Without her, the world is different — acknowledging grief

CathySix months ago I wrote about the death of my father — a man I hardly knew, yet whose passing I grieved. Today I pen about the loss of a second parent — the one who stepped in when dad walked out.

At 3:40 Wednesday morning cervical cancer stole my god mom from us. But not before shoving her defenselessly into numerous surgeries, one round of radiation and two rounds of chemo, like an unarmed citizen tossed into a ring of savage gladiators.

I say the cancer took her from us because today this world is altered. The air I inhale, the air we all take in, is no longer mixed with Cathy’s breath. Today our atmosphere has less love, less wisdom and less loyalty sailing through it.

However, her pain is also gone, as well as her sorrow and fear — it’s all vanished, after months of torture. I’m straining to see the blessing in that, but can’t yet see through the smog that is my fury, confusion, dejection and selfishness.

In February I visited Cathy in her pallid hospital room outside San Diego. My round, snarky, bossy, independent godmother was now feeble and reliant with tears always in her eyes. Even in her suffering, though, she remained in that parental role no one asked her to take on. She gave me tips on buying my first home, told me I needed to eat better, said I had a chip on my shoulder, said she hoped I’d find love. The acceptance, pride and love she had for me radiated from her failing body.

We both knew it was the last time we’d see each other. For so many years she was a pillar of strength I could turn to, and now it was my turn to be strong for her. She was afraid of dying, feared the unknown and I could tell she wanted me — the religion reporter — to give her solace.

I couldn’t. I didn’t want her to die. I wanted her to hang on — for me, for her two daughters, for her two grandkids: 2-year-old Talulah and 1-month-old Atticus. I refused to acknowledge the agony she was in.

It took weeks for my prayers to change to pleas for God to take her home. I’ve never prayed for someone to die before.

In my last letter to Cathy I apologized for being self-centered. I told her it was OK to let go, that she’d be alright and that we, too, would be alright:

In 1910, after King Edward VII died, Henry Scott Holland delivered a sermon that prompted discussions about fear of the arcane and the belief in afterlife. His words are the only solace I’ve found, because I believe them to be true.

This is what he said:

“Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”

With that, I have some promises to make to you. Whether you’re in San Diego or in “the next room” I vow to always listen for your shepherding voice. I will continue to call you by your familiar name. I will forever speak of you the same as I do now and recall the joyful times we shared. I will pray for you. I will remind myself that you’re waiting for me, watching me quietly.

I told her to rest knowing her strength and wisdom runs through those of us left behind.

If that next room has a window, Cathy’s probably watching me right now, trying to tell me to buck up and quit the pity party.

I will, Cathy, I will. But right now I want the smog to envelop me. I need to be pierced by its elements. I need to feel this loss, to hurt, so that I can retain it and use this for good.

You taught me that.

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Jan Shannon

Death changes us. Those of us who were touched by death in our formative years are perhaps more formed by it’s effects, more cognizant of life’s frailty, more somber in our souls. Some people see the shadow over our eyes and misread it as aloofness, but it is a kind of fear. Fear of more loss in our lives.
I’m not sure we always fathom the effects of death, but the effects are always there. I can see it in their eyes.

Tracy Simmons

You’re absolutely right Jan. With the loss of someone you love, comes a fear of who or what you’re going to lose next.


Tracy, your letter to Cathy was perfect. It must have been a great comfort to her to read it and reflect on that wise and beautiful sermon.

Deb Selzer

Tracy, I want to say so much! I want you to know that I hurt for you and also wish you the healing part of this mourning. But you’re right, we do need to go through the fog. I also want you to know that you inspire me with your ability to capture your thoughts and feelings in your writing. I read this and felt I wish I knew Cathy and missed her myself. You have been through so much loss lately, and know that you will “use if for good”. (Quoting one of my favorite writers there.)

Tiffany McCallen

What a lovely letter you penned to your Godmother. I am certain she treasured it as much as you do her.

Tracy Simmons

Thank you all so much for your kind words. Your support and encouragement helps more than you know. I’m thankful for this community we’ve formed.


Your words break my heart again…at the familiar presence of grief..and yet they comfort too..we share the pain and the bond of grief. And like you…I will speak of them, love them, and laugh with them someday. Mom died 10 years ago, may 4.


thank you

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