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