Tending “two gardens” has reinvigorated and sustained my life

The grief to new love trilogy-Part I.

Readers of this blog followed my grief journey from last September to May of this year when I took a summer break. One of the first and most significant posts was the entry which argued my good friend Ian Punnett’s perspective that “you cannot do grief wrong.” That advice, delivered the night of the wake for my dear wife Jean Fannin McGuire, guided my emotional journey and my writing about grief.

And the journey indeed felt special to my circumstances. For the first six or seven weeks I could not have told you what my emotions were. I have used the word kaleidoscopic to describe them. I rewrote the last chapter of  Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance during that time. As I look back at those words it is obvious I wrote them in a frenzied fog. Most of the sentiments were right on, but I lacked serious perspective. Seven weeks after Jean’s death a family wedding sent me into a profound downward spiral of grief which lasted for a couple of months. It was horrible.

I have written before that I found grief exhausting. It was also incredibly lonely. Four things began my  recovery from what felt like the depths of grief.

The first may strike you as weird, but I had a conversation with Jean as I drove to work. I told her I was going to do two big things I feared she wouldn’t approve. I offered her a deal that if she came back I wouldn’t do those things. She didn’t return. That may sound like a silly exercise, but it was incredibly important in my grief process. It helped me realize that no matter how much I cried, Jean was gone from my life and I was on my own. That forced me to move ahead.

The second thing that pushed my grief to a new stage was my realization that I had not been very nice to people while I was grieving. I was just angry at everybody. When I found myself grunting at students I knew I had to stop feeling sorry for myself.

The third key force in working through the depths of grief was my grief counselor, Jenny Diaz. As I wrote in this blog, she strongly urged me to repeatedly watch a video of Jean’s life that reduced me to sobs. She advised me to watch it until I could celebrate it rather than sob. To this moment, I remember vividly the first time I felt incredible joy just marveling at Jean’s smile. I have tried to celebrate Jean ever since.

There was a fourth factor in moving past grief but I never wrote about it. I have felt free to talk about my own journey but I have been reluctant to talk about the journeys of those close to me. About three months after Jean’s a death, a friend from the Star Tribune in the mid-80s, Candace Hadley, contacted me and offered grief help. Her husband died two-and-a-half years before Jean did. I had worked with Candace and we were good friends. Candace and I had been out of touch for the best part of 25 years when we first talked about grief on a Monday night in late September. The conversation lasted 55 minutes. I know, I checked my phone. It was more than obvious that our friendship had survived the years.

As weeks passed and we talked for long periods on the phone, the bond grew stronger but I was still grieving. I thought about Jean’s death constantly and yet I could clearly see a new relationship was beginning. The tension between two powerful new forces in my life–grief and new affections– left me confused and anxious. I made the decision that even though a wonderful relationship was developing with Candace I could not proceed while I was still in the throes of grief.

Fortunately, I discussed it with my grief counselor Jenny before I ended it. I worried whether I could grieve Jean and love Candace at the same time. Jenny was convinced Candace and I had something important. Jenny shared with me the metaphor that has sustained me for many months and will forever sustain me. She said, “You need to tend two gardens, the garden of grief over Jean’s death and the garden of your new life with Candace.”

That precious metaphor released me to grieve Jean at the same time I was falling in love with Candace. With Candace’s understanding and patience I was able to process my grief and build a new life and a new love at the same time.

My two gardens are incredibly important to me and they’re flourishing. As my Facebook followers know, this summer my family and I had a touching, sad memorial for the first anniversary of Jean’s death. Facebook followers also know that a few weeks later I proposed to Candace and we will marry Sept. 12.

NEXT: Part II of the Grief to new love trilogy: the qualities of a late in life relationship.

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.