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Dead parents, Steven Universe and processing grief

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Life and death, and love and birth, and peace and war on the planet Earth

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Steven Universe is a show known primarily for its bright colors, fantastic music and handling mature themes about love, gender and consent with a surprising deftness for an action cartoon series aimed at a young audience. But when folks are listing the Cartoon Network hit's virtues, there's one that doesn't get nearly enough attention.

A lot of Steven Universe is about presenting how its characters deal with grief.

Throughout the Crystal Gems' adventures, their familial foibles and attempts to relate to the humans around them, there is a continuous, quiet acknowledgement of loss. The empty space left when their former leader Rose Quartz "gave up her physical form" — died — in order for her half-human son, Steven, to be born, is ever-present.

To Steven's family members, Rose was a shining example of compassion, an inspirational general in a war against a culture that would never accept their identity, even the great love of their life. A giant portrait of her dominates the common area of the home the Gems built for Steven, and we can hear how much she meant to them and how much they miss her every time she's mentioned. But at the same time, Steven is still a kid without a mom.

And all of that is something that hits pretty close to home for two of Polygon's biggest Steven Universe fans, Jeff Ramos and Susana Polo, so they sat down to discuss it.

Susana:

Steven Universe came along at a pretty timely ... time in my life. It premiered in 2013, the year my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and on Nov. 4, almost exactly a month before she went into hospice. After that, she faded very fast, dying the day after Christmas. She and I had always been very close; there's very little prior history of cancer in the family ... I'm saying all of this because phrases like "it was a rough situation" can save your reader from the brutal details, but can't really convey the depth of it.

Well, on the bright side, you could pilot an EVA unit now

I was 27 at the time. I'm nearly 30 now, and one of the earliest things you realize when you're a relatively young person with a dead parent — or when your life contains any kind of "rare" tragedy, I suppose — is that nobody knows how to respond when you casually correct their assumptions. Another one of the earliest things you realize is that a bunch of the media you consume, or have consumed for years, is pregnant with Dead Parent origin stories (I'm looking at you, Disney) that now have an extra weight.

I have all kinds of weird emotional reactions to Dead Moms In Fiction now. I specifically remember the darkest part of my brain waking up one day and saying, "Well, on the bright side, you could pilot an EVA unit now." I could talk for five minutes without breathing about how angry the opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy makes me. I could do the same for the episode of Supergirl where her foster sister made her an emotionless, holographic version of her dead mother to talk to. As for my experience of playing Dragon Age 2, that's just a whole post by itself.

But watching Steven mourn his mother and the time he'll never have with her feels more analogous to my own experiences than anything else I've watched, read or played since my mother's death.

That's sort of where I'm coming from, so Jeff, why don't you explain your connection to Steven Universe's themes.

Jeff:

My mother was stricken with a rare condition at the tail end of 2014. It sounds like the making of a superhero origin story, but in reality, it's the origin of the pain that I'm still trying to process every day.

I started caring for my mother in August 2015, when her myasthenia gravis was at its worst. The condition causes massive fatigue, which was hard on her, since she was the most independent and hyperactive human being I've ever known. Watching the light fade from her day after day was especially difficult, as this was the same woman whom I remember working two jobs and then coming home and taking me out to Toys R Us or the arcade. Nothing — but this — ever seemed to stop her from doing simple things, like taking a shower to making sure I owned every gaming console on the planet.

She passed away in January 2016. Saying the final weeks of her life were the hardest of mine is a grand understatement.

I'm still trying to make sense of it all. The grief, and discovering what triggers it, are still new to me. Even reading your paragraphs above mine are difficult. Realizing how much of the media we love is filled with Dead Parent tropes is something I've never connected with until now.

DC Comics Mothers
Trinity Mothers by Yasmin Liang

I'm sure you remember a couple of days ago when we were talking about the announcement of this new season. To celebrate, I went back and listened to this curated playlist of Steven Universe songs. Almost immediately I had to stop because I realized what Steven Universe meant to me over the past few months.

For context, the theme I resonate with the most from Steven Universe is being raised by a single parent. I didn't grow up with my father, but stories of him and the effects of his actions were scattered across my life. Like Greg Universe is on Steven, my mother was influential on me, but was always at an arm's distance. Not because of animosity or neglect, but out of circumstance. She also trusted me to be my own person. She let me have my adventures and only intervened when I needed her. While part of Steven's story is self-directed like mine, a lot of who he is comes from his parents.

It wasn't until the last few months that themes from the show's music took a stronger hold on my emotional state.

the songs from Steven Universe that resonate with me are filled with interpretations of togetherness

While we'll all have to deal with the loss of our parents, how we cope with our emotions will be different. We'll all have different feelings about it and many different types of regrets. One of the biggest regrets I have was not spending enough time with my mother when she was at her best (I was obviously with her in her final days). I will always wish we had a stronger relationship.

For my entire life, my friends have been my family. My actual family, and its history, are complicated at best. So the idea of being around and supported by those who aren't biologically related to you is something that always made sense to me, just like Steven and the Crystal Gems. There is a different kind of "togetherness" you find when you build that connection with others. Even though I was so close to my mother, I oddly felt so far away from her. She was never one to ask for help, and she often conceded only after begging, arguing or after being worn down. Talking about our feelings and becoming closer is something my entire family is historically "not very good at".

In the last few months, I gathered strength and togetherness any way I could.

Many of the songs from Steven Universe that resonate with me are filled with different interpretations of togetherness. "Giant Woman" is about Steven's excitement for Pearl and Amethyst's fusion and what they can become when they work together. "Strong in the Real Way" is about Pearl and Steven's own opposing expressions of how they can help others be strong. "Dear Old Dad" is an obvious duet about the love between parent and child. "Be Wherever You Are" is about noticing the beauty of togetherness and living in that moment. "Do It for Her" is about someone's love and devotion to someone else and their beliefs.

During the toughest times for me, I used these songs to empower and steady myself and — as I've only recently realized — I used these songs as a place to dump my emotions into. I leaned on their themes of shared love and wrapped my pain around their positivity. There were plenty of days I would go out and pick up medicine or toiletries my mother was too weak to buy. I would listen to these songs full volume in the car. They would make me feel so many emotions at once. Grief and joy would intertwine and hang on every poorly sung note I would belt out on those drives. Sometimes I would be so overwhelmed, I would almost have to pull over. It was too much for me to handle; seeing the strongest person I know slowly lose a battle she couldn't possibly win. These songs kept me together.

Written out, I know this may sound overly dramatic. But there are certainly songs you have in your heart that you've done the same with. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was using the show's themes and their songs as a crutch to keep me up during these days. Like I said before, when I tried to listen to these songs in the office recently, songs I haven't listened to in a few months, so many emotions came flooding that I almost had to leave my desk.

There's clearly much more for me to unpack, but how about you Susana? Is there anything else you take from or gain power from in the world of Steven Universe?

Susana:

I don't know if I would say there's stuff in Steven Universe that I gain personal strength from — as much as there's stuff in it that has helped me unpack some heavy emotions in a way that other stories that use a Dead Parent backstory haven't.

I didn't get to take the break that I needed after my mom died until more than six months later. Until then, all the feelings I was having about it were something I tried to find time for after I'd attended to all my usual responsibilities — running a whole blog, managing several employees and generally being an independent adult.

Pro tip: That's not a good situation in which to deal with emotions of Dead Mom magnitude!

"So Many Birthdays" didn't leave me crying so much as it left me shell-shocked.

If there are two episodes that were the emotional equivalent of a slap to the face for me, they'd be "So Many Birthdays" and "Lion 3: Straight to Video."

"Birthdays" takes a hard pivot in the end when, after obsessing all day over the idea that he's getting older, Steven begins accidentally using his shapeshifting powers to rapidly age.

Gems are functionally immortal, and that's clearly one of the reasons why Rose's death hits them so hard, but Steven is half-human — there's no guidebook for him. The climax of the episode has the viewer watch as Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl confront the idea that someone they love is dying an unexpected, unfair, premature death right before their eyes — and there's nothing they can do about it. They outright panic. Every one of them breaks down, even the unflappable Garnet.

In the end Steven is restored to his youth, of course — but the image of three self-assured characters helpless and terrified hit me like a punch in the gut. It was too close. It was too much. When it aired, only three months after my mom died, I wasn't ready — or at least the way my life was arranged at the time had kept me from being ready — to really dwell on how helpless I'd felt when my mom was in chemo, recovering from surgery and then too quickly slipping away on a morphine drip and a hospital bed incongruously installed inside my childhood home. "So Many Birthdays" didn't leave me crying so much as it left me shell-shocked. It's two years old now and I've still only watched it twice.

Contrast that with "Lion 3: Straight to Video," which coincidentally aired almost a year to the day after my mother transitioned to hospice. In the climax of that episode, Steven discovers a home video his mother left for him (under a tree growing in the extra-dimensional space inside a pink — look, you're just going to have to watch the show) with a special message.

"We can't both exist. I'm going to become half of you," she tells him. "I need you to know that every moment you love being yourself, that's me loving you, and loving being you. Because you're going to be something extraordinary. You're going to be a human being."

I didn't anticipate that Sad Mom stuff might make me feel sad and kind of good

Needless to say, it rained pretty heavily on my face. But then I immediately rewatched the episode. And then I'm pretty sure I watched it another time. And then I rewatched just the part that made me cry. In a show that wasn't as effortlessly sincere as Steven Universe is, I could have found the whole scene overly-saccharine, even manipulative. Instead, I found it weirdly comforting, even as it wrecked me emotionally.

The Dead Parent trope is so prevalent in hero stories that it's actually sort of normalized — and we have movies like Guardians of the Galaxy that have to up the ante by making sure the last moment our hero had with his dying mother was one where he was angry at her, as if the fact that she's dying in the first place isn't trauma enough. That's the kind of stuff that I might have rolled my eyes at a few years ago, but now it makes me indignant.

I expected that Sad Mom stuff would easily made me sad after my mom died, but I didn't anticipate that some of it would make me feel sad and kind of good — or that sometimes it would just make me angry. Have you noticed changes in the way you emotionally handle Steven Universe or other media, Jeff?

Jeff:

Outside of the brief example above with the music of Steven Universe, I haven't noticed the impact in too many places yet. Or at least, I haven't noticed it in places where it didn't feel meaningful.

An example of something that didn't even register with me was Batman v Superman. Obviously Bruce Wayne's parents being murdered in front of him radically impacted his life. The power of mothers was a pivotal part of the film too, with its "Martha Moment". But, the fact is that the death of Bruce's parents is embedded and well-worn territory in the mind of comic fans. Outside of it being a reminder of Bruce's beginnings, watching his parents die doesn't carry any weight in my mind.

But there was one other piece of media that did hit me like a sack of bricks. Mainly because of its similarity to tough decisions I had to make.

Firewatch was released two weeks after my mother's death. While the game's opening deals with the main character's relationship with his wife, the hard decisions you have to make on her behalf are all familiar to me. The weight of making decisions for someone you love once they reach the point of being incapable to make decisions for themselves is immeasurable. Firewatch's main character, Henry, begins his journey through a series of binary choices, presented in a series of text at the game's opening. You get to adorably discover how Henry meets his wife and dance through the decisions that form the basis of the relationship. You are basically deciding who Henry is based on how you handle these choices.

Then the game hits you with a hard left turn. And if I had played this game at any moment in my life previous, I would've certainly felt bad for Henry as a character. But it was only two weeks prior that I not only received the hard news that my Mother would never wake up again, but I also had to decide when to let her go. Unlike in Firewatch, there were warning signs; and both the player and Henry saw the inevitable. But neither he nor I had prepared for it. One moment, my Mother was fine; the next, I'm sitting in a room alone processing everything the doctor just told me, with my emotions pouring out of me like an open fire hydrant.

While I did have family and friends around me during the end of my mother's life, I felt like every decision was on my shoulders. So when Firewatch presented me with a narrative that went from cheeky and realistic to brutally heart-wrenching and all too familiar, I couldn't handle it. It wasn't too long before her death that I was getting absolutely schooled by my mother in Bingo. And then, in a blink of an eye, she was gone. (I'm also STILL convinced my Mother was some sort of witch that could manipulate Bingo boards. And now I'll never know the truth.)

we'll all have to deal with the loss of our parents, how we cope with our emotions will be different

It took me a while to even return to Firewatch. While I suspected the intro was designed to help you color Henry's decision to venture off into the woods, I didn't expect it to hit me as hard as it did. As a catalyst for Henry's motivations, the intro was simple and effective. It was heartfelt and focused on how quickly life and relationships can change. The impact of the intro was compounded by the fact that this wasn't simply a narrative, but a decision you had to make. It feels similar to the opening of Up, but at least in Up, it's Carl's story, not yours. You didn't have to make a decisions for Carl regarding the end of his wife's life; you sat back and watched Carl make his own decisions. The opening to Up is difficult and important for Carl, and that still affecting. But having to make a tough decision as Henry in Firewatch is where things really hit too close to home.

I think about my mother every day. I'm still processing not having her around. And I'm sure I still don't have it in me yet to even listen to that Steven Universe playlist I talked about. I'm not sure what this season of the show holds, but there will likely be things that will brush up against this fresh wound.

But, if I could be anything like Steven, the best thing I can do is cherish the parts of me that exist because of my Mother: the hustle, the self-reliance and the sense of humor. That's all her. They are some of my best traits and anyone who knew her knew that she gave those all to me. Just like Steven, the best parts of me are gifts my mother instilled in my character. These are the traits that make my life magical. And they are parts of my mother I'll never have to forget, because I make use of them every day.