Ariana Grande was devastated by how it all ended with Mac Miller.
She had broken up with the Swimming artist months beforehand after their relationship had turned toxic, her desire to be a rock for him in his ongoing battle with substance abuse not able to conquer all. She understandably couldn't bear to watch him go down that destructive road.
"Unconditional love is not selfish. It is wanting the best for that person even if at the moment, it's not you," Grande wrote in May 2018, her first public comment regarding their breakup. "I can't wait to know and support you forever and I'm so proud of you!!"
Instead, Miller was found dead of an accidental overdose Sept. 7, 2018, at the age of 26, leaving Grande to only be able to wish for a chance to tell him in person what he meant to her—as she expressed on her smash-hit "thank u next" and has never stopped expressing, even as she has moved on in her personal life, recently announcing her engagement to Dalton Gomez.
"It's pretty all-consuming," she told Vogue in the summer of 2019, referring to the grief she was still processing. "By no means was what we had perfect, but, like, f--k. He was the best person ever, and he didn't deserve the demons he had. I was the glue for such a long time, and I found myself becoming...less and less sticky. The pieces just started to float away."
What hasn't floated away is her appreciation for everything she got from her time with Miller, who was born Malcolm McCormick and would have turned 29 today, and what she's learned about herself since.
In June 2019, Grande got choked up during a show in his hometown of Pittsburgh when she got to the "wish I could say thank you to Malcolm, 'cause he was an angel" part of "thank u next," Miller's music having also been playing when concertgoers filed into the arena earlier in the evening.
After the 2020 Grammys, where she performed an emotional medley of John Lennon's "Imagine" along with her "7 rings" and "thank u next," she shared several videos to her Instagram Story of her kicking back after her big night. In two of them, the Florida native was wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers shirt, an open nod to Miller's beloved hometown team.
As recently as October, fans caught what certainly felt like a Miller reference in the sound of crickets chirping in the background of "Just like Magic" and on the title track of her sixth studio album, positions. A previously unreleased track from Miller called "Crickets" had dropped earlier in the year.
But her heavenly musical references to the late rapper began with the album thank u next, part of a burst of studio productivity from Grande in the latter half of 2018, during which she was mourning Miller, picking up the pieces following her broken engagement with Peter Davidson and recapturing her sense of self—a journey she has mainly addressed through song.
"Me and Mac were really close. He was one of my best friends," singer-songwriter Njomza Vitia, who co-wrote "7 Rings," told NPR in February 2019. "So [Ariana and I] were just around each other all the time because of him...So after Mac passed, she was really hurt. I was really hurt. And I think it kind of brought us together a little bit closer because of what we were going through. We could understand each other. She surrounded herself with people who could understand."
She continued, "The songs were written really, really fast. From [September to October], it was almost like a song a day...Ideas were just getting shouted out and people were just like adding on with other stuff. It's really cool. It was a lot of really amazing, boss, female energy."
Grande told Vogue, "I'm a person who's been through a lot and doesn't know what to say about any of it to myself, let alone the world. I see myself onstage as this perfectly polished, great-at-my-job entertainer, and then in situations like this I'm just this little basket-case puddle of figuring it out...I have to be the luckiest girl in the world, and the unluckiest, for sure."
She explained, "I'm walking this fine line between healing myself and not letting the things that I've gone through be picked at before I'm ready, and also celebrating the beautiful things that have happened in my life and not feeling scared that they'll be taken away from me because trauma tells me that they will be, you know what I mean?"
Retreating to the studio after suffering a loss has always been her way of dealing. "My friends know how much solace music brings me, so I think it was an all-around, let's-get-her-there type situation," Grande told the magazine.
Music was what brought her and Miller together in the first place, the pair collaborating on a remix of her song "The Way" together in 2013. Their effortless chemistry in the video translated into real life, though they didn't actually start dating for a couple of years.
She subsequently joined Miller on the song (and appeared in the video for) "My Favorite Part," off of his 2016 album The Divine Feminine, featuring him singing, "I know you far too smart / Before things come together, they have to fall apart / It's been a while since I've been sober / This life can be so hard... I'd rather talk about you."
"We have loved and adored and respected each other since the beginning, since before we even met, just because we were fans of each other's talent," Grande told Cosmopolitan in 2017. We weren't ready at all, though, to be together. It's just timing. We both needed to experience some things, but the love has been there the whole time."
After Miller died, she wrote in tribute, "i adored you from the day i met you when i was nineteen and i always will. i can't believe you aren't here anymore. i really can't wrap my head around it. we talked about this. so many times. i'm so mad, i'm so sad i don't know what to do. you were my dearest friend. for so long. above anything else. i'm so sorry i couldn't fix or take your pain away. i really wanted to. the kindest, sweetest soul with demons he never deserved. i hope you're okay now. rest."
She was still engaged to Davidson at the time after a whirlwind courtship that had him ring shopping weeks after their first date, but she broke it off about six weeks after Miller died.
A source told E! News at the time that she was "truly hurting from the death of Mac and feels very overwhelmed with her life right now...She's been battling her feelings and knows that she needs to take time for herself."
On his podcast The Shane Show after his friend's death, Shane Powers acknowledged how much Grande—who was unfairly accused by merciless online critics of dropping Miller in his time of need when they broke up and he was arrested weeks later for leaving the scene of a suspected DUI crash—tried to help him.
"Ariana and him were together and they were very much in love," Power recalled. "And I have to say, she was incredible when he was first sobering up. She was a f--king G to him. There could not have been anybody more supportive of him being sober than Ariana. I saw that, I was around it. I took phone calls from her, 'How do I help? What do I do?' This little girl was unbelievably involved and helpful to him being healthy. Because whether he's an addict or not, the way that Mac partied was not healthy."
But theirs was a relationship that changed both their lives, despite Grande being the only one left to unpack what they had and what it meant.
Miller told Beats 1 host Zane Lowe in an interview a few weeks before his critically acclaimed Swimming came out Aug. 3, 2018, "I was in love with somebody. We were together for two years. We worked through good times, bad times, stress, and everything else. And then it came to an end, and we both moved on. And it's that simple, you know?"
At the time she was with someone new, and that was "strange," he admitted, but "I am happy for her and moving forward with her life, just as I'm sure she is with me."
Grande has been able to move forward, but she has also made sure to honor her time with Miller and his legacy as an artist.
"Nothing mattered more to him than music ever," she told Lowe last May on Beats 1, sitting down for an Apple Music special (from home, due to the pandemic) during which she had the team spin Miller's "What's the Use?" and "Blue World."
"He was the kind of person who woke up and rolled into the studio, like tumbled out of bed into the studio next door. Nothing was more important," Grande said. "Talk about losing track of time and forgetting to eat, remind yourself to take care of yourself and be a person. He was a person who gave literally every single second of his thoughts and time and life to music. And I think that is so evident in what he has left us with and just how many incredible and different bodies of work, everything from Blue Slide Park, K.I.D.S., to all the way through Divine Feminine, to Swimming, to Circles, to everything in between.
"It's just such a beautiful gift that he kind of touched the world with, and I think the thing he'd want most is for us to just appreciate it and not forget about it."