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Women in Focus

Love & Loss: How Vivian Nunez Channeled Her Grief Into the Creation of 'Too Damn Young'

Emma Goddard
by Emma Goddard Published on May 29, 2015

Sitting in a house in New York City, there are drawers full of memories that remain untouched since March, 2014. In that same residence exists a dress, a T-shirt and a purse that haven't been worn by their original owner in 12 years. All of these items belong to Vivian Nunez. Before this, they belonged to her grandmother, Blanca, and her mother, Delia, respectively. Delia died when Nunez was 10 years old. Blanca passed when she was 21, three months shy of her college graduation.

While the loss of the two prominent women in her life is still painful to this day, the Baruch College graduate and New York native likes to remember Blanca and Delia by the life they lived rather than how they died. Instead, she recalls her grandmother's grab-life-by-the-balls attitude and her great sense of humor. She remembers how Blanca came to the U.S. from Ecuador raising six children as a single mother; she was only in her late 40s when her husband died.

On the other hand, her mother Delia was a hardworking individual, who, also a single parent, had to raise a teenager and a young child while working two jobs.

"A lot of people focus on their death," Nunez said. "They’re reduced to their death which is horrible because these are funny people. They’re human."

Nunez wishes more people would ask about what Blanca and Delia were like when they were still here. You can tell by the way she talks about them that she acknowledges them as being, often speaking about them in the present tense without realizing it.

She reminisces about the long walks she used to take with her mother as a child, passing by a doll house store every day on the Upper East Side. While they were never able to afford a doll house at the time, this stroll became a tradition between them and an important life lesson about how having a goal in life — whether that meant buying the doll house of her dreams or pursuing an amazing career opportunity after college — was so important. It's moments like these that Nunez wants people to know about — moments with her mother and grandmother that helped shaped her life and made her into who she is today.

Too Damn Young

It's those same memories about Blanca and Delia and the life they lived that influenced Nunez to create her website Too Damn Young, a community and resource for teenagers and young adults who have lost loved ones. The name, which Nunez said came to her after searching through Spotify only to stumble upon Luke Bryan's song of the same title, resonated with her.

"I feel like I'm way too damn young to be living through this twice," Nunez said. "It’s a little bit ironic that living through this makes you feel anything but young. On the flip side, no matter how old the person passed away is, they were young. My grandmother was 85 and the favorite phrase at funerals is 'Oh she lived such a long life.' There are always going to be life moments [she can't be there for]. It’s never going to be 'Oh yes, it was the right time.' They're always going to be too damn young."

Initially formed as a way for her to cope with the losses in her own life, Nunez admits the motivation behind the website was selfish at the beginning.

"For the first few months it was just me writing by myself which was really cathartic for me because I had just lost my grandma," Nunez said. "I needed some kind of outlet and something that was under my control at a time when I thought I had no control over everything else."

Now, the website, which celebrated its one-year anniversary on May 28, has transitioned from a more personal blog to a place where individuals of a certain age can express themselves without judgment. When Nunez lost her mother, she said that people expected and tolerated her grieving process; she was young. Yet when she lost her grandmother, those around her told her that death was just a part of life and to move on. She wasn't granted the same permission as a young adult to mourn for her loss as she was when she was a pre-teen. And that, to Nunez, was unfair.

"Some of those around you expect that if you're going to grieve you have to do it in a way where it doesn't interfere with their lives," Nunez said. "Who are they to tell me I can't be sad? Yeah, I get it, people dying is normal. But not my person dying; it's different when my person dies. One in seven Americans will lose a parent or a sibling before the age of 20 and you won't know who else has lost someone because no one talks about it. No one talks about grief and loss, no one makes the conversation a priority. That's so detrimental."

Too Damn Young is a platform created directly in response to this problem. From losing best friends to suicide, to personal essays like "Just Because My Dad Wasn't Perfect Doesn't Mean I Can't Mourn Him," the stories on the website can get dark, but they're raw.

"I always saw through the lens of wanting to be able to have something that’s tangible to some extent where you could hold someone’s hand when you're having a really bad day," Nunez said. "Everything I do for Too Damn Young goes back to that feeling."

For past contributors Muluba Habanyama, 22, and Jordan Emmons, 22, the website has become just that. Both women discovered Too Damn Young through YouTube personality Ingrid Nilsen, who shared her story with Nunez about her father's death for the website and made a video discussing it as well. Though Habanyama and Emmons's stories drastically differ, they both shared loss, grief and that feeling of having no one to talk to about their thoughts.

Habanyama lost her dad when she was 13. She became an orphan after losing her mom when she was 19, an age in Canada where people typically toast their adulthood with their first drink. Her parents were HIV positive, and she too is HIV positive. Though Habanyama had her older sister to turn to, she struggled with the loss of her parents and tried to ignore it rather than confront it. It wasn't until December 2014 that she publicly disclosed her HIV positive status and the death of her parents to friends, family and strangers on YouTube.

"I haven’t looked back ever since," Habanyama said. "I wanted to share my story to let go of all the things hurting my soul and take control of my life. I realized a lot of my loneliness I almost forced myself into, and I decided to share to find that hand to hold."

With the community built through Too Damn Young, Habanyama has found not one but hundreds of hands to hold and people to turn to, no longer feeling alone.

"I’ve come to terms with the situation and I realize that the grieving process is a journey, and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve," Habanyama said. "I lost my parents very young and still find myself needing them. Having a resource that specifically engages young individuals going through grief was desperately needed."

Similar to Habanyama, Emmons had never shared her story about losing her father to cancer with others. She didn't want to talk about it, and it took her six years to open up about her loss as a contributor to Too Damn Young.

"After reading Ingrid's interview and exploring more of Too Damn Young, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of," Emmons said. "Sharing my story was definitely difficult, especially since I haven't written anything ever about the losses I've experienced. Not in journals, not in blogs, nothing. Something just clicked with me after reading Ingrid's story, and I felt like it was time."

Being able to read about other contributors' experiences has helped Emmons with her grieving process, and she said seeing their experiences is almost like reading her own thoughts. ​

Since it's formation, Too Damn Young has gained many followers and contributors who want to share their stories. Nunez has interviewed celebrities like Nilsen, as well as American country singer, Joel Crouse. One of the personal essays she published by contributor Sam DeBattista was recognized and lauded by "The Fault in Our Stars" Author, John Green. Though, like with any startup, Nunez is working to gain traction with an even wider audience; she's managed to make an impact on strangers all over the world.

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And while reading the contributed essays and writing her own articles on dealing with loss is emotionally taxing, Too Damn Young has become Nunez's child. Despite working as a social and digital strategy freelancer on the side, she's fully committed to seeing the website grow and helping as many people as she can.

When she receives emails from her followers telling her how thankful they are for the website, or​ confiding in her, a stranger, it further confirms that this is what she's supposed to be doing right now. Her vulnerability, sharing her story, allows others to open up as well. While the website started as something purely for herself, all Nunez looks forward to now is catering to the needs of her peers and giving back to the community.

"[Vivian] set this goal and has created a masterpiece," Habanyama said. "It’s inspiring."

If you would like to share your story, head over to Too Damn Young or follow Vivian @2DamnYoung.

This article was written by Emma Goddard. Follow her on Twitter @egoddardhokie.

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