'Gilmore Girls' Helped Me Grieve My Mom After She Died Of Cancer

"When 'Gilmore Girls' premiered, I reveled in the fact that I already had the Lorelai to my Rory."
Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel as Lorelai and Rory Gilmore.
Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel as Lorelai and Rory Gilmore.
Illustration: Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo: Alamy

The “Gilmore Girls” revival premiered on Netflix in November 2016, the same week my mom found out she had stage 4 cancer.

She got the news on a Wednesday afternoon, and it cast a pall over Thanksgiving the next day, but we tried to stay positive. We also didn’t want it to ruin the four new episodes of “Gilmore Girls” premiering that Friday. We’d been looking forward to “A Year in the Life” since it was first announced, reading stories online, analyzing behind-the-scenes photos and hypothesizing about how it would all end, especially those final four words.

The new episodes weren’t just a new chapter in our favorite TV show; they were another chance for us to see ourselves in those characters. My mom always envisioned herself as the lead — brown-haired, fast-talking, coffee-drinking Lorelai Gilmore (played by Lauren Graham). The pilot episode, which aired in 2000, opens with Lorelai wearing a puffy blue jacket and a striped knit hat. You can feel the briskness of the Connecticut morning as the La’s’ “There She Goes” plays and Lorelai crosses the street to Luke’s Diner, where she orders coffee and waits for Rory (Alexis Bledel), her 16-year-old daughter, to meet her. In a 90-second conversation, they share lip gloss and a Macy Gray CD, reference RuPaul, and create a new generational paradigm for mother-daughter relationships, normalizing atypical family structures like mine that blurred the line between mom and best friend.

Their relationship was different than anything else on TV, and it made my mom and me feel seen. My parents separated when I was a toddler, so my immediate family was always different than my friends’ families. For most of my early childhood, I existed within a tight-knit triangle: my mom, my younger brother and me. My mom remarrying when I was 7 did little to change this, except that her second husband’s erratic behavior often drove my brother to his room and pushed my mom and me even closer.

Graham and Bledel in "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life."
Graham and Bledel in "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life."
Saeed Adyani/Netflix

So, when “Gilmore Girls” premiered, I reveled in the fact that I already had the Lorelai to my Rory. My mom was the controller of the Pop-Tarts and my best friend. And I know my mom loved seeing a modern, complex mother on TV, one who was admirable because of her strength and confidence and independence, and also allowed to be flawed because of her stubbornness and impulsiveness and selfishness. For seven seasons, Lorelai’s complexity made it OK for my mom to be human, to love me and my brother more than anything but also to make mistakes as she reimagined a life for us outside of the nuclear-family paradigm.

That Friday afternoon, our love of those wonderfully imperfect characters and our desire to escape into the comforting world of Stars Hollow pulled us to the TV. I curled up on the couch, and my mom situated herself in a chair with a heating pad. Out of the corner of my eye, I noted every time she shifted, knowing she was in pain, wishing I could do something to help her. But I couldn’t. The only thing I could do was sit next to her and be present, imagining myself as Rory and her as Lorelai as we watched those four episodes: “Winter,” “Spring,” “Summer” and, finally, “Fall.”

Together, we reveled in the dialogue, cringed at the musical, decided that Logan (Matt Czuchry) is Rory’s Christopher (David Sutcliffe), and Jess (Milo Ventimiglia) is her Luke (Scott Patterson). Most importantly, we waited to see how it would end. Before the revival was announced, my mom and I had agonized for years over what the show’s final four words might have been ― the ones that creator Amy Sherman-Palladino had teased, before she ended up leaving the show after Season Six. We knew the revival was going to give the show the ending Sherman-Palladino had always intended, but after that single, brief exchange was finally spoken ― “Mom?” “Yeah.” “I’m pregnant.” — we weren’t sure we liked it.

Usually, I’m a fan of circular endings, but in this case, at a time when my center was disappearing, I wanted something to hold on to. I did not want an ending that hinted at another story waiting to be told.

Still, despite the issues we (and many other fans) had with the revival, we were grateful to return to the world of “Gilmore Girls,” and Lorelai and Rory remained the paradigm for our relationship during the next two years, as my mom’s disease progressed and her body began to shut down, and she entered hospice care.

When she moved into an inpatient facility, she was put in a private room, but it was sterile, with beige walls and harsh overhead lights. Sitting by her bedside, I texted friends and family, who kept asking what they could do. I told them to send messages and pictures. With my daughter strapped to my chest in a baby carrier, I collaged their notes and pictures together, making a large, colorful mural in the corner of the room that my mom faced while lying down. The note that I wrote her read, “Mommy, you will always be the Lorelai to my Rory.” Writing it, I realized that I would never again call her “Mommy” — the name I’d never outgrown and still used for her, even as an adult — and that when she slipped away, I’d lose both her and the role of mom — Lorelai — that she occupied.

A week later, I couldn’t think of a better sentiment to begin my eulogy. Standing in front of the hundreds of people packed into the church, I said: “My mom was and will always be the Lorelai to my Rory... Lorelai is the light of the show, which is why Mom is and will always be my Lorelai; she is my light.”

Bledel in "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life."
Bledel in "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life."
Saeed Adyani/Netflix

After she died, I held on to that truth, but I wasn’t sure how my mom could be my “light” or my best friend when she wasn’t there. I couldn’t send her a text, or tell her a story on the phone, or laugh with her at something that happened while we stood in line to order coffee. How could my mom be my Lorelai if she didn’t exist, if the thing I felt the most was her absence?

The missing made me angry. Some of that grief-induced anger was directed at “Gilmore Girls.” The show had been such a key part of my identity, and I’d spent so much of my teenage and early adulthood emulating Rory, trying to be bookish and high-achieving and desired by boys. Also, “Gilmore Girls” had taught me how to live as a daughter in a single-parent household. It taught me that reading is sexy and being best friends with your mom is cool. It inspired me to write for my college paper. So why hadn’t the show given me a blueprint for what to do when I became Lorelai-less?

How could “Gilmore Girls” ignore the hardest lesson I’ve ever had to learn, that one day your Lorelai will die — and the second hardest, that one day you might become a Lorelai?

Now, four years after my mom’s death, I finally understand that the final exchange — “Mom?” “Yeah.” “I’m pregnant.” — is the blueprint I was looking for. Those four words that my mom and I had spent years waiting to hear are as close as “Gilmore Girls” will ever get to showing the generation of girls like me — the ones who grew up seeing themselves as Rorys — that they will one day lose their Lorelais. It is also a subtle acknowledgment that they, like me, might choose to become Lorelais themselves.

This circle of life never occurred to me as a 12-year-old watching Lorelai and Rory watch their Roombas or order takeout or shout “Copper boom!” Even more than a decade later, as I sat next to my terminally ill mom the day after Thanksgiving and witnessed Lorelai and Rory exchange those final four words, I didn’t grasp the role reversal that would come. I still didn’t understand it two years later, when my 2-month-old daughter wiggled inside the carrier strapped to my chest while I held my mom’s hand as she took her last breaths.

Learning this lesson is, I think, why the final season of the revival is “Fall.” It’s fitting not only because fall — as any fan of the show knows — will always belong to the Gilmore girls, but because it’s a season defined by endings. Flowers wilt, leaves crumple, grass browns, and daughters leave behind one phase to grow into another. They enter new grades and blow out candles on birthday cakes and go to homecoming dances and learn to drive and move into dorms and start new jobs and maybe, eventually, become mothers.

It’s hard to remember, when you’re in the thick of the missing, that these losses are a part of a larger something. It’s hard to imagine the green buds that will form on empty, brown branches, or hear “There She Goes” in a pilot and foresee that it will become the background music to Rory’s life if she becomes a mom.

Bledel and Kimber Hardin, as Gabriela, in "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life."
Bledel and Kimber Hardin, as Gabriela, in "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life."
Saeed Adyani/Netflix

I wish this cycle gave me comfort, but it’s the words Rory speaks just before those final four that have helped me the most. Before that exchange, in the last scene of “Fall,” Rory sits on the steps of the gazebo and gazes out at Stars Hollow. “I want to remember it all,” she says. “Every detail.”

This past fall, the fourth without my mom, I let myself remember. As the air cooled and the streets sat covered in leaves, I saw her smiling as I pulled a scarf out of her closet and wrapped it around my neck, “borrowing” it. I opened the door to my oven and smelled the aromatic cinnamon wafting from her just-baked pumpkin bread. I envisioned walking through the automatic doors of Macy’s for our annual trip to buy a new pair of boots and tights. I even thought about that night in middle school that we snuck burgers and fries into a late movie just like Lorelai and Rory. I let myself ache for the way we’d be out shopping, and she’d say or do something a little funny or unexpected, and I’d look at her and roll my eyes and call her “Lorelai,” and she’d laugh and say “Rory,” and we’d both giggle like best friends with a shared inside joke.

And, of course, in the evenings, sitting on the couch after my kids were asleep, I remembered all those Tuesday nights I curled up next to her on our blue couch, reveling in the fact that I was getting to stay up late, waiting for the familiar notes of Carole King’s “Where You Lead” to fill the room.

Missing my mom, living every day without her, is a loneliness that borders on unbearable. When her absence becomes too overwhelming, I imagine myself as Rory on the steps of the gazebo, and focus on this remembering. I remember it all, even when it hurts, because there is magic in the details. The magic that made Stars Hollow is the same magic that connects me to my mom and the world we created together, and I know it is the atoms from which I will fashion a new world for my daughter.

One day, “Gilmore Girls” is destined to be a part of this world. I know when my daughter is older, we’ll sit together as she watches “Gilmore Girls” for the first time, and I’ll remember my Lorelai and be grateful for my Rory, hoping she learns how to “remember it all.”

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