Grandma, Mommy, Rachel

How My Mom’s Death Changed My Definition of Family 8

Grandma, Mommy, Rachel

Photo Collage Credit: Rachel Rifkin; used with permission

In my head, I’ve always placed my family into one category and my ancestors in another. My family members are my parents, my brother, my aunts and uncles, first cousins and grandparents. They’re the people I grew up with, the people I know too well, the ones who inspire the deepest and longest eye rolls.

My ancestors are the people I want to learn more about. They’re a mystery I want to solve, their lives influencing my own in ways I’ve only recently begun to discover. They’re finished stories with birth dates and death dates, offering lessons that come with the benefit of hindsight.

Then my 60-year-old mom died in July and the lines blurred.

Her death has changed me and the way I look at life. The constants in my life aren’t the same, and a lot of my expectations and assumptions have to be altered.

Every time I want to call my mom and tell her something, I start reaching for the phone. And then I remember.

From now on, my dad will be the one who answers the phone when I call my parents’ home. (My mom always answered the phone first. She’d rather run to the phone than let the answering machine pick up.)

When I’m shopping and I see something she might like, I think about how much she loved chocolate and the color turquoise. And how strange it is to know that I won’t be buying her anything anymore.

I have to revise some of my ideas about the future. I assumed that when I got pregnant and had a baby, my mom would come over and help me for the first week or so. I expected to see my mom grow older and reach the ages of 65, 75, 80. I assumed her mom would pass away before she did.

I also never thought of my mom as an ancestor, but now she has both a birth date and a death date. Future relatives won’t have the chance to get to know her first hand. They’ll be relying on the people who knew her and the things she left behind to get an idea of what she was like. Just like I’ve been doing with my grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents and cousins, just like future generations will eventually do with me.

Now I realize there were never two categories, that we were always one family. We may be separated by time, geography or language, but we share family pictures and stories and genes. In general, we are all more alike than we are different. We all have a limited amount of time to live, share and pass down our stories.


Rach_Retro_Photo (1)

Author Bio: Rachael Rifkin is a ghostwriter/personal historian who blogs ( about the traits we pass down, whether genetically or environmentally, and the qualities we only find in ourselves. The blog also features her grandfather’s Korean War memoir, aka the book that started her interest in family history.


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8 thoughts on “How My Mom’s Death Changed My Definition of Family

  • Bernita Allen

    My heart goes out to you, so sorry about your loss. This is a beautifully written and for me sad post. Losing a family member is never easy. You are so right in the things you said. Thank you for sharing her memory.

  • Colleen

    I am very sorry to read about your Mom’s death. It is a loss that never goes away but your love for her will never go away either. And it does redefine many things in life, including ‘family’. You can write down her stories so the future will know her as you did. The writing may be painful at first but then you will feel better that you shared.

    • Rachael Rifkin

      I’m glad you mentioned writing down my mom’s stories, Colleen. I’ve been thinking about doing that soon. I’m looking forward to it but I’m also kind of nervous about it. I’m sure I’ll be glad I did it.

      Thanks for writing! I like your ideas. 🙂

  • Rachael Rifkin

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Cheri. I didn’t lose anyone close to me until I was 21. First my paternal grandmother died, and then my maternal grandfather died nine months later. It took me longer to come to terms with my grandfather’s death because I was still processing my grandmother’s when he died. That was a long, sad, confusing year.

    After my mom died, it was really weird to realize that my mom had technically become an ancestor. Definitely makes you look at your family and present/future differently afterwards.

  • Colleen

    Rachel, it won’t be easy but the sooner you can bring yourself to do it the more you will remember. And later generations will be glad you found the strength to do it so she will be ‘alive’ to them.