Celebrating milestones has been difficult for Diane Miller since she was 15.
On July 24, 1980, the summer before 10th grade, she lost her mother, Amelia Randall, who had polymyositis — an inflammatory muscle disease that caused her heart to become enlarged, culminating in the need for valve-replacement surgery. While undergoing surgery, “Amy,” as she was known, died at the age of 54.
Miller, the youngest of five, learned of her mother’s death the next day, when she returned from a weeklong cheerleading camp. Suddenly, their home in Westbury — a haven for Miller and her friends where Amy, a proud Italian and Queens native, raised Diane and her siblings on her own after divorcing their father — felt quiet and empty. Diane recalls a mom who cooked delicious meals and loved dancing to Al Green and Lou Rawls records in the kitchen.
“She was the center of my universe,” said Miller, now 57. While she had a strong support system in close friends, and continued living at the house under the guardianship of an older sister, she felt isolated in her grief among peers. “Nobody that I knew of had also lost their mom at that point.”
In school, such innocuous comments from teachers to students as “Go home and tell your mother …” felt like little daggers to her heart.
Then came prom and graduation, momentous occasions she had to navigate, and try to enjoy, without the person who had always helped and taught her so much. Later, there were college degrees, graduate school and the start of her career as a librarian. When she got married, Miller wore her mother’s wedding gown. Becoming a mom herself brought its own bittersweetness, especially when her daughter asked, “Would Grandma have liked me?”
“It doesn’t matter how old you are; if you lose your mom at a young age … certain times are really hard,” said Miller.
After 40 years, Miller wasn’t able to relate to anybody on that level — until May 3, 2021, when she saw an NBC “Today with Hoda & Jenna” segment about Cara Belvin, a Massachusetts woman who was only 9 when her mother, Kit, died of breast cancer. “I never met another girl like me,” Belvin says in the segment.
Eight years earlier, Belvin had decided to simultaneously do something about her heavy burden and help others by starting a nonprofit, called empowerHer, to bring together girls and young women whose mothers have died so that they weren’t alone when the pain is most felt: Mother’s Day.
The first weekend retreat took place at a Boston hotel with seven girls who’d never met but quickly bonded over their shared grief and desire to be with those who understood them.
Watching the segment in her living room, Miller was gobsmacked. Not only by the existence of an organization that so perfectly spoke to her own life and experience, but because she hadn’t heard of empowerHer, which wasn't active on Long Island. “I thought, ‘How, as an educator and somebody who lost their mother at a young age, did I not know about this organization?’ ” said Miller.
“At empowerHer, we say, ‘I see you. I hear you. We are not alone,’ ” Belvin told Newsday.
The nontherapeutic organization has since grown into a year-round initiative to help hundreds of girls and young women through the age of 24 feel connected by offering community-based events, activities and retreats. EmpowerHer also has a mentor program, matching younger girls with older women who also lost their moms young; mentors and mentees aim to interact at least once a month. The organization, which is run by five full-time staff, about 10 part-timers and thousands of volunteers, is funded by donations and fundraising events, such as races, cocktail parties and galas.
Before the pandemic, empowerHer started expanding, with fundraisers helping to launch chapters around the country — and even the world. In the beginning of 2020, empowerHer announced a Southern California chapter, its first outside of New England. Although COVID-19 slowed expansion, there was a silver lining during lockdown — a time when grieving girls were feeling their isolation even harder. The group could serve anyone, anywhere by hosting virtual events and providing one-on-one mentor hangouts. More branches have since started, including a Tri-State Chapter, which covers New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Broadening its reach
After Belvin’s “Today” appearance, about 70 women applied to volunteer as mentors and about 50 girls enrolled. That number has grown to approximately 450 girls in 26 states and 10 countries, including the United Kingdom. The organization is also working to broaden its reach to serve all youth who have experienced the loss of a parent.
“The reality is that it’s all word-of-mouth right now,” said Sam Loutzenhiser, 35, who lives in Virginia and is a close friend of Belvin’s who has become a volunteer, mentor and director of programs and advancement for empowerHer. Loutzenhiser was 17 when she lost her mother, Anne Marie, to multiple sclerosis. “We’re here to help change the conversation and tell the girls it’s OK to feel whatever they’re feeling and talk about hard things,” she said.
According to a report published by New York Life Foundation in December 2021, one in 14 children in the United States “will experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18.” Since COVID-19, there has been a rising interest across the nation in opening up about grief and its impact on families and bereavement support services.
Joaniko Kohchi, director of the Institute for Parenting at Adelphi University, noted that the loss of a parent — whose care and attention since birth and through a person’s earliest months and years of life directly shapes their brains, personalities, expectations of trust, and supportive relationships with other people — weighs heavily on the psychology of infants and young children.
“We are born needing to attach to at least one person and when that one person — often the mother — is not able to continue to be that one person, it is experienced by the young child as a really significant loss. We don’t do children any favors. We are not helping them to heal when we don’t talk about the loss and don’t acknowledge that this was a really significant and painful and life-changing loss in their lives and in their development.”
Speaking on the benefits of programs like empowerHer, and its nontherapeutic approach to healing, Kohchi said, “It does take a village. We all need more than one person to believe that we can be OK. People who have demonstrated resilience can often look back on their childhood and identify at least one person who believed in them, could mentor or guide them, or make them feel they have a place, that they belong. Someone that lets you know, ‘I know what you’re going through, you’re not alone.’
“These are really important messages and can be therapeutic in its own manner in terms of helping us to feel better and overcome adversities in our lives.”
Miller, who found herself moved by empowerHer’s mission and already a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters, was among the new roster of ambassadors following the “Today” spotlight. After the group’s intensive vetting process for mentors as well as training, she attended her first in-person event last October in Manhattan, one of 11 cities participating in the inaugural “empowerHer everywhere” gathering. There, she helped host an afternoon with fellow members and the girls — decorating pumpkins, making flower crowns dedicated to the memories of moms, and eating baked goods together.
Miller said she couldn’t help but see her younger self in the girls: “I think this would’ve been lovely to have. Grief is cyclical and it’s never done, but somebody who supports you and knows what you’re going through is an invaluable person to have in your corner.”
'Most rewarding things'
Among the empowerHer leaders she bonded with was Dallis Vargas, 29, of Brooklyn, coordinator for the Tri-State Chapter and organizer of the group’s first Manhattan Luminaria event in 2021. Initially held in Massachusetts in 2020, the fundraiser, in which bags are purchased, inscribed in honor of a loved one and displayed with a lit candle, has since expanded to other cities on Mother’s Day. Vargas, who hosted last year’s Luminaria at The High Line, helping to sell 150 bags, said “it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”
Vargas was 17 when her mother, Joanne, “a really bright light,” died of breast cancer. She was able to bury her monumental grief under hard work in pursuit of her career as an attorney up until the pandemic — when she suddenly felt confronted by it head-on.
“I’ve had 12 years’ worth of Mother’s Days where I’m in this weird place and don’t know what to do,” said Vargas, whose law school graduation even fell on the annual holiday. “I had to keep my sunglasses on in all the pictures I took with my friends because my eyes were swollen from crying the whole day. The loss was palpable, it was everywhere. That’s just how milestones are going to be for the rest of our lives.”
Then, one day in 2020, she discovered empowerHer on Instagram and, much like Miller, got involved. For nine months now, she’s been a mentor to a young woman named Natalie; they go to dinner, take long walks and last year attended the Governors Ball Music Festival at Citi Field.
“I feel so honored I can be here to guide her when she needs it and just be a shoulder because sometimes you need someone who understands in a way that just a friend might not,” she said. “To be that person for her, it feels like I’m able to forgive the part of me that maybe didn’t handle grief the way I should’ve because of how deeply hurt I was.
“This is my way of honoring my mother, who was such a selfless, incredible person.”
Erica Kerman, an ambassador and mentor whose mother, Carol, died more than a decade after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, is the official host of this year’s Mother’s Day Retreat in Manhattan. Offered in-person and virtually, it includes brunch, yoga, cooking, music and emotional support. “Being able to lessen that feeling of loneliness for these girls and young women is so meaningful and rewarding,” she said. “You just immediately feel supported and connected, and part of a community.”
From the moment she learned of empowerHer, Miller has been thinking of daughters across Long Island who have lost their mothers. With this year’s Manhattan event and the advent of virtual participation, Miller hopes empowerHer will attract more Long Islanders. Enough interest, she said, could help establish a Long Island chapter, one more place where mentors like her can provide connection and support to girls.
“Maybe by next Mother’s Day, there will be a Long Island one so people don’t have to commute to the city,” she said.
Mother's Day Retreat
EmpowerHer will host a hybrid Mother's Day Retreat in Manhattan’s Union Square neighborhood on May 8 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The free event includes brunch, dance, crafts, yoga, cookie decorating and a hair tutorial. Attendees will have the opportunity to connect with caring and compassionate adult women. The in-person location will be sent upon registration; visit bit.ly/empowerHerRetreat2022 for information and to register.
On May 7, the empowerHer Luminaria will be held at Beauty & Essex, where each luminary purchased, for a suggested $25 donation, will be displayed. To participate, visit empoweringher.org/luminaria. To learn more, visit empoweringher.org.