Second-guessing past actions is silly because you are someone new

It was a joyful, peaceful Sunday. My new wife, Candace and I were enjoying brunch, reflecting on  the Catholic mass we had just attended and on our week. I candidly confessed that All Souls Day in early November had prompted me to reflect considerably about my late wife Jean. Candace, a bit surprised at the parallel, replied that she too had been reflecting the last week on her late husband David.

As we talked, we realized that it would probably be an error to call our thoughts grief. Our grief has matured, if you will, into melancholy, a sense of loss and definitely sweet appreciation.

I then wistfully confessed that many of my thoughts centered on second-guessing how I handled Jean’s illness and death. Like many widows and widowers I have talked to, I worry about things I should have said, comfort I could have offered and kindnesses I wish I would have extended. As I expressed my regrets Candace gently offered her wisdom. “You did your best with what you had. You loved Jean in the very best way you could and that’s all she could have asked of you and I know that’s all David asked of me. We did our best.”

As I rolled Candace’s comforting words around in my mind, I experienced my own flash of understanding for which I am incredibly grateful. It is actually quite silly for me to second-guess because I am quite a different person from the one who attempted to comfort Jean and hold her hand as she faced death. Her valiant outlook on life, her acceptance of imminent death and the crushing reality of grief changed me in fundamental ways. Comforting my children, and receiving their comfort altered me too. So did the journey of finding new love with Candace. I realize my grief counselor’s incredibly wise advice to “tend the garden of grief over Jean and the garden of new love with Candace” transformed me in fundamental ways.

As I ate my frittata I realized how fruitless it is to wish I would have acted differently 16 months ago when I am a new person complete with fresh bumps, bruises and new revelations. If we are growing in understanding and appreciation we simply cannot rationally assess what that other guy in our past should have or could have done.

Candace is correct. We did our best. My love for Jean, her illness, her death, my grief and my laugh-filled journey to an exciting new love with Candace are now part of my odyssey. If I pay attention, they can be great teachers for the next part of my adventure.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance

I never got a copy of the book about what is appropriate after your spouse dies

The grief to new love trilogy-Part III.

I have never experienced anything like the loneliness of losing a spouse. The personal journey of sadness is impossible to explain and definitely impossible for anyone who has not gone through it to understand.

And yet, it seems a lot of judgmental people believe they know exactly how you are supposed to behave and how much time you should take to grieve. I have heard people criticize people for grieving too long and I know I have been criticized for getting into a relationship too quickly. The reaction I got when I told some people I was in a meaningful relationship within a year of my wife’s death almost convinced me there must be a book of rules and I missed it. You would think that book makes it clear there is a very specific time period when a new relationship is appropriate, but again, the book must be printed on disappearing paper because nobody ever produced a copy for me.

Mostly unstated, but clearly implied is that anything earlier than a year is just wrong. What this view clearly endorses is that there is a prescribed time to grieve and one only starts a new relationship when one is “done” grieving. That is unadulterated bull-hockey. I have a wedding date set with a woman I love very much and I have grieved my late wife as recently as the last 48 hours. I will always grieve her and I do not find that odd at all. I suspect most widows and widowers would agree with me.

I didn’t stop grieving. I simply came to the realization that Jean is not coming back. She can’t laugh with me. She can’t roll her eyes at me and she can’t hold me. I need someone in my life to love and I got lucky and found her quickly because we were good friends a long time ago. If people can’t appreciate that, at least they can keep their mean words and judgmental looks to themselves.

Most people, but more men than women, seem incredibly pleased when I have said I’m going to get married 15 months after my wife Jean’s death. I recently met a long-ago friend in the Detroit airport and when I told him he said with certainty, “and you damn well should.” More than one man has said “I think I would probably be even faster than you!”  Men seem to be able to quickly empathize with the harsh reality of loneliness.

Many women, especially women close to me, have been enthusiastic too. Their reaction is usually, “why wouldn’t we want Tim to be happy?” They saw the depths of my sadness and don’t want me to be sad. My children have been similar. They know the depth of my loss and they have agreed that Jean would not want me wallowing in tears. There is one tricky issue with my kids that requires deep sensitivity. I can go out and find a new wife, they can’t go find a new mom. That makes me cry for them and careful to continue to fondly remember Jean with them. And, it is why my fiance, Candace, has attempted to approach my kids as friends and nothing else. But Jason, my 36 year-old son with Down syndrome who is always wise, has declared to Candace with pride and vigor that she is his “homie.” Jason to the rescue once again.

There have been some people who questioned my timing, simply wondering if  I am of sound mine rather than being judgmental. I don’t begrudge that. I’ve been second guessed all my life.

But then there are the people who seem to have the mysterious book I can’t find. They are the “mean” judgmentals. Though they have never walked in my boots, they are quite clear that I am violating some law of the universe. More than a few women immediately apply my situation to that of their husband and wonder if he would do the same thing. They don’t like that worth a damn but that is a silly inquiry because the grief process and the reconstruction process are unique to each of us.

There can be no schedule for rebuilding one’s life and finding a new partner. Each widow and widower should make their own decision about what is right for them with full confidence that there is no damn book to follow! Only your heart.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance

The qualities of new love at 66–It’s different

Grief to new love trilogy–Part II

Within five months of my wife Jean’s death it was clear my relationship with Candace Hadley was genuine.

Relationships at 66 are different than those at 26. My brief bout with loneliness was brutal for me. I had a wonderful 39-year marriage and it was obvious to me I loved loving and being loved. One of the things I missed most was laughing with a partner. Candace and I laugh together in silly, juvenile ways and with sophisticated humor only a few would appreciate. No matter how old we grow together, I pray the laughter will always remain.

I think one also wants a sense that they are needed and both Candace and I felt that with each other. Another thing that is crucial to a late life marriage, in my mind, is a shared sense of values. Candace and I quickly realized spirituality was important to us–we shared a passion for the writings of Richard Rohr. Politically, we are compatible without being carbon copies of each other. Our differences make things interesting. Very significantly, we have both dealt with cognitive development issues in our family. That particular shared experience is vital.

The other shared experience that is critical, in my mind, is the loss of a spouse. I know many widows or widowers build great relationships with divorced people. I think that would have been very difficult for me. My late wife, Jean, and Candace’s late husband, David, are integral players in our relationship. We talk about them often and we frequently share grief experiences and life experiences. Since Jean’s death is relatively recent, that has been especially indispensable to me. Candace has been an incredible grief coach and just the other night asked me: “How is your sadness?” She has been most attentive to making sure I tend my two gardens and grieve appropriately, all the while loving me and knowing that I love her. I still keep pictures of both Jean and Candace, in some cases side by side. And, Candace still proudly displays some of her husband’s excellent paintings. We are our history and neither of us wants to deny that.

A truly fascinating element of finding a new partner after long marriages is that you have to get used to a new set of expectations. I like to joke that after 39 years of marriage I damn well knew the rules, but now the rule book has totally changed! Things that didn’t matter suddenly are important and vice versa. Figuring out how to disagree, and even agree, can be a fascinating new adventure.

Adventure is the key lesson of new love at 66. It’s an exciting adventure in creating a new life of happiness. The adventure needs to be enjoyed, not over-analyzed.

NEXT: Grief to new love Trilogy Part III –Let them say what they want.

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 illness played a more important role in grief than I understood

As the difficult overwhelming pain of grief turns into a sustainable and tolerable melancholy, perspective increases. I have replayed all aspects of my wife’s illness and death and one of my great discoveries is that my wife Jean’s actual illness started the grieving process and took a far greater toll than I realized.

Only distance and observation of the struggles of other people who have grieved, and are grieving, have allowed me to appreciate that I started grieving months before my wife Jean’s death in June of 2014.

I wish now that I would have recognized the fears and tumult I experienced as Jean struggled with countless blood transfusions and long-shot medical treatments were really a part of its own kind of grief.

It it now clear to me that the powerlessness, guilt and total frustration I felt was indeed grief. And, I was even more unequipped to deal with that grief than I was with the grief brought on by Jean’s death.

Not too long ago a friend told me his wife was chronically ill. It was as if a spear lanced my heart. I actually started to cry because I suddenly remembered that’s when my life and perspective changed. When we found Jean had cancer I was frightened, but when we were told she was chronically ill my world started to slide into an abyss. In retrospect, I can clearly see that is when I started to grieve. Somehow I was rocked by that observation more than I was by the cancer diagnosis.

Within six months of that observation Jean died. I know that some people live several years with that chronic designation with the same sad result. My heart bleeds for them.

I write this not to frighten, but to gently suggest that those people dealing with a seriously ill spouse may be fighting grief without appreciating it and should consider finding someone to talk to about it.

I have written about the immense value of a grief counselor as I dealt with Jean’s passing.  In hindsight, I would now advise someone dealing with a chronically ill spouse, where death is a possible outcome, to also seek counseling.

I belief it would have made me wiser, a better husband and far more peaceful.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance