Saying goodbye was hard enough pre-COVID. Telling life stories: This is how I grieve

Like countless others watching as the deaths mounted, the masks went on and we waited for a vaccine that could save our lives, I realized early on that COVID-19 would change everything.

By no stretch of my fairly wild imagination could I have envisioned just how much, and how deeply, a virus we’d never heard of would alter the way we live and die.

Over the past 16 months, in the midst of a collective grief that hugs the globe, I’ve attended Zoom funerals. Watched as friends and followers on my social media pages mourned spouses, parents, children, friends, some lost to COVID; others to heart attacks or cancer. Written about the health care angels who take care of those people as they die. About families who couldn’t visit the people who matter most to them in nursing homes or hospitals, separated by gates or thick glass windows, so they threw some balloons on their car and joined a “family parade” through a care facility parking lot.

Visitation Parade photo in Merritt Island
In a file photo from May 2020, family members of all ages were part of a parade at Solaris HealthCare on Merritt Island, allowing residents who can’t have visits during the coronavirus crisis to see and hear their loved ones from a distance in the facility’s parking lot. Photographer: Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today

I think about the people who’ve still not been able to have a celebration of a life well-lived, the hugs and words of comfort they needed in person coming instead in the form of heart-shaped emojis on a text message. I wonder how they grieve. Where they are in their journey toward any semblance of reconciliation. I encourage them to reach out to professionals, such as the bereavement team at St. Francis Reflections here in Brevard County.

And then, I write.

Most recently, I’ve been following the end-of-life journey of  Alice Eldridge, the 91-year-old mother of a friend I’ve known for almost 40 years.

Sharing life’s stories

I met Terri Eldridge Senter when I was single and living in Indianapolis. It was a period of my life post-college when I knew I was a writer but had yet to find the words or drive to make a living as one. So as I stumbled along, I settled for waiting tables in a bar where I met Terri, a single mom and bartender whose mother was helping her raise her son. Terri was brash and honest and funny and helped me navigate some of the choppiest days of my life.

Now, we are older than our mothers were when Terri and I met. 

Now, three years after my mother’s death, Alice, who has heart and kidney disease, is in hospice care. Terri has suffered through what countless grown children dread: the pain and guilt of having to move a parent into a care facility because they can no longer provide all the care their mom or dad needs. 

Terri and I have this in common, other than our ability to make smart quips about plastered customers: Our moms were our friends, fierce, funny women, who, when it came to their family, remind me of how singer Tom Petty put it: “You can stand me up at the gates of hell but I won’t back down.”

For me, always, solace in times of sorrow or joy has come through telling stories.

The words on this page? This is how I live, work, celebrate, grieve.

I remember watching the love spill from my mother’s eyes in liquid form when she spotted my husband after months apart. How my sister sensed what my mother wanted without a word spoken. How humor about death, sometimes dark, made and still makes its way into my writing.

The truth is, grief is a journey that is unique to each person, said Emily Zeiler, lead bereavement coordinator at St. Francis Reflections.

“Our role is to walk with them through that journey,” said Zeiler.

Unique. Just like life stories. Yes. This is how I grieve.

Photo of Alice Eldridge
Alice Eldridge of Indianpolis is pictured during a visit with family at the assisted living facility where she is in hospice care. Courtesy of Terri Senter

Alice was born in Indianapolis. Her mother died when she was 4 years old. Her father wasn’t capable of taking care of three children, so Alice was sent to live with distant relatives, or sometimes, her father’s friends.

“She was shuffled from home to home and treated horribly, so her life has never been easy,” Terri told me recently. “Mom still sleeps with her fist in her mouth because when she was a little girl, one of the people she stayed with told her that if she didn’t quit crying, she was going to give her something to cry about. And that was just two weeks after her mom died … she would put her fist in her mouth to go to sleep so she wouldn’t get spanked. And she sleeps with her fist in her mouth to this day.”

Terri’s right. It was never easy. Alice’s husband was killed in a head-on car accident when Terri was 5 and her four siblings were all between the ages of 2 and 11. Relatives wanted to divide the children up among family. Alice didn’t let that happen. She had a beautiful voice, so she sang at nights in nightclubs and lounges after working days in offices. 

“It would have made her life so much easier,” Terri said of her mom refusing to break up her family. “She said there was no way she was splitting her children up.”

Life’s little details, day by day

As I write this, Terri is visiting with her mother, after the end of a COVID-forced quarantine at the facility where Alice lives kept the two from seeing each other in person. 

There is no way Terri is letting her mother, who’s lost one of her children and has stood strong through countless family tragedies, go this route alone. 

She shares their journey on Facebook.

On May 22, while still living with Terri and her husband, Alice announced, “I don’t feel like I’m dying. Maybe the doctor made a mistake.”

On May 27, I sent her a blanket with the words “I Love You To The Moon And Back.” A moon and stars, in a lovely blue sky, adorn it. By all accounts, it was a big hit.

On July 10, Alice is pictured in bed, her head down and the family dog beside her. “Lily won’t leave mom’s side. I think she senses her slipping away,” Terri wrote.

On Aug. 12, Alice, after moving to assisted living, was pictured playing bingo. She had never played bingo. She told one of Terri’s relatives: “It’s on my bucket list.” That made me weep and laugh at the same time. 

On Sept. 1, Terri wrote: “My beautiful mom, sleeping most of the time now. I love her so much.”

And I realize: While our grief journeys are unique, it’s sharing those intimate, relatable moments, whether it’s crying out of nowhere or snapping a photo of a dying woman playing bingo, that can help us find a path forward, together.

In this COVID-separated era, some of us have to press our faces to a window or to a phone, our tears dropping on a postage-stamp-size Facebook Live view of someone who always seemed bigger than life.

If we’re lucky, we get to say the things we want and need to say in person, but they’re secondary to the small favors and tasks we do as someone slips away from us: Can I get you something? Are you warm enough? Wake up, please, and look at me one more time.

We love them to the moon and back, and when they’re gone, we look to the stars and talk to them, because who’s to say they’re not out there somewhere, listening?

I was walking through a grocery store Sept. 2 when my phone vibrated in my pocket. Terri had sent me photos of her mother.

n one, Alice is smiling as she drifts off to sleep, her eyes fixed on her daughter with an almost-other-worldly expression I know so well: I love you, it says. I know you’re here. It’s OK.

In the other, she is tucked beneath that deep-blue blanket, the moon close to her face and stars not far away.

Her fist is not against her mouth.

It’s like Alice knows she’s safe, and her girl is with her, and she’ll never be sad or lonely again.

Author: Britt Kennerly; Source: Florida Today

Tips for dealing with grief

The St. Francis Reflections bereavement team provides support to all of Brevard County, offering individual grief consultations, support groups, seminars and grief education (for free) to anyone in need. 

A few tips from the team on handling grief:

Seek balance. Normal grief reactions include low energy and feeling overwhelmed. Set boundaries: Take small breaks when working. Go for quick walks when feeling overwhelmed. Accept offers of help from friends and family.

Practice self-care. Self-care fosters healing and helps process grief.

Cultivate gratitude and mindfulness daily. Gratitude and mindfulness reduces stress, unhappiness and depression.

Honor those you have lost. Carrying the memory of the person you have lost can bring peace and acceptance. Give life to their memory: Plant a tree, donate to a charity or volunteer in their honor. Create new traditions: Have a moment of silence in the workplace or in your home, cook your loved one’s favorite dish on Sundays, visit a place your loved one enjoyed, or come up with your own tradition.

The basics: Eating and sleeping are most important. Try to keep a routine. Move your body: Exercise moves stress out of your body; 10 brisk minutes a day is a great start.

Contact 321-269-4240 or email the team at

— Source: St. Francis Reflections

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