On Scents, Memories, and Grief


Teresa TL Bruce with her late husband and his last opened bottle of aftershave.

Today the Segullah blog published my guest post “Father’s Day Non-Scents” which I wrote during the weeks leading up to this year’s Father’s Day. I hope you’ll visit and enjoy it.


Comfort after Mom’s Funeral

When my mom’s mother died, I was a preteen child. I remember looking up as grandma’s best friend put her arms around my mom and cried along with her. Through her own tears, she told my mom, “I know I’ll never replace your mother, but I’ll try to mother you for her.”

Twenty years later, after my mom’s funeral, that same dear woman (who was then widowed and had long since become Mom’s best friend) embraced me and said, “I know how much it hurt when I lost my mama. It has been years and years, and sometimes it still breaks me up. I won’t tell you it will stop hurting, because you never lose the hurt when you miss the ones you love. But it won’t always hurt as much or as deeply as it does now. One day you’ll feel the sweetness of your love as much as the pain.

I found comfort in her acknowledgement of my grief. Her words validated the pain I felt. They promised I wouldn’t forget the love I’d always felt from my mom. They assured my love for her would remain significant, even in her absence.

In that time and place of acute, agonizing new loss, I didn’t want to hear anything that diminished the significance of my grief.

  • I knew I wasn’t the only person to have had a loved one die, but I didn’t want my grief compared to theirs.
  • It was helpful to hear, “I know how much I hurt when my mom died. I’m here for you,” but it never helped to hear people say, “I know exactly how you feel,” because they didn’t lose my mother.
  • I was grateful that Mom no longer suffered from the cancer that killed her, but I hated hearing other people say, “At least she’s not suffering anymore.” 
  • I fully believed then and continue to believe now that my mother’s soul IS “in a better place,” but it felt hurtful and trite to hear would-be consolers say, “You can take comfort that she’s in a better place now,” because the important, essential fact was that she was gone.

I didn’t want to hear that I would stop hurting, because in that moment of bereavement when my LOSS surrounded me, the pain of mourning preserved my connection to Mom. To think of not missing her or to consider that I might stop mourning her felt like thinking of dismissing the bond between us and dismissing the significance of her role in my life.

I was pregnant with our second daughter when Dad’s mother died, and I was pregnant with our youngest daughter when my mom died. I can’t count how many well-meaning souls attempted to console me by saying, “At least you have the new baby to look forward to,” as if I should be content and ignore my grief because welcoming a new life should “undo” my bereavement over the end of my grandmother’s life — and then over my mother’s. As much as I glowed and grinned in the anticipation of each child’s arrival, I grieved for their yet-unborn losses, too, knowing they’d never get to know their great-grandma who’d nurtured and inspired me as much in my adulthood as she had in my childhood. I mourned for my youngest, that she’d never know the grandmother who’d rejoiced in putting as much loving energy into her too-brief years of grand-mothering as she’d put into decades of mothering me.

The condolences that offered me the greatest comfort in my new, raw grief (as a granddaughter, a daughter, and more recently as a widow) were the simplest, most spontaneous and heartfelt expressions of acknowledgment:

  • I’m sorry. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m so sorry to learn of the death of your mother, your grandmother, your husband.
  • I wish I knew what to say. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.
  • This is awful news. I’m devastated for you.
  • I’m keeping you in my thoughts. You’re in my prayers.

Why One Widow Won’t Watch World Cup

Once upon a lifetime ago, I was a minivan-driving, sideline-cheering soccer mom, but I haven’t watched a single World Cup match this year. Not one. Part of my avoidance is due to my late husband’s attitude toward the host country, Brazil. It’s not that he had anything against Brazil — on the contrary! He lived there as a missionary years before we met, and he appreciated the culture as much as he admired the people and their language.

(The first time he told me he loved me he said it in Portuguese. He was too shy to say it aloud — in case I didn’t feel the same — so he wrote it on a slip of paper and handed it to me. I suspected the words’ meaning, but he refused to translate them for me, so I had to find a Portuguese-English dictionary to be sure. But I digress …)

In our decades together, my husband shared his love of Portuguese with me. I understand it better than I speak it (he always made fun of my accent), but the beautiful language makes me feel saudades — an untranslatable nostalgic, homesick, loss, and beloved longing — for him. Hence, the first half of my self-imposed World Cup boycott.

We met while enrolled as students in our university’s language programs. I lived in the women’s Spanish house, a rambling old, three-story home to 17 women (including two native-speakers). He lived in the smaller men’s Portuguese house with a handful of roommates (including one from Brazil). Residents were under obligation to speak only their contracted languages while on the premises of each house (unless talking on the phone or entertaining guests in the living room). The only TV channels available (in those pre-internet days) were those broadcast by stations carrying only the languages of our houses.

The second reason for my avoidance of this World Cup is the same reason I shied away from watching the worldwide event — even before his death. Ever since the 1986 World Cup held in Mexico, back when I still lived in the Spanish House, just hearing the words “World Cup” sends shudders down my spine the way an arachnophobe  reacts to a tarantula or a coulrophobe avoids circus clowns.

It happened early in the days of that 1986 event.  With 16 roommates in my always creaking three-story house, we came and went at all hours. We seldom knew one another’s schedules, but at any given time there were usually several of us at home. One day I came home from campus to make myself lunch and do some intensive studying during that usually (relatively) quiet time of day. Even before I put my key into the lock — which was not only unlocked but slightly ajar — the sounds of cheering roared from inside the house: GOOOOAL!

A group — a very large, very rowdy group — was watching the World Cup in my living room. As I crossed the threshold, I doubted I’d manage any studying with so much noise. We had hosted 25 – 30 people in the living and dining areas before, with only the slightest sense of crowding,  but this was a much, much larger throng that left no space for my feet to step between people. I threaded, kneed, and elbowed my way toward the kitchen (getting dirty looks and derogatory comments for interrupting the wall-to-wall spectators’ views). One thing became clear: I’d never seen ANY of these people before. I checked the other rooms and floors in the house. Not one of my 16 roommates was at home. I was ALONE in a house full of strangers — and I mean full!

I didn’t know which (if any) of my roommates had  let them inside (none ever admitted to it after-the-fact, either) and I didn’t know when any of my roommates might return. I couldn’t have called any of them if I’d tried; this was before cell phones, and the house phone was out of sight in the middle of the living room hoard.

One of the strange men even followed me into the kitchen, cornered me near the sink, and begged (yes, begged) me to go out with him. He refused to take no for an answer until I shoved my engagement ring — sharp side out — in his face. (Thank goodness my then-soon-to-be-husband had already proposed!) I smacked my sandwich together and left the house through the back door — which was also unlocked.

For the rest of that World Cup, I avoided the house unless I KNEW other roommates would be there. Even when I arranged to meet one (or more) of them on campus before we headed home together, we were frequently far outnumbered when we arrived. For the most part our “guests” behaved themselves (though I recall a number of groceries disappearing from the kitchen) and at the conclusion of the matches they dispersed as suddenly as they’d appeared. Still, the three-story house never felt quite as safe as it once had (and although I know it looked different, my memories paint it looking like the establishing shot of the house outside the Bates Motel).

It was one event, nearly thirty years ago (Am I really getting that old?!?), but it still shapes my view of the world — at least of the World Cup. In the intervening years we had children together, fell in love with soccer as a sport for our daughter’s sake, and went about our merry way from year to year. But between the saudades for my husband induced by this year’s host country and the shudders induced by memories of an otherwise happy time, I’m still not planning to watch.

The loss of my husband was more than “an event,” nearing four years ago, and it will continue to shape my world–but not entirely define it. In the years ahead I will continue to grow and find new things in life to fall in love with from year to year. Even in the joys of happy times ahead, I won’t deny the occasional tempering of saudades for what once was.

Another Father’s Day–DANG IT!

Father’s Day. For three weeks I’ve written, revised, and discarded post after post, trying to decide what to say. It’s the night before, and I still don’t know …

I’m blessed and grateful that my dad is still here. He lives nearby and continues to be a rock of solid reliability. I can’t remember him ever directing an unkind gesture or a loud word my way (though when he spoke my full name in a certain tone I knew I’d crossed the line).

When I was a young, naive newlywed I remember my mother once telling me she hoped I appreciated how lucky we both were to have such good, kind men in our lives. I thought at the time that I did fully appreciate it.

Looking back now, I see how clueless I was, how little I understood. Since then I’ve seen glimpses, peeks at the hardships inflicted on many women and children because of the actions (and because of the failings) of the men in their lives.

So again I acknowledge how blessed I’ve been — how blessed I am.

And yet …

It’s another Father’s Day — DANG IT! — and my husband, the father of my children, is dead. This is our fourth without him. You’d think I’d be “used to it by now.” I thought I would, too. (It took years, but eventually I got “used to” the absence of my wonderful grandfathers. Sort of.)

But I’m not used to it. Not at all. Chances are that the widows and widowers you know, the mourning parents and the bereaved children of your acquaintance, or the grieving coworkers in your office aren’t “over it by now,” either.

Here are a few things you can do to show them your support:

  • Say something. A text, a call, a private message, or a note can be brief. “I’m thinking of you today/this weekend.”
  • Take the kids of a widower shopping so they can do something special for their daddy who’s trying to do two parents’ jobs.
  • Take a small treat to a widow (and her kids) “just because” to let them know they’re thought of on a day when they’re even more aware (if that’s possible) of their loss than on other days.
  • Let them know their loved ones aren’t forgotten — and neither are they.
  • Invite and include (with sensitivity). If the kids in the troop are doing a daddy-daughter or father-son activity, TALK TO their widowed mother. ASK if she’d like a surrogate parent or relative to “step in” for the event or if she’d like to attend with her child. (The same applies to asking widowers about activities geared toward moms.)
  • Listen. Whether the death happened recently or years ago, sometimes the bereaved need to share memories of their loved ones or feelings about their loss.
  • Ask instead of assuming.
    • “Are there ways I can help you with …?”
    • “Would you like me to …?”
    • “Would you like to talk about …?”
  • Don’t dismiss or diminish their grieving.
    NEVER say:

    • “At least …” anything. (Saying “at least” literally makes it seem as if the loss isn’t that important to the speaker, so why should it be so important to the bereaved?)
    • “You should …” OR “You shouldn’t …”
      (No one has the right to tell someone else how to go about the emotions or the business of grieving.)
    • “I know what you’re going through.” (Each loss is unique.)

You can’t “fix” your friends’ grief, but you can — and should — comfort them by letting them know you support them in it.


Honoring Joanna Francis and Her Living Well Foundation

Longtime friends Joanna Francis, co-founder of Living Well Foundation, and Debbie Goetz, publisher of the College Park Community Paper

Joanna Francis and Debbie Goetz (used by permission)

This weekend I read a beautiful yet heart-rending message by my friend, Debbie Goetz, publisher of the College Park Community Paper. On Sunday, June 1, her dear, dear friend Joanna Francis died after living with terminal cancer since 2008.

Please note that I said “living with,” not “dying of.”

For years, Debbie has shared her concerns for Joanna’s well-being and her admiration for Joanna’s outlook. As cancer intruded further into Joanna’s life and future, her attentions focused on her three sons’ well-being — and on the lives of other patients she met in the course of myriad doctor appointments. By her own experience, Joanna understood the difficulties in meeting the many non-medical needs of day-t0-day living with cancer. As she networked with other mothers enduring similar medical prognoses, she recognized their serious financial struggles in living with terminal cancer while raising children.

Joanna’s thoughtful awareness went beyond good wishes. She created a foundation to provide financial help for patients like the many she’d gotten to know. In 2011 she  co-founded, along with Jennifer Taylor, the Joanna Francis Living Well Foundation.

As Joanna’s friends share their experiences with this remarkable woman, their words honor her memory. As they spread the vision of her foundation, they look for its mission to bless the lives of many more women facing terminal cancers like hers. They, like Joanna, want something “good” to come from her experience. As Debbie Goetz told me, “She truly was a special person who believed it was her destiny to go through this so she could be a witness to so many.” [Quoted by permission.]

Though saddened by her passing, her friends honor Joanna’s memory in positive ways. Another friend, Bob Gabordi of the Tallahassee Democrat, wrote this uplifting tribute that concludes with a call to remember her for what she accomplished and to contribute to the dream she shared: Joanna Francis: The face of love and living.

In his article, Mr. Gabordi also mentioned Joanna’s ongoing concern for her sons. Her foundation made her a public figure as she lived with terminal cancer, but for her three sons the knowledge that their mother had terminal cancer was — and is — personal.

If you know Joanna’s family, please reach out to her sons. They will need your support and understanding in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead. (Yes, years.)

  • Listen to them. Allow them to share their feelings of mourning. As proud as they are of their mother, they miss her.
  • Write your memories of their mom to share with them throughout the year and/or in the years ahead.
  • Be sensitive as every new season and holiday approaches.
  • Acknowledge how much you miss her, too.
  • Validate their feelings. Children (and adults) need to know there is no “right” or “wrong” way (or time) for grief to manifest. Tears, anger, numbness, laughter, frustration, nostalgia–all are “normal” and healthy reactions to loss.
  • Don’t claim to know how they feel. Her absence will be harder than you can possibly imagine–unless you also lost a parent while in your youth, and even then, your relationship was yours, not theirs.

Even if you don’t know the Francis family, please keep them in your prayers. If you’re in a position to do so, please consider honoring their mother by contributing to the Joanna Francis Living Well Foundation.