Life after loss

Published May 21, 2007

SPRING HILL - Some mornings, Roland Desjardins still goes to the closet. He lifts a sleeve to his nose. Nearly nine years after his wife died, he can still smell her perfume.

"Good morning, " he says to no one.

Forty-one years. Forty-one days. That's how long they were together. Not long enough.

Desjardins fills his life with ritual. He made a ritual of his grief, found his mission in it. He wants other people to hear what God tells him: She's fine. She's joyful right now. And she's waiting for you.

After his wife died, the pastor at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church pushed Desjardins, a deacon, to create a ministry for the bereaved. It was to help Desjardins as much as anybody else. They named it Hope Anew.

Each marriage is unique, but everyone's grief is much the same. Families scatter. Friends fall away. Many face the long struggle of growing older alone.

"There's two things I can't do for you and you can't do for me, " Desjardins often reminds members. "I can't take away the pain you feel, and I can't bring your loved one back."

But they can share stories.

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Bud Crane, 85, a former New Jersey legislator, joined the group early this year, after the death of his wife. He recalled their first date. His wife had only met him once before. She couldn't remember how tall he was, and couldn't decide if she should wear flats or heels.

"We were married 62 years and we had one child, and she couldn't have any more children, so we just had the one, " he said. "Unfortunately the one died at age 38 from breast cancer, about 22 years ago."

There's a short moment of silence, and murmurs of sympathy. It's hard, even for the bereaved, to know what to say to a man whose grief is so new, and so deep.

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Members of Hope Anew gather most Monday mornings in a classroom behind the church on Mariner Boulevard. They open their meeting with a quavering rendition of the hymn Morning Has Broken.

It's the nature of life that Hope Anew occasionally has new members, but a core group sustains it. The group boasts a handful of marriages and friendships that continue outside the meetings. There are mornings where the talk turns more to golf than grief.

When they become indelicately raucous, founding member Marie Tinney, 69, gently shepherds them back. It was at Hope Anew that she met Ed Tinney, a laconic Kentucky widower whom she later married. She doesn't want the group to become a social club, she said.

"The people who come to Hope Anew first are sharing the fact that they lost a spouse, and they're with other people who support them and know how they feel, " she said. "They come at a very difficult time in their lives. They meet people that listen and encourage them to talk about the person that they loved."

Ed Tinney agreed. After his first wife died, their friends treated his loss like a contagion. They said little, or said the wrong things.

"When you lose a spouse, I found out, a lot of people - friends - you lose them, too. Because what happens is, you're in the way. You know? And you feel that way, " said the 73-year-old veteran. "And people come up to you, and they're husband and wife, standing beside each other: 'I know how you feel.' How the heck you know how I feel? That's your husband or your wife standing right beside you."

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Maria Gustin came to Hope Anew in 1999, after she lost her husband of 50 years. For the first time in her life, she faced the unsettling quiet of an empty house.

In May 2001, a retired Chicago firefighter named Bill Gustin joined the group. He knew how to dance, and drove a red Cadillac. "I'm too old for you, " he told Maria. He fell in love with her anyway, and they married in May 2002.

Eight months later, on Christmas Day, Bill died. Maria, 76, thought she understood grief, but with her first husband she'd had time to say goodbye. When Bill died, she felt raw, robbed.

For months, she couldn't face her friends again at Hope Anew. Slowly, they drew her back.

"My church saved me. The friendships I made with the people in the group will last a lifetime."

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Friends help. Time helps. But the grief remains.

"It'll be nine years June 14, " said Desjardins, 72, the group leader. "It's like it was yesterday. I grieve like it was yesterday."

Desjardins - or Deacon Roland, as everyone calls him - met Frances Cecilia Downey in 1955, when the Air Force sent him briefly to Newfoundland.

"I knew right away, as soon as I saw her, " he said. "It was just that sparkle in her eyes."

Their first date was in church. They had two weeks together before he had to leave, so they wrote long letters. She told stories about her family. She came from a large Irish family, one of 13 children. He was one of 10.

She signed her letters "I love you a big world full." After four months of letter writing, he proposed. They were married May 4, 1957. They had two daughters and adopted two boys.

Fran found out she had cancer a week before Thanksgiving 1997. "From that moment on, she accepted everything, " Desjardins said.

Despite his faith, he had a more difficult time. Fran looked forward to reunions in heaven. She would see her sister, her parents. All Desjardins could see was life without her.

On June 14, 1998, she was too tired to get out of bed.

"She kept holding my hand, until the last breath she took. And she kept saying, 'I love you, I love you.' And ... 'oh boy, ' " he said, his voice breaking. He drew a shaky breath before continuing. "I can hear her still."

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Some Monday mornings, more than 20 people show up. Other days, just a handful. The members often have lunch together. Once a month, they attend Mass together.

A longtime member, Mary Ellen Burich, 74, throws an annual Valentine's Day party where members make the favorite foods of the spouses they lost.

One morning, Burich told the group that her children had forgotten her birthday. One called, and she waited all day, thinking the others would remember. Her wry humor failed her, and her mischievous sidelong glance gave way to sorrow.

"I felt like, when my husband died, my family disintegrated with him, " she said. "They always came to see Dad, they always came to listen to the ball games, and always doing the cars and stuff when Dad was there. Now it's just Mom."

She looked up from her hands, at a room full of friends. The right side of her mouth drew down in the smirk that plays on her face more often than the bitterness.

"So guess what?" she finished gamely. "I do lots of stuff with Maria, and any of you that I can catch. And it's wonderful to have friends of your own."

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or 352754-6127.

At a glance

Bereavement counseling

For information about Hope Anew, contact St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church at 683-9666. Hernando-Pasco Hospice also offers bereavement counseling. For information, call the west-side office at 597-1882 or the east-side office at 796-2611.