How A Hand-Me-Down Dress Helped Me Cope With My Mother’s Death

Welcome to “I’ve Got This” — Refinery29 and Plan B One-Step's exploration of the pivotal, transformative life moments in which we’re reminded of our strength. Ahead, hear from one woman about the object she looks to as a reminder of her own fortitude.
When I think of my mother, I think of the things she surrounded herself with. She found safety in objects. As I understood it, she felt reassured by the notion that things cannot leave, only people can. I think that’s why, after her death, the archive of her things felt like the last remaining piece of her. One that couldn’t disappear as easily as she did.
Illustrated By Grace Heejung Kim.
Born in St. Louis and raised in Kentucky, my mother was nothing if not adventurous. Between the ages of 23 (my age when she died) and 33 (her age when I was born), she transferred in and out of four undergraduate programs, finally earned a degree, fell in love, moved to California, got married, lived in India for 18 months in pursuit of her master's degree, moved back to California, got divorced, moved home to her parents’ house in Kentucky, and had me alone.
When I turned 3, she packed all of her belongings into a U-haul and we drove to L.A. in a 1980s Oldsmobile. In many ways, her things felt like home to her.
I spent the first months after her death avoiding her house. I knew that sorting through her possessions would feel like losing her all over again — so I put it off as long as possible. As an only child, this task was mine to complete — her life’s contents mattering mostly just to me. Six months after I lost her, I moved home, filled three dumpsters with the relics of her life, and dry-cleaned 75 articles of her clothing. In those weeks, I became both closer to my mother and further from her than I ever could have imagined.
With the help of my best friend’s mother, I dug through every box, every grocery bag filled with college alumni magazines, every glass bottle filled with beads or sequins. When I reached out to friends and family for advice, I was told there was no perfect way to do this, no rule book — I would make mistakes, I would save too much, I would have regrets. There is no concise way to say goodbye.
This exercise took one month. It was frankly the most grueling process I had ever faced in my life. It was harder than losing her, than planning two funerals — one at a buddhist temple in Kentucky and the other at our shared alma mater in St. Louis. The process of going through her things was like meeting her all over again — and every day realizing fresh that she was, in fact, gone.
Illustrated By Grace Heejung Kim.
Among all the bottles and old magazines, I found a photo of her sitting in a red dress with "Susan Windowseat / Summer '84" written on the back. This particular dress was one of my favorites — she had made it herself in her 20s from a pattern book. At the time, she was a dancer, and she'd just learned to sew. The straps had become loose, and she had fixed them with a cobalt thread, differing from the red-orange thread that holds the rest of the garment together.
Growing up, she had told me that this dress was an act of resistance. It was a small form of rebellion against her mother who wouldn’t buy her clothes. For her, making things for herself meant she was in control.
The red dress first came into my possession in college, when I found myself in need of one for a party. My mother thought it would be silly for me to buy one when she already had one that would fit perfectly — so she drove to my college dorm, carting the dress in the back seat of her car.
I remember asking her if I could shorten it, as it was too long for my college functions. Absolutely not, she told me — it was one of a kind. So, I hiked the dress up, tucking the fabric under itself where the skirt meets the bodice. When I put it on, I felt grown up — poised and self-assured. I wore it a handful of times throughout college before putting it into a box when I moved to New York three years ago.
Illustrated By Grace Heejung Kim.
There’s a picture of me, similar to the one I found of her, wearing the dress on my 22nd birthday, laughing, with a red lip to match. My new coworkers had taken me out to celebrate the occasion, just months after starting my job — a group of women who already felt like family. In the photo, I look just like my mother.
I didn’t want to wear black to her service — she didn't believe in the color. I didn’t want to buy something new, to harp on what I looked like. It felt natural to wear something of hers to say goodbye, so I put on the red dress — and in it, I felt ready to face the remainder of the proceedings. We lit lanterns at the top of the Saint Louis Art Museum — her favorite spot in the city. She would have loved it.
A dinner followed — tables lined with my friends from college, my friends from high school, family, my bosses, all sitting across from one another to celebrate my mother and me. In her favorite bar in the world, a community gathered — a support system that would continue to grow.

Wearing her things always feels like bringing a bit of her with me out into the world — like I’m introducing her to people she will never meet.

Last year, after I completed a year of firsts — the first anniversary of her death, my first birthday without her, the first Mother’s Day — I convinced three friends to escape to Havana with me: something to look forward to through all the pain. We took salsa lessons in a studio set above a bar, down a tiny alley. I wore the dress. It had clearly been cut by a dancer — a tight structured bodice and a skirt to move in. It made me feel close to her. Spinning in bright-blue heels, I felt exhilarated — truly happy. This was the perfect nod to her.
I slipped it on for a date earlier this year. It was not what I had initially planned to wear, but wearing her things always feels like bringing a bit of her with me out into the world — like I’m introducing her to people she will never meet — people in my life who will only encounter her in the form of an object. In it, I feel grander — like I'm part of a two-for-one deal.
I pulled it out of my closet a few days ago and hung it above my doorframe. It glowed red when it caught the light from my bedroom windows. I decided to put it on. It was raining and I stepped outside without an umbrella, feeling my sneakers soak up the city’s puddles. In a sea of grays and blacks, I felt like a fire — weightless, totally unstoppable. It’s funny: A dress she made, a girl she made. She left behind a narrative composed of objects, and here I was, continuing the story.

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