Tom Rose lost his beloved wife of 58 years, Joyce, when she died from breast cancer on Aug. 5, 2019, and through his personal battle with grief said he’s “learned a few things.” He also feels the experience has brought him closer to his faith.
He recently released a book titled “Balloon in a Box: Coping with Grief” that came about as a result of journaling his own grief, but through this process, he discovered the changes in himself and how he is being called to help others through their grief journey.
For 13 years, the couple had hosted a cooking segment on a local South Bend-area Fox station, “Cooking Together with Tom and Joyce.” They also published the cookbooks “Cooking Together Chinese Style” and “Cooking Together Quick and Easy.”
After Joyce’s death, Tom took a suggestion from a doctor friend and fraternity brother, who told him about a patient who coped with his own grief by writing in a journal. That led Tom to start one of his own.
After reading some of Tom’s journal notes, his friend asked him to turn it into a paper and then told him, “You have to write a book.”
Publishing a cookbook was easy, but for Tom, writing a book on grief was completely different. “Then COVID hit and I was stuck at home and I just started writing and it all poured out,” he commented.
Joyce and ‘Balloon in a Box’
Joyce was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 and had a mastectomy in 2005.
“Then everything was great,” Tom said. “Until 2017 and the cancer came back and she was told she had 4-6 months to live, but she lived two years.”
“She was very strong, considerate, and straightforward. She was very generous, particularly with her time. Even two months before she died, she was still helping people.”
On her deathbed, she helped Tom by informing him of her last wishes for the funeral and about a green bag containing the clothes she wanted to be buried in. The bag also contained their cookbooks and articles about them from the local newspaper — things that they’d done together. Her last words to him were directions for his future.
“She said, ‘I love you and I’ll see you in church.’”
Tom was raised Catholic; Joyce was a convert. He admitted that he thought she was more dedicated to the practice of the faith than he and this was her way of ensuring his adherence to it. “Women can’t finish a sentence without giving a man something to do,” he said with a laugh.
As for the title of the book, Tom said it came from something he heard about grief being like a ball in a box, but for him it was more like a balloon in a box, touching all sides of the box, causing all sorts of scrambled emotions — confusion, sadness, loneliness. And it is painful.
“As time passes, the balloon becomes smaller, floating around in the box, and sometimes it touches a side, bringing back memories — some good, some bad. The trick is to keep the balloon from touching the corners; only the sides with pleasant memories,” he said.
As a person grows stronger in their grief, he said they are able to take the balloon string and guide it to the pleasant memories, though they can sometimes lose their grip and the scrambled emotions will return again. While someone suggested releasing the balloon, Tom said that would also mean losing the memories, and he would not sacrifice those memories.
Tom admitted that there was an evening when he was angry at Joyce for dying and at God for allowing it and expressed that anger out loud. He then felt bad and apologized aloud to both of them.
He came to the realization that moving on didn’t mean he had to leave Joyce behind. That realization helped. Though he struggled with God for a few months, he now realizes how much he needs Him.
He quoted Venerable Fulton Sheen, who said: “‘Sometimes God has to break a heart to get into it.’ I think that’s what He did to me.”
And when he attends church at St. Mary of the Annunciation in Bristol, he feels Joyce’s presence. He said, “I probably love her more today — my love has been allowed to grow because there’s no roadblocks.”
He dislikes the word “grief,” so he searched for another and found in the Bible the word “pragma,” which means continuing love. That’s what grief is to him – continuing love.
Today, he feels like a changed man. “I’m a different person than I was three or four years ago. I think I’m a better person because I’m more understanding, I listen better, I understand things better.”
He related a story of helping a widower cope when his wife died and he didn’t know how to cook or shop or clean. Tom went with the man to the grocery store, showed him how to do laundry, and gave him easy recipes to make.
“I would’ve never spent the time doing that before Joyce died,” he admitted. “I’m not as selfish as I was.”
He’s now on a grief committee at St. Mary of the Annunciation and said sharing with others is also helpful.
“That probably helped me more than anything — helping someone else,” he said.
Since the book came out, Tom has been getting requests for interviews and speaking engagements from all over the country. He did a podcast interview, appeared on a local morning show, and was featured in a Cape Corals, Florida magazine.
One request that surprised him most was being asked to speak at a Kosciusko County jail drug rehabilitation group. “I thought, ‘do they know who they’re talking to?’”
The coordinator of the program explained that about 70 percent of the reasons people turn to drugs is because of grief of some kind. So, Tom went and spoke to them and was touched by the response of the men.
Another surprise was an email from a young man who shared that he asked his mother, “How do you know when you’re in love?” and she answered by giving him Tom’s book to read. “I haven’t thought of my book in that way,” he marveled.
Tom has speaking engagements at several churches and other organizations around the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. He will be speaking at SS. Peter and Paul Church in Huntington on Oct. 3 at the request of Father Tony Steinacker and St. Jude Church in South Bend on Nov. 2 at the request of Father John Delaney. Both priests are former pastors at St. John the Evangelist in Goshen where the Roses attended prior to St. Mary of the Annunciation.
Helping Those in Mourning
Tom expressed his frustrations over what well-meaning people often say at funerals or to someone in mourning, but he realizes that people simply don’t know what else to say. “Don’t try to fix it, don’t try to give solutions — my heart is breaking, just listen to me,” Tom urged.
In the book, he lists what, in his opinion, is helpful and not helpful.
To him, “You’ll get it over in time,” is one of the worst. “Maybe I don’t want to get over it, maybe I want to experience it and grow because of it,” he stated.
Remembering those friends and family members who said “I love you” and embraced him sustains him the most of all.
The most important thing for those who are grieving to know is that “It’s not going to get better; it’ll get different. Don’t be afraid to move on and take those memories and that person with you.”
And for everyone else, “Tell the people you love that you love them on a daily basis.”
To order “Balloon in a Box” or other products that Rose offers to help breast cancer support groups, go to the website at www.ThomasLRose.com, call him at 574-596-6256, or email [email protected]. The YouTube show “Cooking Together Generations” can be viewed at www.cookingtogether.com.
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