Kate Spencer apologizes if there’s sweat under her armpits as we sit outside an L.A. café to talk about our dead moms. Kate—who is armpit stain-free, despite her boot camp workout that morning—is the self-elected president of the Dead Moms Club. She was sworn in at age 27, when her mom, Martha, died of pancreatic cancer. Eleven years later, her first book The Dead Moms Club (Seal Press)—part-memoir, part self-help—is hitting bookshelves this month.
“Hi there,” the first chapter begins. “If you are reading this, it most likely means you are a member of one of the crappiest clubs in the world.”
She had me at “Hi there.” I read Kate’s book like I was in a fever dream.
The idea to write a book on “the mother of all losses” was conceived in 2015, after Kate, a freelance writer, wrote an article for Buzzfeed on her mom’s death. An outpouring of emails came, prompting Kate to tell her story.
“I don’t know if losing my mom fucked me up more than it would other people,” she says. “It really did a number on me. I really wanted books to read, but they were about the experiences of moms dying with cancer, which was what I went through, but there was nothing about now. Like, ‘Now that I don’t have a mom, what the fuck now do I do? I am really mad and I hate everybody’—that didn’t exist in a cheesy self-help form.”
Kate grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where she attended an all-girls school for seven years. Thanks to an itch for mountain men, she enrolled at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, to meet “crunchy hot guys” and earn a degree in women’s studies. After graduation, Kate interned at the daily rag Metro US in New York City and worked in retail at Patagonia. On weekends, she performed improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade, where she met her future husband Anthony King, who was the art director. Around this time, Kate realized she wanted to become a writer, but her career came to a halt when she and her brother, Andrew, quit their jobs and returned home when their mom, Martha, was diagnosed with stage IV cancer.
“We’d do what we had to do during the day,” says Kate’s father, Jim, over the phone. A retired chief investment officer at a trust company, Jim is currently taking classes at Harvard. “At night, we’d chat and laugh and watch TV and drink wine. We actually had some fun because we all were together.”
Taking care of Martha became routine for the Spencers. When Kate visited New York City on weekends, however, Anthony saw the emotional toll Martha’s condition took on Kate and stayed positive for her sake, even as Martha’s health worsened. Anthony, now 42 and a TV writer, is no stranger to tragedy, having lost his own mother in 2002.
“It is a natural order of things that your parents pass away, but not that early,” Anthony says. “When you’re a child, it’s horrific, but when you’re in your 20s, it doesn’t feel like it’s supposed to happen yet. You haven’t figured out who you are.”
As a 29-year-old anxious about my future, I knew exactly what Anthony was talking about. There’s that period in life when you’re finally “adulting” and discovering who you are on the precipice of 30, and you renew that bond with parents on a more eye-to-eye level; Kate felt the same way, too.
“My mom and I had only transitioned into the friendship phase of our relationship a few years before she got sick,” Kate writes in her book. “I’d imagined we’d go on like this for years, maybe traveling the world sampling avocado toasts in cities around America…Then suddenly, the cancer apocalypse hit.”
Martha died after nine months in hospice. “It was peaceful” was Kate’s go-to phrase for anyone who asked about her mom’s passing. But here’s the thing: It hadn’t been.
“This is the hard truth about Dead Mom News,” Kate writes. “You lie to people. A lot…You tell everyone it was so peaceful because you wish, so badly, that it had been.”
I thank Kate for her honesty, because what I saw when we took my mom off life support was horrifying. It wasn’t the peaceful death in the movies.
“Did your mom have cancer also?” Kate asks.
Mom told me she had cancer back in April. I had already planned to visit my parents in Florida after I finished spring semester at NYU in May. By the time I arrived, mom was in the ICU, barely breathing. When she was diagnosed, the oncologist said she’d have six years to live. My mom, whose name was Hope, died 14 days later.
“I’m going to start crying,” Kate says. “That’s its own brand of fucked up.”
“But yeah,” I say. “When I read that part, when you say to people ‘they died peacefully’—death is ugly. It’s smelly. It’s sad. It’s gray.”
“Yeah,” she says. “It’s disgusting.”
In 2007, social media was in its infant stage. There were no Facebook posts where people could leave comments or a sad face reaction. Kate contacted people in Martha’s life the old-fashioned way: telephone and email. Martha was a private person, an introvert who loved nature, but she had the uncanny ability of making everyone she interacted with feel like they mattered, from the dog groomer to the guy at the camera store.
“She was the kind of person who was respectful and really connected with people in service jobs,” Kate says. “People really were impacted by her illness and her death. It’s bizarre. You’re grieving, your mom just died, but then you have to take on this role of breaking the news to other people, and supporting them.
“And then the other thing was the crap people would say to me.” She lets out an exasperated sound. “I took it very personally at first, and then I realized that they don’t know. There’s no dialogue about grief, about death. People don’t know what it looks like when someone dies.”
Because The Dead Moms Club is a self-help book, Kate includes end-of-chapter takeaways to help us club members cope with our grief, such as “Eight Sassy Dead Mom Comebacks in Handy Listicle Form.” My personal favorite comeback: “No, she’s alive—she’s just been focused on becoming the world’s oldest Snapchat star.” She’s also raw and honest about her obsession with Weight Watchers. “It was very disordered behavior,” she says. “I also relied on alcohol. You kind of pick up less healthy habits for a while and I’m grateful they didn’t stick.”
Exercise, drinking, and wedding planning were Kate’s distractions during the darkest period after Martha’s death. “It was an indescribable time,” says Kate’s friend Liese Brown. “In some ways she was good at masking it. I remember thinking—and now I realize how naïve it was—but I was like, ‘Hey! She kind of looks okay.’”
Two years after her mom’s passing, Kate came out of her haze through therapy and the support of family and friends. She also found solace in another outlet: Twilight. “I fucking love Twilight,” Kate says. “I recognize it’s one, not good literature, and two, very problematic. But those books got me through this period of grief. I could never repay those books.”
When she was the entertainment editor at VH1, Kate went to the series' movie premieres and devoured fanfiction. “They all follow the same essential formula of like, they eventually get together and there’s romance, but it saved me. It freakin’ saved me.” Her face brightens. “I love fanfiction writers. It was a place to go where I didn't feel sad about my mom. I think fandom can be a huge support system.”
Kate, who moved to L.A. in 2011, wants to continue writing books, but she’s thinking about taking on romance—possibly inspired by the fanfiction she reads—instead of writing more about her mom.“I’m trying to write a novel. I don’t think I’ll ever write nonfiction again,” she says. “I feel done with writing about my grief. I did it. I got it all out. I don't know what more I have to say.”
Kate acknowledges that her grief will always stay with her—“It comes back and it’s like, remember me? I’m still here. It’s chronic. It coexists”—but she also knows that she isn’t alone. “I'm happy I've written about grief because one thing I haven't figured out until I was older was we're all suffering,” she says. “There's a lot of suffering and grieving and doing so silently. There's stuff going on in our individual worlds.”
As a mother of two girls, ages 4 and 6, Kate’s primary goal is to raise two compassionate beings. She wants them to be conscious of their privilege as white kids. “This might be a terrible parenting decision, but I feel like the earlier they understand the imperfections of our society the earlier they'll want to help change it,” Kate says. “That's my hope. The earlier you can understand that things are not fair for everybody the earlier you can be a helper.”
“Can you teach empathy?” I ask her.
“I think you can,” she says. “It’s hard not having my mom to talk about this stuff. I start to have this mental list and it gets longer and longer. You’re just thinking, ‘God. You’re missing all this cool shit you would have liked! Not just your grandkids, but like Kim vs. Taylor!’ She would have been very invested in that.”
Images courtesy Kate Spencer
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Amanda Furrer was a baker in Boston living on cookie dough before returning to journalism and moving to NYC. She is a marathoner and ice cream fiend, and gets her daily dose of news from late night shows. You can see her obsession with running shoes and sugar on Instagram at @dessertgrrl.