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

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.

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

Being Thankful as a very bad year comes to an end

Friends and family are concerned about how the holidays are going to affect me this first Thanksgiving and Christmas after my wife Jean died. Since right after the funeral well-intentioned friends have warned me that the “holidays will be the hardest.” That is not helpful, but again, few are mean-spirited when they say things like that.

Within weeks of Jean’s death, my kids and I moved to change things up from the traditions Jean had led for so many years. My son and I are going to trash all past practice and escape to Las Vegas for Thanksgiving. All of my kids are going to come to Arizona for Christmas rather than the usual Minnesota celebration.

I really have no idea if those basic changes will make anything easier but it has to be better than the inevitable tears that would flow from reliving all of Jean’s traditions.

I do believe I have the prayers of Thanksgiving for both events worked out. I am terrifically grateful for the 39 years I had with Jean and exhilarated by what she did for my children. I am going to urge all three of them to be thankful for what we had. I am going to urge them not to get hung up on what’s gone. Jean is most certainly not coming back, but I am convinced if she saw us crying at her two favorite holidays she would slap every one of us up side the head.

My default position these days is that Jean would desperately oppose sorrow and urge us all to move on and to be thankful for new things and new people in our lives.

Is that going to work? I have no clue. I only know the journey has to be walked and I will walk it with all the prayerful optimism I can muster.

McGuire on life, disability and grief will take the next week off. Happy Thanksgiving to all.