Dear Girls: On Half a Lifetime Without My Mother

Dear Girls,

This week marks 18 years since my mother died. Exactly half my life ago. Every day after January 24th, 2014 will mean that I have been alive longer without her, than with her.

My mother, my beautiful, glowing mother. It seems impossible that she’s been gone for so long.


Almost two decades later, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.

For a long time I didn’t understand how I could feel that way. I chastised myself for continuing to miss her so much, for knowing that I would never not long for her.

And then I had you, Vera, and you, Jules. And I became a mother myself. I wrapped my arms around you, your little breaths hot and quick on my neck. I learned how to rock you to sleep, how to pick you up when you fell, how to make you giggle, how to make your eyes light up with wonder. I held you closer than I’ve ever held anyone and I vowed that I would never, ever let you go.

I knew then, how it could be that I would never not long for my own mother.

This bond between us — the one between she and I, and the ones between you and me — are something utterly intangible, unbreakable, and unstoppable. Nothing, not distance or silence or chaos or death, could ever undo this connection we have.

Mothers are mysterious creatures. For us women, they at once anchor us and support us. They hold us back and teach us how to go forth. We rebel against the women they are, and we desperately try to become the women they are. I know that throughout your lifetimes you will push and pull against me as only daughters can do.

There will be times when you loathe me, when you question every decision I have ever made, when you frown upon all the things that I am. And there will be other times in which you try to fit your very shadow to match mine, times in which you wish with everything you are that you could be me. These swifts kicks and tugs will overlap so many times that you may never be quite sure what it is you want from me.

I’ve had a lot of time to review the woman my mother was. A lot of time in which to feel angry with her, or in awe of her. I’ve adored her and despised her, even in death. Such is the nature of a daughter’s love.

Even now, 18 years after her death, I can feel her all around me, her existence inextricably linked to mine. The thing is that I couldn’t shake her even if I tried. That she lived and loved me at all, is more than enough to make her a part of my world every day. I hope the same is true of me to you.

I’ll tell you though, as I’ll probably tell you at other points in life, that it hasn’t been easy to find my way as a person, a woman, or a mother, without my own mother there to shepherd me. I have made so very many mistakes. I have had to figure out so much on my own, make things up, do things my way, because there was no one there to guide me.

My wish is that I am here to guide you for as long as I can. I hope so much that I will be here to see you enter into adulthood, to become mothers yourselves, to find yourselves in work and love and the world. There is so much future that I want with you. The good and the bad, the times you hate me and the times you unexpectedly curl up next to me years from now, long after you’ve stopped doing that.

I want the days when don’t want to talk to me, and the days when you won’t stop calling. I want the tears and the rage, the inside jokes that no one will get but us, and the secrets you tell only me. I want a million trips to crazy places, and I want mornings where we never leave the house. I want to see you fail and also succeed. I want to see you frustrated and bursting with pride. I want to see you reinvent yourself a thousand times over, twirling before me each time with renewed pride.

I want to be here every time you ever need me. I want to hear you when you most need to be heard, and even when you don’t. I want to see you even when you think I’m not looking. I want to be the force that makes you feel safe enough to propel yourself out into the world as far as you can, the tether that unspools as far as you need to go, knowing you can always return.

I want to love you for you who you want to be, not who I want you to be.

I want to always be strong enough to allow you to be even stronger.

I want you to live your grand and glorious lives knowing that you are loved every second of every day.

These are the things that my mother gave to me. These are the things I want to give to you.





Dear Vera & Jules: Think of Me as Every Place

Dear Vera & Jules,

It’s Christmas afternoon in Los Angeles, warm and sunny, and there is still sand between my toes from our walk on the beach today. You both woke up promptly at 6AM, excited to see what Santa brought for you, and if he liked the cookies you made for him, and Vera you swore up and down all day that you heard Rudolph noisily eating the carrots we left out for him in the middle of the night.

Under the tree was a new bicycle, and a toy kitchen I spent several painful hours building this week, as well as dozen of little toys. I’m not ashamed to admit that I love giving you presents and this year I made an attempt to give you things that would enrich you and help you grow (art supplies and interesting books), and as well as the things that I knew you really wanted. I have to say it was actually most gratifying to watch you open the things I knew you were hoping to unwrap.


Jules, for weeks every time we go to Target you’ve planted yourself in front of this box that includes two little babies with a set of bunk beds. This morning when you opened it up you screeched, “babies!” and clutched them to your chest like as though they were already your most prized possessions. It was such a simple thing to buy you, but knowing that in that moment you probably felt really seen, like someone had noticed this thing you so wanted, gave you (and me) more than any enriching puzzle ever could.


Vera you got all the Barbie and My Little Pony stuff you had begged for all month, and I know you felt happy and seen as well. But it was actually watching you take on your unexpected gift, the new big girl bike your Dad picked out for you, that really made my heart swell. It was the thing you came around to last, after playing thoroughly with ALL of your other toys, but then you rode all the way down to the end of the block and back, your little sister watching with wide-eyed admiration.


Witnessing your relationship blossom has been the true highlight of this year for me. The bond between you two has utterly changed the way I view the world and relationships and love. You were born for each other, and the love you share is something that will stand apart from all other experiences in your lifetimes. I truly think much of the time that you will always be okay, as long as you have each other. Even if something were to happen to me or your dad, the two of you would forge together even closer to take on the world. And you’re going to take it on anyway.

Watching you together gives me a strange peace that I never had before Juliette came into our lives. I was always fretting about you, Veronica, about what would happen if I wasn’t there with you for every second. But now that has shifted. Although we are just as close as ever, Juliette has become your true touchstone. You look out for her with everything that you do, always including her, thinking of her, showing her love and affection. It fills me up like nothing else in this world ever has.


Speaking of the two of you having each other, I’m writing this letter an hour before a taxi arrives to take me to the airport so that I can get on an airplane to Indonesia. Tomorrow morning you will get on your own plane with your dad and head to Ohio to see your grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, and we will be farther apart than we ever have been before.

I can’t lie. To travel this far away from you almost drives me to my knees with apprehension. But I also know it’s something I need to do, and something that will be good for all of us in the long run. I know that the two of you will have a ball with your cousins, be doted on more than you can imagine by your grandparents, and that your dad will take perfect care of you because he always does.

And I will fill this need in me that I can never seem to deny. This thirst for the world and adventure and distance and all things unexpected. It’s what makes me who I am, it’s the pulse that courses through me. It’s what makes me tick, what makes me ache, and what gives me peace.

But listen, while I’m gone, I want you to know that I’ll be thinking of you every single second. You are both part of me. You came out of my body and the love I have for you girls is boundless. It defies space and time and life and death. It transcends any boundary you could ever imagine.

I read a line in a poem once that said, “Think of me as every place,” and that’s what I want you to do. For the rest of your lives. No matter how far apart we are, even in death one day, I will always love you. I will always be with you. And you will always be with me.

Okay, so in eight days we’ll all meet back here in the land of endless sunshine, and we’ll snuggle for hours and tell each other all about all of our adventures.



p.s. Vera, I know I promised to bring home a pet monkey for you, but I was lying. Trust me, you don’t really want one anyway.





On Grief and Healing


I began working in the world of grief in 2007, officially becoming a bereavement counselor for a hospice in Chicago a few months after I graduated from my masters program. I did so almost with curiosity, which is strange to look back on now that this path I’ve been on seems so strong and so clear. From where I stand now it seems as though this is always what I was headed for — helping others through their grief process, but I still remember the day I decided to look up hospices in Chicago. I could do that, I remember thinking.

I worked for hospice for four years and it was an incredible experience. Everything about it led me to writing The Rules of Inheritance, and to where I am now — working in private practice as a grief therapist and writing a second book about the afterlife.

I have an incredible reverence for death, for grief and all the love that it stems from. I have never felt anything but extreme privilege to be able to walk with others along their path as they go through their own experiences in this realm. I think that, in one way or another, this will always be the work I do.

That’s why I’m incredibly excited to announce that in January of next year I’ll be hosting my first-ever weekend grief retreat. This is an idea I conceived of years ago when I was running bereavement groups in Chicago. I kept thinking how transformative it would be to create an entire weekend around working through grief. I envisioned incorporating group therapy, yoga, meditation, writing and narrative into one comprehensive experience that would allow people to really enter into, and begin to heal from their grief.

This year I met another therapist, Thea Harvey, who loved this idea and helped me bring it to fruition. And so January 24-26 of 2014 we’ll be hosting our first retreat in Ojai, California. You can read all about it and how to sign up here.

The weekend of the retreat is of very special significance to me. January 24, 2014 will mark 18 years since my mother died, which means that she will have been gone exactly half of my life. Every day after January 24, 2014 will mean that I will have been alive longer without her than with her. I have been dreading this date for as long as I can remember, but now knowing that I will be engaged in this experience I have long dreamed about creating makes me look forward to it.

I hope that some of you can join us. Please read more about how to sign up here.