Phyllis Savage Woodard (seated) joins her two daughters, Tarra Ofosu and Qarra Woodard, at Tarra’s wedding.

Christmas shines a light on faith and hope, family and giving. We cherish our special traditions and memories of those we’ve loved and lost.

Back in 2003, Suncoast Hospice had the honor of caring for a beloved mother, Phyllis Savage Woodard. Phyllis’ oldest daughter, Tarra Ofosu of St. Petersburg, remembers her mom’s gifts of friendship, love and togetherness on Christmas mornings. For about 10 years, they hosted 100 or more guests for breakfast in their home full of Christmas spirit.

“Christmas was her favorite holiday. My mom wasn’t a big cook, so she didn’t really do big dinners. She would cook a big Christmas breakfast at our house. People from her job, school and the community who she knew or who didn’t have family would come. We had a big tree, our house was decorated and we played music. It was beautiful,” shared Tarra, a mother of two boys, six and 13.

Family, Work and Compassion

St. Petersburg was home to Phyllis. She was a lifelong resident and a member of the Greater Mount Zion AME Church. She had a longtime career at Bay Pines VA hospital, where she moved up from housekeeping to food service and finally to a health technician, working until about a month before she died. Her greatest joys included music, dancing and her two daughters, two foster children and extended family and friends.

“My mom had a really big personality. She always knew somebody wherever we went. My mom was the glue that brought us all together. She was a big caretaker. We always had extra clothes and household items in our garage to give to people who needed them. She was a good person,” said Tarra.

Caring for Mom with Suncoast Hospice

In 1995, at the age of 40, Phyllis was diagnosed with breast cancer. After undergoing a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, she went in remission. The cancer returned in 1998. It metastasized in her sternum, hip socket and eventually brain stem. She had additional chemotherapy, radiation and a last surgery in 2003. After that, the doctor called Suncoast Hospice.

“The doctor couldn’t believe she was walking and standing on her feet 12 hours a day. We didn’t have hospice very long, it was about the last two months at the end of her life. They were able to help me bring her home because I was getting married and she wanted to be there,” Tarra remembered.

Tarra became her mom’s primary caregiver.

She explained, “We were young and my parents were separated. I was her health surrogate. Everything fell on me. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done aside from raising my kids. She was my best friend. We allowed her to do as much as she could do. It was difficult for her, but she was thankful for the help she received. I’m grateful for the time we had and that she was able to come home and die in the comfort of her own bed. That was important to her.”

The care team brought relief to the entire family.

“They prepared us for what she was going through. They were a godsend because I didn’t know what to expect. We had a lot of people in and out of the house and the team kind of sat in the background and always knew when to step forward if needed. They were always there to support and lift us up. They helped with medication and self-care. We had a nurse come in and she was really good with my mom. There was a nurse there when she did transition. The team was excellent. They were always kind and caring,” Tarra said.

And the support continued on to help the family heal.

“It’s hard when you’re going through grieving and your family is too, so having someone come in who is empathetic is priceless. We all used the grief counselor, which was needed. She came to the house and the kids also participated in a group at school. It was really good that she helped with that transition. My foster sister went to the grief camp. She loved it.,” Tarra shared.

Carrying on Mom’s Memory

Today, Tarra follows in her mom’s footsteps caring for her children and helping the community in her work as a family connection navigator.

“Whenever I see a family that needs some kind of support, I always tell them about Suncoast Hospice. I say, ‘You don’t have to do it alone. Suncoast Hospice is a place of support and kindness’,” Tarra said.

Although her mom’s gone, she’s not forgotten.

“People always say she was the life of the party. Sometimes our favorite song would come on the radio and she would get out of the car and start dancing. I thought it was the most embarrassing thing ever. I do it now, too, and my kids say, ‘Mom you’re embarrassing us.’ People always tell me that we have that same type of mothering spirit,” she shared.

She keeps her mom’s memory alive.

“My kids have never met my mom but they know her spirit. I tell them stories. Sometimes on her birthday, we get a cake and get together. At Christmas, I try to keep it special for my kids because my mom always kept it special for us.”

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