I remember the first time my father mentioned her.

It was autumn, less than a year after my mother had lost her lengthy battle with cancer.

“I’ve been seeing someone,” my dad remarked casually over the phone.

I tried to respond, but there was an acrid taste in my throat. My father was dating?

Even in death, I had assumed my father would remain loyal to my mother. But a little over two years after my mother’s death, my father remarried. The wedding was lovely, yet tinged with the pain of loss that still felt fresh to me.

A few years later, our family celebrated another milestone when my husband and I welcomed our first child, a baby girl. My dad and stepmother came to help out, but for most of the visit, I pushed them away. Exhausted and ragingly hormonal, I ached for my own mother. During snippets of sleep, I’d see her in dreams. She had been my best friend, the wise soul I’d always turned to for advice or a compassionate ear, the person who’d never minded when I borrowed her clothes or jewelry without asking.  

It’s not fair, I thought as I wiped tears from my eyes or snapped at my father to be quiet because the baby was napping. My mother was supposed to be part of this experience, cuddling her first grandchild and reassuring me about postpartum meltdowns, as a pot of her famous chicken noodle soup simmered on the stove.

Nearly a decade later, with two daughters in elementary school, I still feel my mother’s absence acutely. But our family’s relationship with my children’s step-grandmother has grown in ways I couldn’t have predicted when my grief felt raw and all-consuming.

When my dad remarried, I struggled for a long time to accept the reality of seeing him with someone so different. My stepmother is a professional writer, just as my mother was, but the similarity ends there. While my mother was chatty and often goofy, my stepmother is reflective and even-keeled.

It was not until my stepmother and I bonded over our mutual interest in blogging—and a penchant for teasing my father—that I realized something I’d thus far refused to acknowledge: she didn’t need to be a carbon copy of my mother in order for us to have a good relationship.

Little by little, as I stopped viewing my dad’s new wife through the lens of how she wasn’t my mother, I began to form a relationship with my stepmother. And I recognized that some of the assumptions I’d made about her were misguided. What I had believed was disinterest in those early months was, rather, my stepmother’s thoughtful attempt to give me space as I adjusted to my new reality. What I had initially interpreted as aloofness was, I later realized, my stepmother’s naturally calm, laid-back demeanor. Her steady presence keeps my father—who seems to be constantly in motion—safely anchored to the earth.

Over the years, my stepmother has built her own relationship with my two daughters. She’s meticulous about remembering their birthdays and has shared with them her enthusiasm for theater and Beverly Cleary books. She’s even coined an apt nickname for my youngest, calling her a hummingbird—a reference to my daughter’s petite stature and seemingly boundless energy.

As my children’s relationship with their step-grandmother—who goes by “Nana Joanne”—continues to evolve, I’ve realized that it’s possible to make space for her while honoring my mother’s memory. I talk with my children often about their maternal grandmother and the ways she encouraged and challenged me. Though my kids will never meet my mother, I hope that the memories I share will help them to know her.

Losing my mother left a hollow in my heart that no one else can ever fill. I feel that emptiness when I look at my youngest child and see my mother’s mischievous smile. I sense it when I tell my oldest a bedtime story that my mom once shared with me. But amidst the pain of loss, there is beauty. There is light. There is gratitude in knowing that my children have many people who love them—whether here on earth or in another realm.

Gina Rich

Gina Rich is a writer and mother of two daughters. She lives in the Midwest and shares caffeinated ramblings at www.lovehopeandcoffee.com.