The wonders of our children are illuminated by Mom’s absence

With tears in my eyes, I hung up the phone after a conversation with my daughter the other day. I said an audible prayer in thanksgiving for who and what she is.

My children have been my rock during my grieving process and that has made me appreciate their mother, Jean, all the more. They are adults now and my daughter, Tracy, is a great wife and mother, but she and her two brothers have always been my “kids” and it is difficult to treat them as anything but.

Yet, my entire picture of my children has changed since Jean’s death. Both Tracy and her brother Jeff have been two of my best friends for the last four-plus months. My son Jeff and I began simultaneous crying and laughing the day after Jean died and we have continued. That laughter-infused grief has been our special bond and has eased the grief just enough so it hasn’t been debilitating. Tracy has been the strong, supportive, concerned caretaker she has always been.

When Jean was alive I did not need my kids to be my confidants, now I do. That dynamic has been transformed. Now mutual trust and shared experience drives my relationship with both Tracy and Jeff.  All three of us have marveled at how many emotions and experiences of grief we share despite our very different relationships with Jean.

With help,  I am now starting to move to a stage where I celebrate Jean and our life together. I sob less and I am starting to find joy in thinking about tomorrow.  Nonetheless, the stars of our accomplishments are our children. Every time I have a magical, almost mystical moment with either Tracy or Jeff I focus on the strength of their mother and the tremendous guidance she gave them and the values she instilled in them. Our partnership produced these outstanding kids and that makes me love my life with Jean all the more. For me, celebration of her life and our life is the most powerful way to move past grief into a sad memory of great times.

My Down syndrome son, Jason, has been a crucial part of that recovery too. I spent time with Jason several days ago and it was obvious his mother made him a resilient, loving guy who misses his mother deeply but intuitively knows we were all better for having her in our life.

Jean is gone and we all wish she wasn’t, but we also know that the strength we have to move forward comes largely from her role in our lives.

For me, a grief counselor was the only smart answer

A fellow expressed surprise the other day that I have been seeing a grief counselor. I was surprised he was surprised.

The death of a spouse or a child is the most horrible event I can imagine. I think trying to survive that grief alone would be akin to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro without a guide. In both cases, you have no idea where you are going, you don’t have a grasp on what tools you will need and you really can’t trust your own instincts because they’ve never been tested in that way before.

Many people believe that in finding a good grief counselor the secret is the initials behind their name. Those folks argue it’s all about credentials. I have nothing against psychiatrists, psycho-therapists or grief therapists. I believe in some credentials but for me there are nine key letters I want behind my grief counselor’s name: b-e-e-n t-h-e-r-e.  I want to know my counselor has experienced the same loss I did. I will candidly admit that since my wife Jean’s death, the world divides into two parts–people who have lost a dear loved one and those that haven’t. If you are giving me advice, you better have walked in my shoes or I am going to seriously discount your comments.

I apologize if that offends, but for me that’s the price of admission. I appreciate everybody else’s empathy but not their advice.

My grief counselor, Jenny, lost her husband several years ago but that did not assure us a smooth road. The first time we met I thought she was crazy and I told her so. In that first meeting we watched a video of Jean in pictures with our family that we had prepared for the wake and funeral. I sobbed throughout the entire video. Jenny listened to me talk for a while and then asked me to watch the video every day. I wailed, I swore, I yelled and after a few days of complaining to sympathetic friends about what a stupid idea it was, I followed Jenny’s advice.

Jenny told me to watch the video until I was smiling instead of sobbing. I thought that was flat-out impossible. It was not. Jenny was right. Oh sure, I still get tears in my eyes when I watch it, but I also smile a lot. I marvel at Jean’s smile, I love the way she looked at me in tender moments and her rapport with her grandkids makes my heart sing.

Jenny made me stare down my grief and it has helped me immeasurably. You don’t get over grief, but it does become less all-consuming and more a part of your daily life. My grief controlled me for a while. Jenny helped me make it tolerable by teaching me to celebrate the joy I found with Jean.

Finally touched by the anger phase of the five stages of grief

Almost from the moment you lose a loved one someone sticks the five stages of grief in front of you. Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s 45-year-old tome On Death and Dying remains the crucible for grieving loved ones.

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance trip off the tongue of anybody who has taken the grief journey. The most amazing aspect of that for me is how often you go through the entire list. I have hit acceptance already–20 or 30 times.  Obviously my tongue is in my cheek. We just think we’ve hit acceptance and then we slide back down the cycle again.

The stage I have encountered most often was bargaining. Just a couple of weeks ago I had a long talk with Jean in my car. I knew I was on the brink of two big decisions Jean probably wouldn’t like. So I offered her a great deal. I told her that if she came back I would abandon both decisions. I am afraid I am still looking for her.

The one emotion I never felt was anger.

I interpreted anger as anger at God. When Jean, my wife of 39 years died I never got angry at a divine power because I don’t believe God killed Jean anymore than I believe God crippled my limbs or made my son Jason Down syndrome. So I thought anger simply didn’t apply to me.

My tune has changed. In recent days I find myself horribly upset at Jean. As I start to put my life back together and take baby steps forward I find everything is far more complicated than I imagined. And dammit, that’s Jean’s fault. If she hadn’t died and left me here alone everything would still be as it always was–sweet, simple and predictable. I know I am not alone among grieving widows and widowers but boy, when you are experiencing that sort of  anger you feel amazing isolation.

I don’t stay angry at Jean long, but the futility and seeming silliness of my emotions make me feel empty.

As I reread the above it strikes me that for someone who hasn’t experienced such grief this probably seems frustratingly vague and perhaps even overwrought.

For those of you who understand the five stages, and battle through them on a regular basis I hope this helps.


On finding an authentic mirror to look at ourselves

Some days we are capable of convincing ourselves of the wisdom of very stupid ideas.

I was reading an insightful book the other day called The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. Silver was making a point about statistical predictions when he posed this example: A man who never usually drinks got plastered. He was trying to decide if he should drive home or call a taxi. Silver said the man constructed this fallacious argument. You have made 20,000 trips. You have had two minor fender benders and you have gotten to your destination safely 19,998 times. The man convinced himself those were great odds and it was totally unnecessary to call a cab. Obviously the problem is the man had never driven this drunk so his sample size for drunken trips is zero. He had no way to measure his risk based on past experience.

Silver was demonstrating a statistical problem called “an out-of-sample problem.”

However, Silver was also accurately describing a problem with the human condition. We lie to ourselves. We shamelessly and cleverly try to convince ourselves of nonsensical propositions because that thought process takes us somewhere we want to go.

Being candid with ourselves and appreciating who we are at any given time is perhaps the most difficult thing we do. I am a big believer in Socrates’ admonition that “An unexamined life is not worth living.” But looking at ourselves with an authentic and honest eye is incredibly difficult.

We all have met people whose self-image strikes us as being totally inconsistent with the actual image the person projects. I have a funny, but insightful friend who frequently quips in such a situation, “Boy, I wish I had his mirror.”

A lot of us build a false mirror for ourselves because a genuine mirror will disturb our make-believe world.

And, yet most of us also know people who understand their own authentic selves with all its warts and imperfections and can own it. Those folks are courageous heroes who deserve our admiration.

I wonder if grief has lowered my IQ

I am beginning to wonder if grief has lowered my IQ by 20 points or so.

I am the guy people come to for advice. When somebody has a problem the first instinct of many is “I need to talk to Tim.” I have always prided myself on being able to see all sides of a situation and offer a balanced perspective. And, it’s not just that I can solve other people’s problems either. I am pretty self-reflective. I always thought I knew who I was, and with a little consideration, I could usually figure out the right course for me.

Grief has made me feel dumb.

Suddenly I am second-guessing everything. I am making more knee-jerk decisions than I ever have before and those uncanny instincts? I don’t seem to be able to trust them anymore.

One of my issues is related to the onliness/loneliness post of a couple of  weeks ago. I am having trouble moving from a “we” to a “me.” I have suddenly realized I am not done grieving “we” because I am still putting experiences and decisions in the context of Jean and Tim. And the truth is that’s still comfortable. For a while I am okay with that but it makes me feel dumb because “we” and “me” are competing for that wise decision part of my brain.

We all  futilely seek control and certainty in our lives. The truth is when you have been in a loving relationship for 40 years you have defined patterns for how you seek that control and certainty. Obviously Jean nor I ever found complete certainty and control but the years allowed us to build up something that felt like it. Our sense of partnership was crucial to that process.

Thinking things through with a “Tim and Jean” frame has been a successful approach for me for a long time. And yet, another part of me wants to think more broadly and think more about “me.” That battle leaves me confused, uncertain and, yes, dumb.

I think I have to learn to keep Jean in my heart while in my head I make decisions for Tim, my children and my friends. Easy to say…..