GriefSpeak: Signs, signs, everywhere a sign – Mari Nardolillo Dias

By Dr. Mari Dias

(This is a repeat of a story from Mother’s Day time in 2019… my mom’s favorite story – Happy Mother’s Day, Dottie Nardolillo!)

It was Mother’s Day. Nancy, her husband Anthony, and their two teenage sons prepared to attend a Mother’s Day brunch at a local restaurant. Always a close family, Nancy was a bit disappointed as their tradition of cards, flowers and breakfast in bed had been dismissed this year for an unexplained reason. The boys seemed less than happy as they sat in the backseat of the car, grumbling under their breaths. They would rather be playing baseball. In addition, Anthony seemed less than enthusiastic and hadn’t even given her a card.

The brunch turned out to be less than celebratory for all. The restaurant was crowded and noisy, the buffet lines long and slow. The scrambled eggs were cold, and the bacon overcooked. Nancy felt that her family’s efforts were obligatory at best. They ate in silence: the tension at their table was palpable, a blatant contradiction to the laughing, kissing and hugging at the tables around them. Nancy was sad. They paid the bill, left and drove home in uncomfortable silence. Upon arriving home, the boys grabbed their baseball gear and headed out the field. Nancy sat on the couch in angered silence.

“What’s going on with you?” Anthony asked.


“I know you’re upset Nancy”.

Anthony continued to ask, and Nancy continually repeated “nothing.” With each “nothing” her voice escalated until she was shouting. “NOTHING!” LEAVE ME ALONE.”  So, he did. Anthony went upstairs to take a nap. Nancy remained sitting on the couch, sobbing. It’s always easier to be angry than hurt. Anger is a defense, hurt makes us vulnerable. Nancy chose anger. It fit well.

The remainder of the day passed in silence. The boys returned from the baseball field to complete their homework.

“Mom, what’s for dinner? We are starving.”

Nancy responded through gritted teeth. “I’m not cooking. It’s Mother’s Day. Order a pizza and use your allowance money to pay the delivery boy.” The boys huffed and went into the kitchen. Anthony came downstairs to watch television and when the pizza arrived, he joined to boys. Nancy stayed quietly on the couch, and for the first time in their 20- year marriage, they slept apart- Nancy on the couch and Anthony upstairs in their bedroom.

Morning came slowly for Nancy. She made coffee for herself and threw in some laundry. The boys had already left for school and Anthony had left early as his job took him out of state. When Nancy heard the ring of her cell phone, she checked and saw it was Anthony. She assumed he was calling to apologize but she wasn’t going to give in that easily. Moments later her cell phone rang. It was Anthony again. She answered, rolling her eyes in the expectation of a weak “Sorry.”  Or maybe, she mused, it was a “pocket dial.” The connection was poor, and she couldn’t understand what he way saying. She thought she heard him say “I love you” through the static.

“Anthony I can’t hear you. Call me back when you have better service.”

He never called back.

The next call came from one of Anthony’s colleagues. Anthony was gone- dead from a heart attack with his cell phone still in hand. Nancy fell to the floor, knowing that he had been calling her to say goodbye.

Her last words to him haunted her for years. “Call me back when you have better service.”

Nancy came to me fraught with guilt, shame and remorse. She wanted to turn back the hands of time.

“Death ends a life, not a relationship, Nancy. Look for signs.”

So, she did. Every week she came to our session with examples: a license plate that she noticed at a stop sign that included Anthony’s initials, his favorite song on the radio, a red cardinal in her yard. But she wasn’t convinced and chalked everything up to coincidence.

She decided she might feel better if she created a legacy and with that drove to tree farms around New England in search of a rare tree from Anthony’s country of origin. It wasn’t easy, but she was determined. She envisioned a park-like area in her yard with the tree as the focal point.

Each stop proved to be a disappointment, but after months of searching she found a small, unassuming tree farm who had the tree!  Just one, but that’s all she wanted. Just one.

She approached the owner and pointed out the tree for which she had been searching, diligently, unsuccessfully. The manager took her over to the tree.

“That’s exactly what I want!” Nancy exclaimed. “I don’t care about the cost.”

The manager walked around the tree and showed Nancy a manila card wrapped with twine around one of the branches.

“This tree has been on hold since July; however, the gentleman never returned and didn’t leave any contact information. I guess I can sell it to you.”

The manager pulled the tag off the tree and handed it to Nancy.

“Please hold this while I wrap the tree for you.”

Nancy held the tag and as she turned it over, she thought her heart stopped. It read:

“Hold for Anthony.”

Note: All GriefSpeak stories are true, with only the names and locations changed. This story is a wonderful example. If we are open, observant and patient, we, like Nancy will get a sign.

Dr. Mari Dias is a nationally board-certified counselor, holds a Fellow in Thanatology and is certified in both grief counseling and complicated grief.

She is Professor of Clinical Mental Health, Master of Science program, Johnson & Wales University. Dias is the director of GracePointe Grief Center, in North Kingstown, RI.  For more information, go to: