You can remember your loved one and be happy at the same time

I was talking to a close and incredibly smart friend over the holidays about memories, grief and loved ones.

I told him how happy I am with my new wife, Candace, and how happy she seems to be. As the conversation meandered I mentioned that Candace was a little down because the four year anniversary of her husband’s death was New Year’s Eve.

My smart friend expressed confusion. He could not understand how one minute I could say Candace was incredibly happy and then tell him that she was melancholy over her late husband’s death.

I was briefly surprised before I realized again that people who have not experienced the loss of a spouse just can’t understand how conflicting emotions exist with you all the time.

I gently told my friend he was thinking about emotions as a zero sum game and they are not that at all. I told him melancholy and happiness co-exist. One does not replace the other.

I completely understand how difficult that is for someone who has never lost a spouse to comprehend. Intellectually it probably does not compute, but for someone who has lost a spouse the feelings are genuine. To explain to my friend, I put out my left arm in a straight line. Then I did the same with my right arm.

I said the straight line represented by my the left arm is my late wife Jean. I miss her. I loved her and I loved our life together. I regret that our wonderful nuclear family no longer exists. I am deeply saddened that my kids lost their beloved mother. I think about her and what she would have thought about scores of events and people each week.

Then I moved to my right arm and told my friend that was my life with Candace. We laugh uproariously practically all the time. We learn and come to enjoy eccentricities like my sneezes and my constant aches and pains,  and her obsession with Christmas decorating and her cats. We cultivate a new love with all sorts of tender moments each day.

The two lines are wonderful in their own right. They do not subtract from each other. One of those lines is a memory. It cannot be lived again, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be treasured and remembered fondly without detracting at all from the other line. That other line is now. It is real and it can be savored, felt and hugged.

So when Candace was melancholy about David’s death I never felt a single pang of jealousy. Because I experience the same emotion all the time, I knew that she could remember, honor and miss David at the same time she loves me with all her heart.

One of those straight lines represents yesterday. The other line represents today. The two separate lines just are. They are distinct worlds and they are as real to me as my right foot.

Candace holds both of her lines in her heart at the same time and so do I. We treasure yesterday and our late spouses. We savor and live today with our new spouses with everything we have to give.

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

St. Patrick’s Day was a watershed day on the journey

St. Patrick’s Day 2015 will go down as a watershed day on my journey.

Much to my dismay I could not find anything green or Irish to wear this morning. As I frantically searched, I fondly remembered that my late wife Jean used to order me a snappy green boutonniere every March 17th when I was working at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

As I reflected, a deep joy came over me as I remembered that typically sweet, loving gesture Jean made every year. It was vintage Jean. It was kind, imaginative and full of love. Jean always heard a different drummer and came up with cute, unique expressions of affection for everyone in the family. Her creativity made loving her a special adventure

It was a wonderfully delightful memory that I savored for several minutes.

And, that’s the watershed part.

That delightful memory triggered deep love, gratitude and affection instead of the grief it would have provoked just a few months ago. This time I savored. I didn’t sob. I didn’t tear up. The memory wasn’t full of regret and sadness.

I celebrated. Nine months after Jean’s death I have reached a point where memories are sweet celebrations of love and not debilitating moments of grief and sorrow.

I immediately went to the florist to buy a green boutonniere. Unsurprisingly, you had to have the foresight to order it in advance as Jean always did so thoughtfully.

So if you see me today you will not see a green boutonniere on my lapel, but I assure you it’s there on my heart. And, I am smiling, not crying. The journey goes on.

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

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.