Tahj Mowry is well aware that he wasn’t the one who lost a daughter or a sister or the mother of his child when Naya Rivera died last year.

“I know I’m going through my feelings, but nothing can ever…I can’t even imagine what it would feel like,” the 34-year-old actor, who dated the Glee star off and on throughout their adolescence and has called her his “first everything,” acknowledged to E! News in a June 30 interview. “Yes, I have my own feelings and emotions about her and what happened but they can’t relate” to what her immediate family has gone through.

“I want to give respect to their grief,” he added, “and they’re family to me and always have…I’m just thankful that I am still able to keep in contact with them.”

Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t devastating for Mowry when Rivera died July 8, 2020, in a shocking drowning accident on Lake Piru in Ventura, Calif. Her body was recovered five days later, her then-4-year-old son, Josey, having been found alone (and wearing a life jacket) in the boat she had rented for what was supposed to be a fun family outing.

While the search was still on, Mowry wrote on Instagram, “No woman has ever measured up to what you gave me or how you made me feel. I’ve never liked to admit it but I have never stopped loving you. A part of me always wished for the day where God would bring us back together to be what we dreamt we could have been.”

He sent his love and prayers to her parents, George and Yolanda (“whatever you need, I am here for you”), and her siblings, Mychal and Nickayla, also his lifelong friends and “forever family.”

Rivera, who was only 33, was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood—and that’s where Mowry plans to pay a visit Thursday, the one-year anniversary of her death.

“I’m probably just going to spend some time with her where she is right now at her site,” he told E! News. “I’ve been there before, obviously, but I think that’s the main thing that I want to do.”

Their romantic relationship had ended years beforehand, but they had remained friends, sharing a history that began when they were 4 years old and met during a photo shoot for an ad campaign and included each other’s first kiss and shared screen time when Rivera guest-starred on Mowry’s sitcom Smart Guy.

But even when they were no longer dating, Rivera couldn’t help but be everywhere, Mowry recalled with a smile.

“I think our last sort of breakup in my early 20s, I think a little bit after that was when she got Glee and I just remember seeing—it was one of those moments where you keep seeing your ex on billboards and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t escape!'” He laughed at the memory.

“But at the other side of that,” Mowry continued, “I was like, ‘I know.’ I was like, ‘Man, it’s about time that the world gets to see her talent and her ferociousness and everything that she stood for.’ I think back to then and I think it’s hilarious that every time I was driving I would go through those two emotions like, ‘Oh, again?!’ And then also like, ‘Yep, not surprised. There she is, it was only a matter of time.'”

Glee premiered in 2009 and was an immediate sensation, winning the Golden Globe for Best TV Series, Musical or Comedy, after its first season and turning the melodic members of New Directions into household names. Over the years, Rivera would stand out for her portrayal of gay cheerleader Santana Lopez.

“She liked the storylines that helped inspire and change things,” her former publicist Zack Teperman remembered Rivera to E! News. “She was all about helping to create a change with whatever topic it was, whether it was bullying or equal rights, or whatever. She was all about using her platform in her roles to inspire and help people.”

Those, like Mowry, who knew Rivera pretty much all her life, weren’t surprised by her commitment or the fearlessness with which she approached her career—and life in general.

“She never switched up, you know?” he said. “She was always Naya—unapologetically Naya in the best way possible. And I think anyone that knows her would agree with that. She was just so special on so many levels. We basically grew up together and grew into adulthood together, so for me to say she never switched up, it means that holds heavy.

“And she was just real all the time and just Naya,” Mowry explained. “She was so talented, always. And I think anyone that met her knew that right away just because of who she was and the talents that she had.”

Rivera was indeed at least a triple threat, the actress and singer showing she had some serious storytelling skills as well when her juicy memoir Sorry Not Sorry was published in 2016.

“I think for someone who reached such a level of stardom like she did and someone that grew up in the industry, for her to never change or switch up means a lot,” Mowry said. “It speaks a lot to her character. And I just think that that’s just one of many things that I, I’m honored to have known someone like that.”

Asked what he’d learned from having Rivera in his life that he still carried with him to this day, he replied quickly, “As far as dreams go, to never stop. As far as career goes, if she was not where she wanted to be at a time she was always pushing and striving. And she was so talented she could have done so many other things like, she was always a talented writer. She was always a talented singer, always a talented actress, so she could have done literally anything. So I’d say that would be the biggest thing that I learned from her.”

But that wasn’t all.

“And just respecting women in general,” Mowry added. “We dated as youngsters, we dated as teenagers [and into our early 20s] so I kind of hit every moment of life and growth into adulthood with her. I experienced it all with her.”

Among the memorable date nights Rivera remembered in her book: Winter formal at Mowry’s private school “that was way fancier than Valencia High,” and walking the red carpet at the NAACP Image Awards when Mowry was nominated for Outstanding Youth Actor for Smart Guy. Talking to E!, he spotlighted some of their more chill fun times, such as stopping off at the supermarket for a bottle of white wine to share on the couch together and hitting happy hour at TGIFridays for a giant Long Island iced tea and “being ridiculous.”

“We could literally be doing anything and it would be like the funniest thing ever,” he recalled.

In the spirit of going for it to fulfill a dream, Mowry said he was planning to direct his first film, which he also co-wrote, this summer.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since… I used to make my little brother do short films,” he said of getting behind the camera. “I’ve been in this business for a while so it’s something that was bound to happen and I’m thankful that it’s something that I wrote because I have a very special connection to the project. “So yeah, we’re gearing up for pre-production on that, which is fun. And I’m excited for people to see that sort of new venture of my life.”

Meanwhile, he’s in the indie drama Welcome Mat, currently available on VOD, playing a filmmaker who’s become agoraphobic following a traumatic experience. But though it was certainly timely to be playing a guy who can’t leave the house, it was shot before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a character I’m very proud of for multiple reasons because, A: It’s something completely different than anything I’ve ever done,” Mowry shared. “And, B: It’s something, someone, that I think everybody can find a little bit of themselves in that.” And, “sure enough, it’s just the perfect movie for this time.”

Not surprisingly, he’s also been in talks about a Smart Guy reboot—which, he admits, has been a “slow process” since they would want to come back with a show that fans of the 1997-1999 original, starring Mowry as a boy genius navigating high school, would really love while also attracting a new generation of viewers.

When it does happen, “it will be worth the wait, I promise,” he said, though obviously not everyone who made the original run special can be there.

But he cherishes the memories he made with Rivera on set, back when they were just a couple of kids with big crushes.

“It was just fun to be able to, like, be on set together,” he remembered, “because at that time we were already friends and family friends. And you know, the crushes are something that always were—that just never stopped.” Mowry laughed, adding, “But it was just fun to be able to be on set with her.”

She may have only been on two episodes (including one featuring a school dance, as every sitcom had to have), but, the actor said, “I’m honored to have been able to share the screen with her two different times. I think that’s so cool and something that, yes, I have my pictures and my memory, but you know something that’s on film and on wax. I can look back and see that and it’s special, it’s special to be able to share a screen with anyone you care about.”

Photo Credit: thatgrapejuice.net