I wanted to find a way to bring joy back into my daughters’ lives after they lost their mom to cancer. Then I learned about the power of a supportive community through EmpowerHER.

By Matt Porcaro, as told to Alana Bracken
March 10, 2020
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Matt Porcaro and his daughters.
Courtesy of Matt Porcaro

My wife, Alissa, was a powerful personality; someone that when you met her, you would never forget her. Our first interaction—day one of college orientation without so much as sharing a single word—she walked up to me, licked her finger, and wiped off something I had stuck on my face. It drew me to her instantly, her ability to do what she felt and follow that through.

To share life with Alissa and see the love she had for our three girls, Brynn, Megan, and Sarah, was off the charts. I see bits and pieces of Alissa in everything that my daughters do, from Brynn's creativity to Megan's outspoken, active personality, and Sarah's sheer tenacity. Family was everything to her, and she had these strong expectations for our girls, lovingly pushing them to be everything they can be.

When she received her cancer diagnosis in March 2017, my wife and I were very honest with our kids about what that meant. As someone who lost my mom to breast cancer in my late twenties, I never wanted them to be surprised. So, we let our girls know what was going on along the way, from 12 hours in surgery to remove a chunk of her liver, to learning in February 2018 that the bile duct cancer had metastasized and it wasn't going away.

Her death in April of last year was beautiful. She was surrounded by love and family, and she was at peace. But when you lose someone, you sit there with parts of your life in which you feel completely lost.

I often compare my grief to a bucket filled to the brim with water, just moments from overflowing. It can be a monsoon that hits and overflows that bucket or it could be the smallest sprinkle, but either way, you're left to deal with what happened in big and small moments in your life.

As parents, our hope for our kids has always been that above all else, we want them to be happy. As Mother's Day came around, a day that for many years served as a painful reminder of what I had lost, I yearned to find a way to bring joy back into that day for our girls, as Alissa had done for me.

My wife's cousin was the first person to mention EmpowerHER, an organization founded in 2013 to provide a community for young women who have lost their mothers. I went into my first phone call with them not knowing what to expect. As they told me about the program and what they do, I could instantly feel the genuine love, compassion, and desire to help and support those involved in their organization. It was so powerful that I hung up the phone, and I cried tears of relief that I had found what I wanted for my kids.

EmpowerHER supports young women ages 5 to 24 with two programs: events and mentorship. The events, which range from yoga classes and outings in downtown Boston, offer girls a chance to bond with others in their situation and to see that they're not alone in their grief. Meanwhile, the one-on-one mentorship pairs girls with older mentors who not only get what they're going through, but can show that there's a way forward from this loss.

The organization actively worked to find mentors that connect with my daughters beyond their shared loss. To find the right match, we met for ice cream with an organizer from EmpowerHER, and we spent many a phone call capturing who my girls are. Their mentors not only join them at events, but they keep an open line of communication throughout the year.

At Christmas, for example, they sent a note and a gift to let my girls know that there are people who are thinking of them and understand how they feel celebrating a holiday without their mom. They'll join my daughters on EmpowerHER's Mother's Day retreat this year, an event that initially drew me to the organization and that all three of them are very much looking forward to attending.

My girls, now ages 15, 13, and 7, take advantage of EmpowerHER in different areas, finding fulfillment in their own ways. My youngest, Sarah, can't stop asking about when the next event will be, while Megan, my middle daughter, is very connected to her mentor, Tonya. My oldest, Brynn, got a particular kick out of seeing The Nutcracker with EmpowerHER, which included a backstage tour that played perfectly into her passion for theater production.

It's even helped me. While I've met many widowed moms through the cancer community, for some reason, empowerHER has been the first opportunity to meet other dads who can relate to my situation.

Beyond shared moments, to see women who have experienced the loss of a mother fully grown and thriving, it's a really powerful, yet subtle message that comes through.

I often describe my wife as this force, this powerful woman, and it is incredible to find an organization like EmpowerHER that aligns so strongly with who she was as a person. They call it EmpowerHER for a reason—they bring something into my daughters' lives for which I can't ever thank them enough.

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