Mourning My Mom, One Red Carpet at a Time

I got three more red carpet seasons with my mom after she was diagnosed, and I cherished each one as if I were standing onstage in custom Oscar de la Renta accepting my Best Actress award. I knew the ritual wouldn’t last forever, so I held on tight, eagerly awaiting each witty text from my mom, saving it in my phone, and worrying as the night went on and those texts became more sporadic and less funny, meaning she was fatigued, or in pain, or both.

She passed away in November 2018, right before the relentless “countdown to the red carpet” coverage erupted on TV, online and all over social media. I couldn’t escape it. In the midst of my grief, I worried about the red carpet. I wondered if I should avoid it altogether, in case I died of sorrow imagining what my mom would be texting as Lady Gaga gushed to Giuliana Rancic about making art with Bradley Cooper. I also wondered if I should plant myself on the couch and watch as a form of penance. For what, I don’t know. Grief is funny that way. Maybe I felt that my mom would be angry if I gave up on a pastime she’d loved so deeply, just because she died. After several weeks spent agonizing over my decision, I decided to watch. I didn’t want to disappoint her.

Making it through the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards last winter without my mom felt like a milestone, but it was also surprisingly simple, free of emotional breakdowns. In my experience of grief, the toughest moments have been triggered by the most banal experiences, like the jingle in a car insurance commercial, which somehow churns up painful emotions and reminds you that she’s not here. The moments that you expect to break you, like speaking at the funeral or going back to work, seem to come and go.

There’s a tendency to believe that we’re supposed to move past grief, but some psychologists believe it’s more natural to have a continuing bond with the person who has died. It’s how we live with grief, and stay close to the ones we lose.

“We’re biologically motivated to maintain close relationships with a small amount of people in our lives,” says Dr. Katherine Shear, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia. “We map these people in our brains, and they are not erased when they die.”

I see the ritual of watching red carpet coverage as part of my continuing bond. It’s a way to keep my mom around, to keep her sense of humor alive and her voice from fading away, if only through the texts I imagine her sending.

This red carpet season, I won’t agonize over my decision to watch. I’ll tune in from the first celebrity interview to the final awards speech, and along the way I’ll imagine all of the texts my mom would send about Billy Porter’s legendary look or Reese Witherspoon’s lipstick choice.