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New York Times Bestselling Author Peggy Orenstein on Whether Grief Ever Goes Away

is out with her latest book, Boys & Sex, an analysis of young men and their views on relationships, porn, love, and consent. The book is a follow-up to her New York Times best seller Girls & Sex. And because Orenstein is still on tour promoting her book, I was thrilled she agreed to sit down with me to reveal her thoughts about a much different, equally intimate topic: the death of her mother.

During our conversation, Orenstein struck me when she admitted to feeling a special connection to individuals who find themselves in similar positions. “I feel I have an ongoing relationship with people who’ve also suffered the loss of a parent because I’ve survived. Because I didn’t die.” I’m especially grateful to bring you our Q&A.

Allison: Tell me about your mom and your relationship with her. When did she pass away?
Peggy: Mom died four years ago. I think of my mom, miss my mom, and feel like she’s missing things I wish she could see every day. Even if your parent lived a long, healthy life, you still feel that loss.

Allison: What one memento do you have that most reminds you of your mom?
Peggy: I have her jewelry box from when she was 16, her Sweet 16 jewelry box, and I keep mementos in there, and pictures. It’s also where I keep her handwritten recipes and a little ¼ cup tin measuring cup that she used to use for baking. The jewelry box is on the shelf with my sweaters, so when I reach for a sweater, I see it. It’s one of my favorite things.

Allison: Have you ever repurposed an object that belonged to your mother?
Peggy: I’ve been meaning to have some pieces of jewelry my mom left me redesigned so that I would wear them — because her taste was not my taste — but I haven’t done it yet. We had similar taste in color but not otherwise. She was very prone to hearts and butterflies and flowers, but that’s not really who I am. There are stones I want to remove from some of her jewelry so I can turn them into something else. I also wear my maternal grandmother’s engagement ring that barely fits over my knuckles; it’s what I wear in lieu of a wedding ring as a memento of both my mom and grandmother. I have my mom’s wedding rings, as well.

Allison: Have you taken any steps to ensure your daughter maintains a connection to your mom, her grandmother?
Peggy: I just talk about her a lot. I think she feels very close to my mom even though my mother was already pretty old by the time Daisy was born. I did do a lot of really conscious work to take Daisy to see my parents. We went back to Minneapolis a lot when she was littler in order to make sure she had that bond. A lot of memories come through food. For example, just after Chanukah, we made my mom’s potato latkes, and her Chanukah cookies. We also sometimes make her hamantaschen for Purim. My mom also made us a challah cover that we use on Friday nights that I think reminds Daisy of her. It’s almost like there’s nothing in particular we do, but yet I feel like my mom is really integrated into our lives.

Allison: One thing I do with my kids constantly is try to be careful about my language and always talk about my parents as “your grandma” and “your grandpa” instead of orienting the conversation about “my mom” or “my dad.” Do you find yourself doing the same thing?
Peggy: I’ve never thought about that consciously, but yes, I do that, too, and actually I sometimes laugh because I’ll get confused – it’s almost like being bilingual. I always refer to my parents [when talking to Daisy] as “Grandma” and “Grandpa.”

Allison: Loss is a valuable teacher. How has your life shifted because your mother died?
Peggy: My mom died at home, and in the time leading up to her death, in her last week, her family was all around her – all her children, all her grandchildren – we were all there. That period, as hard and intense as it was, was also incredibly meaningful and beautiful and bonding. There was a way she created family and community that was just so clear and well expressed in the time around her death. And that continues to mean so much to me.