In Steven Universe, when a magical, pink lion forces Steven to explore the pocket dimension inside his glorious mane, he finds a VHS tape left behind by his mother, Rose Quartz. The VHS is labeled “For Steven,” so he grabs it and rushes to watch the video.
It opens on familiar sights: the beach where Steven plays, the temple where he and the Crystal Gems live, and his father goofing around. The video is narrated by an unknown feminine voice, but when the camera is turned around we find that Rose made this video for Steven. She explains that both she and her son cannot exist at the same time and that she has to give up her physical form to bring Steven to life, but that she will become half of who Steven is. The video ends shortly after she says, “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.”
Seeing the video both cuts and heals Steven, connecting him to the person who shaped his life and whose actions and choices still reverberate through his every day. Despite the unique circumstances, Steven’s experience with grief is incredibly relatable. When my father died, I learned that I hadn’t really ever known him to start with and what I’ve learned since has both wounded me and provided me with the closure I so desperately needed.
Steven Universe may primarily be an animated children's show, but it's also a meditation on family, loss, and being yourself. In the series, Steven is a human-alien hybrid who lives with three parents, all of whom are alien Crystal Gems and rebels formerly under his mother’s command.
Throughout the series, Steven must come to terms with his grief and loss without ever getting to know his mother. As he discovers his powers, fights evil, and grows up, he must face his mother's choices, including being a war criminal. It's a bittersweet journey filled with longing, hope, and pain.
He sees his mother everywhere, from hallucinations to reflections to dreams. Sometimes she actually appears to him, and sometimes she is a manifestation of his deepest desire: that he could know his mother.
My childhood was atypical. My father worked grueling physical jobs, including being a farrier and a ski lift mechanic. His hours were long and in many ways, my father was an enigma. He was also the person who got up early to leave me a sticky note before driving an hour to work in the pre-dawn dark.
My parents broke up when I was 12, and my mother retained custody, despite rapidly declining into a near constant manic state for the next few years, eventually resulting in her imprisonment for criminal actions when I was 15. I was informally adopted into a new family, and my father became even more of a mystery to me.
He died when I was 26 and every hope and dream I’d had of one day fixing all that had gone wrong between us, none of which was my fault and some of which was his, shattered.
Now, I’m no Crystal Gem. I have no superpowers (and if I did, you certainly wouldn’t find me listing them for my nemesis to find on the internet) and neither of my parents gave up their form to bring me to life. However, like Steven, I have to live with the echoes of my father’s choices as they reverberate through my life—and getting to see how Steven grapples with his pain, rage, sorrow, and guilt helps me come to terms with the rush of emotions I feel when I grieve my father.
Steven becomes familiar with his mother in ways that aren’t always pleasant. He frequently learns information that changes the way he views her and realizes that his mother is not the person he thought she was. Without even having someone to yell at, someone to help him understand, Steven learns that in some ways, Rose had not done right by him.
Later in the series, Steven returns to Lion’s pocket dimension and finds a prisoner he hadn’t realized was there. He frees the stranger, Bismuth, only to find that she had been a Crystal Gem and fought alongside his mother. As his guardians celebrate the return of their friend, they wonder why Rose had lied to them.
Eventually, Steven realizes that Bismuth had specifically designed a weapon to kill Gems. She was no longer interested in resisting or subduing; she wanted to annihilate the opposing force. And, Steven, faced with the decision his mother faced 5,300 years earlier, comes to the same terrible conclusion: He poofs, aka temporarily incapacitates, and imprisons Bismuth.
It wounds Steven to do so, and the decision haunts him as he navigates the clashing worlds of Earth and the Gem Homeworld. It can be painful to watch these episodes, to see Steven suffer so greatly, but pain is a part of grief.
I love my dad. Nothing will ever change that fact, but I can see now that the decisions he made, including choosing not to raise my sister and me when my mother was imprisoned, have profoundly impacted me. But, as Steven shows, I get to choose what to make of the complicated reality my father left behind.
When Steven gets to know his mother in joyous ways, as when he first viewed the VHS tape, the tears that roll down his cheeks (and mine) remind me of the man I'd idolized and who'd fallen from grace, the person who, it turned out, was just trying to figure out how to be alive. My father made mistakes and yes, some of those mistakes have caused me great harm. But, it was my father who believed in me, who, like Rose Quartz, gave up his own freedom to give me a life I never asked for.
There are days when remembering my father feels like the first cool breeze of autumn, when I want to curl up in a warm sweater, have a cup of coffee, and look out over the mountains, knowing how much this world meant to him. There are also days where remembering him feels like the searing pain of grabbing a pan out of the campfire without gloves, a burning, focused pain that brings tears to my eyes and makes me wish I’d never known him in the first place. And, sometimes, the pain and the joy are intermixed in a bittersweet recollection of the person who made me who I am today.
Steven becomes obsessed with watching the VHS left behind by his mother and is convinced it is the key to figuring out his magical Gem destiny. He finds, instead, that there is a second VHS tape labeled “For Nora.” He shows the tape to his father who plays it for him. Almost word for word the video is the same, except that instead of addressing Steven, Rose speaks to Nora.
Steven panics, begging his father to tell him who Nora is. His father tells him that Nora is him. To which Steven replies, in true Steven fashion, “I’m my mom and my sister? What kind of destiny is this?” His father explains that they had narrowed it down to two names and made a video for each. Steven worries over what this means for his magical destiny and what the original VHS meant.
What Steven learns is that there is no meant-to-be, that he was not destined for anything, but rather that he gets to create who he’ll be because, to borrow from Rose, “a human is an action.” Steven realizes that there is no magical destiny, but rather that he’s just supposed to be his mother’s kid.
For a long time, I wanted to be exactly like my father, exactly like the perfect version of him I created in my mind. I wanted to need no one, control my emotions, and be the cowboy he was. Tragically, it is only after his death that I’ve realized that there’s no one I’m meant to be—just the person I get to create, just my father’s kid.