my whole life to comprehend.

    Thank you for this, it made me cry and I really fucking needed to.

  11. Maddie, how did you manage to sum up SO PERFECTLY what I’ve been feeling about losing my mom 27 years ago at the age of 13? The fact that I didn’t know about her death…and burial until after the fact has been particularly difficult for me, her only child.

    I was in tears from the opening paragraph and it is a veritable flood now that I’ve read all the comments. Thanks for sharing such a personal story and thanks to every person who has commented on their own experience.I don’t feel like such an anomaly anymore.

  12. I lost my mom at 10, and I’m sitting in a coffee shop with tears pouring out of my eyes feeling so, so validated that 15 years later, it’s okay to still have all these feelings. Thank you for this.

  13. I was 15, now 22 and it took about 4-5 years for it to actually start sinking in that she’s not going to be here for the rest of my life. Grief is different for everyone, and I thought it had skipped me. Golly was I wrong. I don’t think it’ll ever be ‘ok’ that she’s gone (no matter what we tell people…), but it does get easier. Having said that, it’s mothers day here in the UK, and I’ve had to listen to adverts and people and see cards and gift ideas for weeks talking about how to ‘make it the best mothers day for her’, and I really just… ugh. it’s hard, it always will be, but articles like this help because they remind me that I’m not alone, we’re not alone in feeling grief and missing someone, and thank you for writing this, because I’m not sure I would have been able to. I’m so sorry that you’ve lost your mum, and everyone else in the comments, but I hope we can all take comfort from the fact that we’re not alone.

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