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.

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.

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.


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…..

My smart friend told me I couldn’t do grief wrong

Over the last year I have developed a wonderful friendship with Ian Punnett. Ian was an outstanding talk show host in Atlanta and Minneapolis and is now a PhD student at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite school where I teach. He is also the author of the book, How to Pray When You are Pissed at God.

Ian made the trip from Arizona to Minneapolis in time for the funeral home visitation for my deceased wife Jean this past June. I saw Ian enter the funeral home and I remember being a bit startled at his purposefulness as he rapidly approached me.

With incredible focus, and an even deeper conviction Ian said, “There is one thing you must remember. You cannot do grief wrong!”

Toss that around for a minute. When I tell people that they often wrinkle their faces into a confused look.

Ian was telling me a couple of things. One, my grief was going to be my individual journey and i should not let anyone else affect it. He was warning me, and it was true, that scores of people would have advice based on somebody else’s journey but this road belonged to me and only to me.

He was also telling me to discard people’s expectations about my grief journey. He wanted me to understand there are no measurements of time for grief and there are no prescribed methods of grieving.

I remind myself of Ian’s insight every day as I move through my grief because I constantly worry “Am I doing this right?” “Am I sad enough?” “Am I crying too much?”

Ian’s admonition reminds me there are no metrics for grief and that only I can decide what works for me as I try to regain equilibrium and even happiness.

I worry too much about other people’s expectations. I always have. I shouldn’t, because I cannot do grief wrong. I can only do it Tim’s way. I cannot be responsible for other people’s views and perceptions of how I should do my grief.  It’s mine and it’s my journey.