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Twenty years ago, when I was 10, my mom died of colon cancer. That’s how I like to tell people: as quickly as possible. I say it before I know them. I say it as fast as I can, usually shoving a second topic into the same sentence. My mom died when I was 10 — what have you been reading lately? My mom died when I was 10 — do you want to order another round? I’ve said it on first dates and in job interviews. I say it as fast as I can because I can’t stand the face people make. Their eyes get a little wider, their eyebrows raise and reach toward each other, their mouths tug down just the slightest bit. They pity. Their faces say, “Oh, honey,” and I want to bolt, so I bolt past that part of the conversation. They always make the same face; I have learned how to make that face disappear as quickly as possible.
But there is another face, sometimes. I recognize other “dead mom kids” almost instantly. They don’t pity — they laugh. They raise their hand for a high five. They respond with, “Mine too!” and my whole body relaxes.
In writing, I have found more and more dead mom kids. (You’re a dead mom kid no matter how old you were when your mother died, by the way.) I was in a slam poetry club in college and performed pieces about my mom’s death, hoping that I wouldn’t have to tell all my new college friends individually. Ideally they would come to a slam and get the information they needed but they couldn’t ask any questions, and I wouldn’t be able to see their faces. But in the poetry group, I was one of many who had lost a parent. I didn’t have to talk about the loss with them — I could just talk about the writing. Years later, I attended a writing conference and read part of an essay about my mom after a poet read a dead mom poem and before a fiction writer stood up to say, “I guess I’ll do dead mom stuff, too!”
With writers, I can laugh about grief. There are so many of us, and we are so used to searching for the right words for it, a shorthand comes easily. No grief is alike — even when I meet people whose moms died when they were young, of cancer, our griefs are completely different. I have never read anything that got it exactly right, but I have read plenty that reminds me that I’m not alone. That it is, really, a club, and no matter the specifics of our loss, we all share a language.
The essays in this list attempt to answer questions or explain something about the feeling of being a dead mom kid. If you’re not in the club, may they function as an interpreter. If you are, I hope you recognize something of yourself somewhere in here. I hope you know we speak your language, too.
Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead? (Sarah Boxer, The Atlantic, July/August 2014)
Too many times to count, I have been in the middle of watching a children’s movie with a friend who turns to me to say, “I never noticed how often the mom dies in these movies!” Perhaps they only noticed because they’re next to me. I never notice it; I just expect it. I anticipate it so well that if I’m in a movie theater, I try to spot the other members of the club: who drops their M&Ms, who carefully searches for the perfect kernel of popcorn for as long as the mom is dying on screen. In “Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead,” Sarah Boxer deep-dives into the history of dead mom narratives. In fiction, dead moms go as far back as 9th century China. Boxer traces the dead mother plot through animated movies of the 2000s, offering a why for this constant assault of dead moms. She notices that in many of these dead mother movies, the single father becomes an almost supernaturally perfect dad, and reminds us that in 2014, only 8% of households were led by single fathers. Boxer’s analysis is wide-reaching and thorough. She treats the dead-mom-in-movies phenomenon as questionable instead of a given, a choice instead of a necessity in the genre, and flawed instead of natural.
And yet, in this medium where the creators have total control, we keep getting the same damned world—a world without mothers. Is this really the dearest wish of animation? Can mothers really be so threatening?
Crying in H Mart (Michelle Zauner, The New Yorker, August 2018)
Our mothers are often our introduction to food: They feed us first, and they choose what kinds of food to put in front of us. Michelle Zauner explores the connection between food and grief, and how certain foods connect her to the memory of her mother. Zauner is a writer and musician who fronts Japanese Breakfast and “Crying in H Mart” is the opening essay of her 2021 memoir of the same name. Zauner is half Korean; her mother was and is her connection to her Korean identity. Food is the bridge between Zauner and her mother: “I remember the snacks Mom told me she ate when she was a kid and how I tried to imagine her at my age. I wanted to like all the things she did, to embody her completely.” Zauner captures the sometimes illogical nature of crying over loss: She can calmly describe her mother’s cancer but cries wandering the aisles of H Mart, the supermarket chain specializing in Asian foods. At H Mart, Zauner is removed from her life in Philadelphia, partially because these stores are far from city centers, but also because she is surrounded by reminders of her mother and by others searching for a reminder of people and places that are far away. She shows the power of food to connect us to the people we have lost, especially our mothers, who feed us from the start and shape our relationship to food.
H Mart is the bridge that guides me away from the memories that haunt me, of chemo head and skeletal bodies and logging milligrams of hydrocodone.
Sometimes my grief feels as though I’ve been left alone in a room with no doors. Every time I remember that my mother is dead, it feels like I’m colliding into a wall that won’t give. There’s no escape, just a hard wall that I keep ramming into over and over, a reminder of the immutable reality that I will never see her again.
Messages (Morgan Talty, The Sun, September 2022)
Mothers leave notes. They leave voicemails, they slip scraps of paper into your lunchbox. When they’re gone, it seems unbelievable that their messages are gone too. My own mother tried to write me and my brother letters while she was sick, but they made her cry, and crying made her fall asleep. When Morgan Talty’s mother was alive, she recorded voicemails and wrote notes that revealed her mood, whether she was safe. He knew her by the notes she gave him. In “Messages,” Talty shows how much grief lives in the moment conversations become one-sided. He listens repeatedly to the 60 voicemails from his mother he has on his phone. He searches and searches for a final word from his mother, and then he finds it. He’s right to predict that I would be jealous of his story, but he also captures something essential about mother death: Once they’re gone, we are desperate for any trace of them at all. It seems impossible that just because they are gone, they can no longer communicate with us. Whether we find a final message or not, we search for one.
Mom could kick your ass with her words, spoken or written, but she could also heal you. I still have every letter she wrote me, and when she left this earth, I went through them all — each scrap of paper she had given to me or that I had plucked from her apartment while cleaning it with my sister — looking for something, anything, from her to tell me where she’d gone. Because she was good like that.
In My Mother’s Shoes (Meghan O’Rourke, Harper’s Bazaar, May 2012)
Meghan O’Rourke’s 2011 memoir The Long Goodbye details the death of her mother, and her subsequent realization that on a societal level, we are not equipped to properly grieve. Nothing prepares us, even when a mother is sick for a while. And then, we are on our own, with only their leftover objects to feel them close to us. O’Rourke’s essay “In My Mother’s Shoes” describes how much those objects — gifts she gave before she died, a scent she used, a scarf she wore years ago — can function as a bridge between the living and the person who is gone. Putting on her mother’s clothes is an adult game of dress-up for O’Rourke, as she simultaneously tries to wear her mother’s responsibilities, like picking up new socks when her brother forgets to pack them. She shows the weight that these objects take on once their owner is gone, and the process of deciding which objects are the ones that matter enough to keep.
If it breaks my heart that I can no longer learn about my mother’s life by asking her questions, it helps in those moments to have touchstones of hers around me, to look at, to wrap myself in. The ordinary beauty of a pair of earrings or a scarf, the utility of these things remind me of my mom, talismans that bring me real solace.
What a Ghost Sounds Like (Maggie Grimason, Ploughshares, September 2021)
Maggie Grimason’s father died when she was 8. Years later, the news of Notre Dame burning interrupted her mother’s funeral. In Grimason’s essay “What a Ghost Sounds Like,” the fire in Paris could only be connected to her mother’s death. Notre Dame was discussed with a distinct “before” and “after,” the same absolute and irrevocable splicing of time that happens when a mother dies. Nothing could be, or sound, the same. After her father’s death, Grimason listened to a tape recording of his voice saying just one phrase. Her essay explores sounds, how sound remembered can never be exact, how the bells of Notre Dame can never sound the same again, how her father’s voice can’t be identical to that recording, or her memory of the recording. Sound is connected to the ghost she saw as a child, and to grief, and to fear. She wants to write in order to remember the people she has lost, but writing can’t help us remember what it all once sounded like.
People love to say, That’s just a coincidence. Those words try to pare down the event while simultaneously acknowledging—and brushing off—its meaning. Empty or not, the poetry of Notre Dame burning, the steeple falling—we watched it again and again.
And as I watched, heavy with the grief of losing my mother, I thought Good, or at least, That makes sense.
I Couldn’t Grieve My Mother at Home, so I Grieved Her in Rome (Matt Ortile, Conde Nast Traveler, February 2022)
America’s Dead Souls (Molly McGhee, The Paris Review, May 2021)
The Long Goodbye (Meghan O’Rourke, Slate, February 2009)
Claire Hodgdon is a Brooklyn-based writer and educator with an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia University. Her work has been published in journals Pidgeonholes and HAD and nominated for a Best of the Net award. She is working on her first book, an essay collection about the aftermath of loss at a young age. Find her at www.clairehodgdon.net or on Twitter @claire_hodgdon.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy-editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands