Vivian Nunez is a 22-year-old from Manhattan, New York, who spends most of her 9-to-5 as a social-strategy and digital-media consultant for small businesses (she basically helps increase their social media presence). The rest of her working hours are dedicated to Too Damn Young, an online community and resource for teens and young adults who have lost loved ones, which she founded last May.
When Vivian was 10, her mother died. Her father was out of the picture, so her grandmother became her legal guardian. Then, after years of being so close that they shared a bedroom, her grandmother passed away when Vivian was 21. “In a lot of ways, I lost a mom again,” she says. So what did she do? She channeled her grief into creating Too Damn Young. Her mission is to let others know they’re not alone, and to make it ok to say “I am grieving.” Here’s her story.
Who’s in those pictures?: That’s Vivian’s grandmother in the photo she’s holding at the very top. “My grandmother, Blanca, was 85 when she passed away, but her spirit was probably as young as she looked in this picture. She was alert and funny and always had a perfect comeback on the tip of her tongue. She’s who I get my wittiness from.” Then, above, Vivian’s holding a picture of her mother. “My mom’s name was Delia and even now, 12 years after her death, any time I see a woman with auburn hair, red nail polish, or a matching pantsuit, I think of her.”
Grieving at 10 years old vs. 21: “There is a huge difference between how a child is allowed to grieve and how a teenager or a young adult is allowed to grieve. There’s this idea—that I lived through—that when I was 10 and I lost my mom, it was ok for me to grieve and it was expected of me to be sad and to go through stages. I wasn’t necessarily expected to just jump back, and I realize now that’s not true for someone who’s 21. I was very much expected to jump right back into my life and leave that chapter where it was. I wasn’t allowed to be ok with grieving. My grandmother was buried at the end of the week and I was back to school [at Baruch College] the next week. And it was hard. It was smack in the middle of the semester and I just kind of had to bounce back.”
Say it out loud: According to research conducted by Comfort Zone Camp, a nonprofit bereavement camp for children, one in seven Americans before the age of 20 will lose a parent or a sibling. “So that means that in a classroom of 30, at least three to four students have lost someone and they probably can’t point each other out, because no one is having this conversation… Saying the words is something that’s very taboo: ‘I am grieving.’ Suddenly people are like, ‘What are you doing? What are you saying?’ Having the conversation isn’t had, which makes it hard for someone to admit that they’re going through it. One of my main goals with Too Damn Young is to normalize the conversation around grief and to make it ok for people to grieve and say they’re grieving. I think that once you start having the conversation, it gets less awkward. Especially when you’re a teenager and you’re trying to figure out who you are. Being able to say the words is some kind of therapy in itself.”
The best thing you can do for a friend who is grieving: “When I went back to school [after my grandmother passed away], my friend, who lost his dad, would just sit there with me. Sometimes we would talk, but for the most part we would sit there in silence; I would be on my computer, he would be on his. It was never something where I felt like I had to talk to him, it was basically sitting there with me and existing in a time where all I wanted to do was just exist. I wanted to just be and he gave me the space to do that. I think the worst thing you can do is ‘Tell me how you feel.’ Chances are they don’t know how they feel. You just have to let them know you’re there. There will be moments when they really want to have a regular friendship, do things that you normally do, and not necessarily center it around this—this big loss.”
So what is Too Damn Young? Vivian posts stories and essays submitted by teens and young adults, often about a loved one they’ve lost, or on a multitude of other topics, like advice on how to treat a friend who’s grieving, or a review of a song or movie that just gets what it’s like to lose someone. (There’s also fun recipe ideas, like this amazing-looking oreo and popcorn snack.)
Making a difference: Vivian has interviewed some high-profile supporters of Too Damn Young, like country singer Joel Crouse, and just this month, Youtube star Ingrid Nilsen. Ultimately, Vivian wants to know that she’s affecting people on a local level. “One girl on the phone told me, ‘I love what you’re doing. I wish I had this when I was 16 and lost my mom.’ That touched me, because I’m apparently creating something that people want to use, and there’s a need to be filled.” Vivian spoke at an event for the nonprofit GlamourGals last year, and after giving her speech and talking about Too Damn Young, a girl came up to her and told her she’d lost both of her parents. “It was so cool to be able to connect with someone on that level, and to make it ok for her to say it out loud without feeling like there’s a huge red sign on her forehead, ‘Oh my gosh, I lost my parents,’” Vivian says. “It was ok to talk about it.”
Her goals for Too Damn Young: In the beginning, Vivian was doing the majority of the writing. Now, she’s writing less and less, because she’s getting lots of submissions. She hopes to eventually do speaking sessions to share her story with more people. “The goal from the beginning has never been to be like, ‘Oh, I’m in the exact same place as you are,’ but it’s more like, ‘We started off in the same exact place, because someone we knew died, and where we go from there is very much our individual path. But you don’t have to think you’re alone in it.’”
More about Vivian…
The last book she read:All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven. "She’s managed to write a character that almost anyone who has lost a loved one can see themselves in.”
Her style: “I’m very much a t-shirt-and-jeans kind of girl. I wear white and navy and black. I’m petite, so I love Loft, and Zara has the most amazing jeans if you’re petite.” She also likes Goodnight Macaron for sweaters (when they’re on sale) and Urban Outfitters for t-shirts.
Her favorite place in NYC: “Everyone goes to Central Park, not many people go to Riverside Park. My favorite block in the entire city—I don’t know how many people have a favorite block in the city!—is on 114th Street. I love how quiet it is, you can see the river, you can see New Jersey, there are nice lawns.”
Got a big idea of your own? “If you have an idea, and you have a full-time job, make it your side gig. Find people who have done what you’re doing or who have executed their own idea and pick their brains. See how they got to where they are, or how they started out.” When Vivian started Too Damn Young, she reached out to Molly Ford, the founder of the blog Smart Pretty Awkward. “I followed her career, heard her on panels, I liked what she was doing with her career and we just clicked. I liked her energy. You kind of want someone in your corner who’s like, ‘It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you have a good idea, roll with it,’ and she’s very much that person for me.”
Want to contribute to Too Damn Young? Send your essay here. You can also follow on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for updates. Vivian says the most important thing you can do to support Too Damn Young is “make it easier to talk about grief. Help create a safe environment for others simply by asking questions like, ‘Tell me about the person you lost.’”
Thank you so much to Vivian for taking part in this interview!
Want more S&S interviews with “ordinary” women doing amazing things? Check out Natalie, who rides a motorcycle and plays the violin (not at the same time!), Heather, an eclectic Texas-based performance artist, Dayna, a video performance artist based in New York, and Rachel, founder of the nonprofit GlamourGals.
Photographs, courtesy of Vivian.