Being Thankful as a very bad year comes to an end

Friends and family are concerned about how the holidays are going to affect me this first Thanksgiving and Christmas after my wife Jean died. Since right after the funeral well-intentioned friends have warned me that the “holidays will be the hardest.” That is not helpful, but again, few are mean-spirited when they say things like that.

Within weeks of Jean’s death, my kids and I moved to change things up from the traditions Jean had led for so many years. My son and I are going to trash all past practice and escape to Las Vegas for Thanksgiving. All of my kids are going to come to Arizona for Christmas rather than the usual Minnesota celebration.

I really have no idea if those basic changes will make anything easier but it has to be better than the inevitable tears that would flow from reliving all of Jean’s traditions.

I do believe I have the prayers of Thanksgiving for both events worked out. I am terrifically grateful for the 39 years I had with Jean and exhilarated by what she did for my children. I am going to urge all three of them to be thankful for what we had. I am going to urge them not to get hung up on what’s gone. Jean is most certainly not coming back, but I am convinced if she saw us crying at her two favorite holidays she would slap every one of us up side the head.

My default position these days is that Jean would desperately oppose sorrow and urge us all to move on and to be thankful for new things and new people in our lives.

Is that going to work? I have no clue. I only know the journey has to be walked and I will walk it with all the prayerful optimism I can muster.

McGuire on life, disability and grief will take the next week off. Happy Thanksgiving to all.



Rounding the corner on grief

Grief is like no other journey I have ever taken. It’s a bit like going from Minneapolis to New Orleans by way of San Francisco, New York and Florida. It is not a straight-line, north-south trip.

I am also convinced that during the trip it is mighty difficult to assess your location but I am going to make a stab at it. I think, believe, sense, suppose, postulate, assume, understand and any other speculative synonym you can conceive that I have turned a corner on grief. I can’t tell you when I turned that corner. I am convinced the grief journey seems clearer in reflection, but I can tell you five things about why I believe I have rounded that corner and what it is like.

1. Rounding the corner on grief is not a place. There is not a mile marker or a sign that tells you that you are done and have completed the journey. I certainly have not. I still grieve often. Just ask my close friend Bob Brown who held my shoulders as I sobbed in church on All Souls Day or that driver on the highway the other day who stared at me as I cried. I suspect I will cry over the loss of my wife Jean for the rest of my days but those tears are now punctuated with a sense of genuine celebration over what we had.

2. It is not forgetting. I still find many things that cause me to think fondly of Jean and even a few things that tick me off. And then I wonder why I let something so small tick me off. Then I grieve again. Remembering Jean fondly and respectfully is, in my mind, a crucial part of my journey.

3. Rounding the corner on grief is realizing I am not feeling consumed with overwhelming sadness. The pit in my stomach, or perhaps it was a hole in my heart, that I felt from the moment Jean died has grown dramatically smaller. It even goes away for hours at a time.

4. I realized I had rounded the corner on my grief when I started finding great joy in other people. For a time most people just pissed me off. Happy people, sad people, well-intentioned people, mean-spirited people, innocent bystanders, and especially happy couples, they all just really honked me off. That’s gone now and people usually make me happy. I let some people make me happier than others. I have even started thinking about and making plans for the future. Several weeks ago the future was an abyss that I needed to avoid thinking about at all costs.

5. I have become comfortable with the fact that my grief is ever-present. But it has softened over time. It no longer over shadows my every moment. I have recaptured vitality and joy when teaching, watching a college football game or having coffee with friends. I don’t think there is a set time-frame for grieving. No calendar pin points the arrival of acceptance and hopefulness for a future without the one I loved most in the world. I believe the time spent in deep grief is as unique to each individual as DNA. For me, being sad, angry and hopeless are suits that just don’t fit.

I still grieve Jean. If she wants to come back I would welcome her. But she’s not coming back and grief will not consume my soul. Instead Jean is a celebratory memory for whom I will still cry, but I know Jean would want me to be happy so I am off to do her will.

Considering what people think of us

A lot of us try to talk tough. We shout from the rafters that we don’t give a good damn what people think of us. We say we don’t care what they say and that we can rise above it. We tell ourselves “to thine own self be true,” but we seldom believe it.

Most of us obsess about what the people down the hall are saying about us. We are deeply hurt when some mean-spirited assessment of our behavior or character gets back to us. We primp physically, we buy the best  we can afford and we present our most charming selves on days we don’t feel at all charming, just so we can “impress” people.

My favorite spiritual author Anthony DeMello is brutal when he describes the self focus of humans. He writes in his book Awareness: “I press a button and you’re up. I press a button and you’re down. And you like that. How many people do you know who are unaffected by praise or blame? That isn’t human we say. Human means that you have to be a little monkey so everybody can twist your tail and you do whatever you ought to be doing.” DeMello adds “But is that human? If you find me charming, it means that right now you’re in a good mood, nothing more.”

When people berate us, criticize us or belittle us it tells us far more about them that it does us. An older friend was recently devastated when a peer told her how horrible and selfish she was. It was the peer who was acting horrible and selfish but the peer has to live with that. Meanwhile, my friend is devastated because, like most of us,  she actually does care what people think of her.

These days I am trying to let the wisdom of a friend guide me when I am victimized by gossip, mean-spirited observations or when somebody just has no use for me. She says “what other people think about me is none of my business.”

I know that’s not new, there is even a book with a similar title, but the phrase was new to me. I find it profoundly shaping advice. It tells me I cannot be concerned about outside opinions. It tells me that I better know who I am, know what my gifts are and I need to know how I use those gifts to help and serve others. If I am confident in my personal assessment of myself, I simply don’t need to know or care what others think or say.

I need to own me and my actions and not let the wagging tongues own me. I need to live, give and love as I see fit, not as someone else dictates.

When do I part with my loved one’s clothes and belongings?

I have tried to make it clear that I do not consider myself any sort of expert on grief.  I was unwillingly thrust into grief when my wife Jean died and I have completely bought into a friend’s advice that “you cannot do grief wrong.”

A friend from high school recently wrote me suggesting I discuss the right time to discard your loved one’s personal items and clothes. I can say this with certainty: “I have no clue.”

I don’t know if it was right or wrong but I think I allowed myself to be pushed along by outside events. I did make a rather quick decision about moving out of our Minnesota apartment. If I am honest with myself that had everything to do with Jean dying there. She spent much of her last thee weeks on a blue denim couch. I could not get that couch out of there fast enough. And I needed to shed the negative memories of that apartment quickly.

When I got back to Arizona a Michigan friend offered to help me move Jean’s stuff out and I accepted without great thought. I think I figured it would have to go at some time so I would take advantage of the help. Jean’s clothes just never struck me as a key outlet for my grief.

I certainly cried when I discarded some things and there were a few items that made me incredibly sad. The good humor of my close friend helped me get through that. He was delightfully crazy and in grief that can be salvation.

However, it is obvious to me from talking to widows and widowers that discarding clothes is the hill many choose to stand on because they feel they are severing a key connection to their spouse. A widower I know well moved his wife’s clothes to a storage facility and then didn’t discard them for two years. The woman who wrote me she was miffed when so many friends offered to help her move her husband’s things. She said, “like I would want others to do it.” She added, “it seemed odd to me that people thought it would be helpful to offer to come in and clean out the closets.”

I think those friends are clearly sending a signal that she should empty her closets and that is none of their damned business. I know there are some who think I moved too quickly, but the journey is mine. The grief journey is so personal and unique to each individual that outsiders, even the ones motivated by deep love, need to let the grieving have their space.

The battle that widows and widowers fight is between yesterday and tomorrow. Each individual will choose a different path and true friends and loyal family should respect what ever choice the griever makes.



If only Jason could speak clearly

I have become convinced that most families with a special challenge convince themselves that if one thing were different all would be a bowl of cherries. No matter how sanguine we get about our obstacles, no matter how much we persuade ourselves we can deal with them, we harbor a deep belief that one thing could change the ballgame.

For us, we always believed that if only Jason, our Down Syndrome son, could speak more clearly his life and ours would be exponentially better. With a normal child you can sit down to explore feelings, frustrations and moods. Hundreds of times we wanted to shout, “Please just tell us what you’re thinking!”

Body language, sentence fragments, intricate mimes and dramatic expressions were Jason’s communication currency. Jason’s true feelings and insights have always been imprisoned by his failure to adequately communicate. It is obvious much great wisdom and insight is crushed by his inability to speak clearly.

There was no stunning moment of clarity when we realized Jason would not be a verbal Down syndrome child. It was probably our earliest jealousy. We accepted the Down syndrome reality, but when other DS kids showed verbal potential we knew our verbal sled was in much deeper snow. Jason often woke us with his babbling in bed and we held out hope that someday intelligible words would rise from those scrambled sounds.

By the time he was four it was clear he desperately wanted to communicate. His frustration was undisguised because he thought he was talking just as we were. The key to appreciating Jason’s verbal abilities is to understand that he really believes he’s saying words just like you are. He used to get very angry when I would correct him on the pronunciation of a word such as taco. He repeated distinctly and carefully, as if I were a particularly slow guy, Caco! “No, Jason, its Taco. He spit back, “I said Caco!” Oh.

We’ve never understood that speech difficulty. I don’t know if his brain hears the word correctly and his tongue simply can’t pronounce it, or if there’s a broken synapse somewhere between the brain and his tongue. Whatever it is, that inability to communicate clearly has shaped who Jason is and who we are. I truly believe that he has a special, though disabled mind. If he could speak more clearly his life would be fundamentally different.

But then you accept him for what he is and gratitude wins the day.



Taken from the upcoming book, Some people Even Take Them Home A disabled dad, a Down syndrome son and our journey to acceptance