Fireworks of Grief

July Fourth weekend, 1992. 

Their home phone rang as my parents walked back in the door after visiting Mom’s aunt over the holiday weekend. It was Mom’s doctor — not his staff — on the other end. “Where have you been? We’ve been calling for days. We’ve got you scheduled for surgery.”

Mom hadn’t told me about the biopsy — or even about the lump that prompted it. She hadn’t wanted me to worry. My first inclination of something wrong was when an uncle called to ask me if I’d heard the results. “No,” I’d assured him. “There’s nothing the matter. They’d have told me. You must be mistaken.”

Back in January she’d had her annual exam and mammogram. All was clear. In April she’d seen a small lump in the mirror (it was visible but not palpable) and she’d made an appointment. Her doctor recommended a biopsy. She had the biopsy and left town for the weekend.

The cancerous cells had already burst through all the lymph nodes.

Surgery, radiation, and chemo followed.

My husband and I moved our family from Arizona to Florida to care for her as she recovered while Dad continued working nights. She did well and returned to work.

20150704_multiburst fireworks

photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

July Fourth, 1995, after watching the fireworks, we walked in the door and found Mom (who’d stayed home with a slight headache) slumped against the hallway. It was the first visible symptom that breast cancer had resurfaced, this time in her brain and spinal column.

The following week we learned it was terminal.

It’s been 19 years since that second devastating Independence Day. In the intervening years our family sometimes rekindled the positive traditions of early times. After my husband’s illness and death, though, the redoubling of grief made — still makes — the Fourth (like most widowed holidays) harder to manage than it used to be.

It’s not easy to construct new traditions. It’s not easy to “get over” grief when you miss loved ones who “should” be sharing special days. Please be patient with your grieving friends. Invite the bereaved to join you in your celebrations. Ask them about the traditions they cherish. Acknowledge your awareness of them, let them know they are not forgotten, even though they may be alone in their loneliness on Independence Day and other holidays.

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.