Personal

Comparing and contrasting grief

People kindly keep asking me how I’m doing since Mom died. I always say some version of, “This is hard, but I’m okay.” Sometimes I add, “Losing my daughter at the end of last year was so wicked hard that losing my mom feels like a walk in the park.”

Rana the last time I saw her, Aug. 2021

Rana’s death was a deep shock that wouldn’t lift for a long time. Then I was furious with her for taking her own life. I was exhausted for weeks. At first I couldn’t sleep at night. But soon I slept hard every night, but still awoke tired. I’m not normally a napper, but sometime in the afternoon I’d just hit the wall and nothing but 20 or 30 minutes of sleep would get me past it. Then I was deeply sad, and I felt lost.

In time, my grief settled into an ongoing sadness, a dull ache. By mid-summer I was starting to enjoy life again, thanks in part to antidepressants and good grief counseling, and Rana wasn’t on my mind every day anymore.

All my life I expected that my mother’s death would tear me apart. I adored Mom and always felt very close to her. She was a source of safety for me as a child, and she did many lovely things for and with me that are lasting good memories.

Mom watching my brother run track, Spring 1985

After Dad died, my relationship with Mom became unsettled. Not only was she grieving, but also she was figuring out what she wanted and who she was without her husband. This altered some of our familiar patterns and occasionally left one or the other of us feeling a little alienated from the other. It was never serious, but we needed to have some conversations to make amends and find new patterns.

We were still working things out when the cancer came. The treatment wiped her out, as treatment does. Then, thanks to osteoporosis, her vertebrae started developing hairline fractures, one by one, with treatment and recovery each time. She wasn’t able to do very much. All she wanted was to be able to run her errands, see her friends, and work in her garden, but all of this was severely curtailed. She watched a lot of TV, and she lost a lot of weight, mostly muscle. “This sucks, Jimmy,” she said. “If this is the rest of my life, I don’t want it.”

I was relieved for her when she died. I was relieved for my brother and me, too, as we felt helpless while she suffered and declined. The devastation I feared never came. I’ve felt like a hundred pounds have been draped over my shoulders, and my mood is low. There have been a few very rough days. But this grief is young yet, and who knows how it will unfold. At least I’m functioning reasonably well.

Margaret with her parents, Jo Anne and Walt, at Mass in April, 2018

We lost my wife’s mom, Jo Anne, in the summer of 2019. I’d known Jo Anne, and Margaret’s dad, Walt, only since about 2014, as I came late to the family party. They were a dear couple, devoted to their faith and their family. Jo Anne was smarter than she usually let on, and she had a wonderful creative streak.

Her deathbed was in Margaret’s sister’s home. All of Margaret’s seven brothers and sisters, plus husbands and many of the 20+ grandchildren, gathered more than once to pray the rosary over her. She was conscious for many days as she slowly faded away, and was able to interact with her family on some level until nearly the end.

When she died, I was saddened, and I felt the loss. But I’m not sure I’d say I experienced full-on grief; I had known her only a handful of years, and we weren’t close. I mostly felt bad for Margaret, and tried as best I could to be there for her.

Jeff and Mariah just after they eloped in January, 2018

In April of 2018 we lost Mariah, Margaret’s son Jeff’s wife. It was an accidental death. Jeff struggled through his 20s to find his footing and build a stable adult life. He had some staggering setbacks. So did Mariah. Their difficult experiences lined up well enough that they understood each other. They were crazy about each other, and I think Mariah is the love of Jeff’s life. Her sudden death was traumatic for us all. Margaret and her daughter Lain were devastated, as they knew her well and loved her very much. I wasn’t as close to her, but even so her death felt like being hit in the head with a baseball bat. I staggered through my life for weeks, reeling. But when that passed, I was mostly okay again.

Dad with his new puppy, Shadow, in about 1991

I say mostly okay because I had lost my father in January that year. Dad and I had a challenging relationship; I wrote about it at length. He loved me to the best of his ability, and I think I loved him. I was attached to him for sure. But I often felt terrorized by him as a child. He was easily angered, and when angry, he was harsh and punitive. For example, when I was a boy he grew tired of me not putting my Big Wheel (a plastic tricycle) away when I was done with it, so one day he made me watch while he sliced it in half on his band saw. I worked hard to forgive his bad behavior toward me so I could be at peace.

In my 40s, I finally realized that the only way I was going to have a relationship with him was on his terms. I was deeply disappointed, as I hoped for greater openness and closeness. I was never happy about it, but in time I came to accept it. He loved to argue, and I learned the hard way to refuse to be baited. He was always interested in my career, so we mostly talked about work.

Dad learned he had lung cancer in 2007. His cancer metastasized in 2017, and he died the day after his birthday in January, 2018. I wasn’t very sad and I didn’t miss him. I still don’t miss him. But the first year or so after his death I was anguished and angry over the terrible lost opportunity, a lifetime of next to never having the close, warm relationship I always wanted with him.

Gracie and me
Me and Gracie in about 2009

On Thanksgiving day in 2013, my dog Gracie died. My first wife picked her up as a stray and it was clear she had been abused. She never fully recovered from it and was always a difficult dog.

I got our two dogs in the divorce. Sugar, our Rottweiler, died within a year. She was the best dog I ever had, and I missed her, but I didn’t grieve for long. I guess we just weren’t that close after all. Gracie, on the other hand, was the dog I never wanted. But after Sugar died, she bonded hard to me — and in time, I to her.

Gracie lived to be very old, at least 18. In her later years, she slowed down considerably and became deaf. This only drew us closer as I took greater care of her and even worked out hand signals to communicate with her.

She died on my parents’ kitchen floor. I felt my heart breaking as she lay there dying. I was torn up that she drew her last breath while I was on the phone with the emergency vet.

But she was just a dog, right? I went right back to work as if nothing had happened. But I missed Gracie terribly. I cried a lot for weeks, and it hurt for a year. I still miss Gracie, nine years later. I’ll never understand our bond, but it was deep and strong. I moved out of the house we shared in 2017, four years after Gracie died, but I never stopped expecting to see her lying in the nook created where my desks intersected in my office. It was her perch; she could see and hear much of the house from there. I never stopped being disappointed she wasn’t there. I seldom remember my dreams, but when I do, Gracie is often in them.

From all of this I conclude that the experience of grief varies widely, and depends on the relationship you shared with the person (or dog), as well as timing, namely what else has happened in your life, especially lately.

But I’m tired of grieving. I’m ready to move past it. Unfortunately, Margaret’s dad has been in painfully slow decline for a year now, and is under 24-hour medical care. He can’t do anything for himself anymore, and spends his days sitting. It’s no kind of life. We all hope he dies in his sleep, tonight if possible, so he can be released. But that’s one more grief to suffer.

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Personal, Stories Told

Monopoly money: A story from my new book, A Place to Start

This story is in my book, A Place to Start

I don’t naturally see the bright side. I have to work at it.

Blogging has given me a way to work at it. As I push through challenging things in life, I write about it looking for the silver lining, the lesson learned, the happy ending.

What you tell me in the comments is that you find my stories to be encouraging. I find that to be encouraging!

Today I’m launching my book, A Place to Start. It collects the best stories and essays from this blog’s first two years. I was recovering from a divorce, trying to build a new life, working to be a good dad to my sons. I worked very hard to find the good in everything — it helped me keep my head together.

If you’d like a copy of my book, here’s how you can get it:

This story is in the book. It first appeared here on August 30, 2008.


I was feeling good about my financial situation as I headed into the summer. I was rapidly paying down debt and had built up some savings. But then August was unexpectedly expensive. I replaced my car’s transmission (and rented a car for two weeks while it was in the shop), replaced my refrigerator when it conked out, and had some medical and veterinary bills. Bam! Within a few weeks, my savings was gone and I had even gone a little more into debt.

I know that everything that cost me was just a matter of chance. Cars break down, 20-year-old fridges die, dogs and people get sick. It was better to spend savings on these things than to have borrowed to pay for it all. You might even say that God took care of me, providing for me through these misfortunes. But I’ve been angry about it just the same. It really hurt to get a little bit ahead only to lose it almost all at once.

On Wednesday, the boys and I broke out the Monopoly board. My youngest is starting to understand trading and can now stick with a long game, and so our play is starting to become vigorous. We’d made some trades and we all had monopolies — my older son had the violets, my youngest son had the neighboring oranges, and I was just around the corner with the reds. When we started improving our properties, it became hard to move along that side of the board without somebody collecting.

My youngest son landed on my Kentucky Avenue. With two houses, the rent wasn’t terrible, but having spent all his cash on houses he hocked most of his property to pay me. He weathered that with good humor, but he next landed on Go To Jail and so would make another trip down Death Row. His next roll put him on Community Chest, but then he landed on Indiana Avenue, which by then had four houses and was much more expensive to visit. Cash-strapped and hocked to the hilt, he had no choice but to sell most of houses. He was ticked. And then a few tears ran down his face. And then he buried his face in my shoulder.

The irony did not escape me as I hugged him and told him it’s bound to hurt when you build things up and get a little ahead only to have bad luck take it all away.

When I woke up the next morning, I didn’t feel so bad anymore.

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Essay, Stories Told

This cup is already broken

This was my favorite mug.

mymug

A long time ago I worked in a museum’s gift shop. We sold works of local artists and for several weeks featured a talented potter. I was taken with this fellow’s work for its bold color, especially four coffee mugs in this motif. I wanted them all, but could afford only one, and chose this one.

This mug was as much a pleasure to use as it was to behold. Its slender angled lip felt good on my lips. The thumbprint-sized indentation pressed into the top of the handle made it very comfortable to hold.

I’ve had very few possessions that satisfied me as much as this mug. I drank my coffee from it for 21 years, first at college, then in my first apartment, then at home after I was married, and finally at work. But sadly it was damaged when I moved it to my last job. Something must have struck the box it was in. When I filled it with coffee, a puddle quickly formed wherever I set it.

Buddhists have a saying: This cup is already broken. It’s meant to teach us that nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it. (The book of Ecclesiastes agrees, by the way, if you aren’t too keen on Buddhist teachings.) Enjoying what I have has been a recurring theme on this blog. For example, I’ve written before about how I was so focused on taking care of my first brand new car that it robbed me of some of the pleasure of driving it. I have struggled with this lesson all my life.

I grew up in a working-class family. We weren’t poor, but we earned every thing we owned, and little was handed to me. I saved to buy things I wanted, such as my bicycle and my first old cameras. Every purchase was dear because my money didn’t stretch very far. I was always very upset when something broke or wore out, because I would have to save for a long time to replace it. This shaped my attitude toward my possessions. I have tended to buy used or inexpensive things, because when they broke or wore out I could soothe myself by saying that I hadn’t lost much. When I have received especially nice or new things, I have tended not to want to use them.

After my grandfather died, I got his pocket knife. It was a gentleman’s knife, two small blades in a slender silver body. I left it in a dresser drawer for years, afraid to carry it lest I lose it. But I couldn’t very well enjoy my grandfather’s memory that way, and so one morning I finally slipped it into my pocket. When I got home that night, I found that it had fallen out somewhere along the way, and I never saw it again.

That loss stung. In its wake I clenched even tighter on my possessions. That brings me to this mug. Because at about this time I realized I drank far more coffee at work than at home. I wanted to take my mug to the office, but I resisted out of worry that it would more readily be lost, damaged, or stolen there.

About 15 years ago I needed to sell almost everything I owned. That was super hard. Yet after it was all gone and I carried on with my life, I was surprised by how little of it I missed. Today, I occasionally wish for a couple old cameras I especially enjoyed and a few of my old record albums that have never been released on CD. That’s it. I can’t even remember some of the things I owned. It was, I am stunned to have learned, just stuff.

That my mug survived was merely an oversight, but one I was glad to have made. As soon as I came across it, I took it right to work where I could enjoy it best. And sure enough, that’s where my mug met its demise. But I got to use it for seven years at work before that happened – and in that time, I figure I drank at least 3,600 cups of coffee from it. I enjoyed it to the hilt!

And so I’ve been thinking about how to extend this idea. How will I behave differently if I think as though my kids are already grown and gone? As though I’ve already moved on from my current job? As though I’ve already remarried and left my single life behind?

What else can you think of?

Originally published in May of 2010. Back by popular demand. And since I wrote this, I’m almost empty nested, I’ve moved on from two jobs, and I’ve remarried. This long-ago reflection absolutely helped me enjoy my fleeting, temporary life more.

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Stories Told

“You are five times the father I ever was,” my dad said to me

I wanted to be there for my sons like my dad was for me. But I couldn’t, not fully, because of the divorce.

That’s the real horror of my divorce. Of any divorce, really, where children are involved. And I don’t think I’m overusing that word, horror. When any parent who wants fully to be in the parenting game can’t do it, it’s horrible.

The court allowed me to see my sons every Monday and Wednesday, every other weekend, and half the summer. Most of their lives happened without me being there.

I made the most of the time I got. I made sure I saw my sons when scheduled, missing maybe once or twice a year, usually due to illness. I was very intentional that as much as possible our home time together would be relaxed and easy, just us men having dinner, watching TV, reading, playing games.

And I followed the model my dad gave me: I went to their soccer games. I went along on field trips and met with their teachers. I saw Damion perform in his fourth-grade play. I went to every one of Garrett’s choir concerts and Damion’s band concerts.

Just for fun, here’s Damion in a clarinet duet with a classmate eight years ago.

Here’s Garrett singing with his choir from later the same year. He’s on the right, the bespectacled boy under and to the left of the rightmost overhead microphone, always a half step behind everyone else. He hated the dance moves — he just wanted to sing.

Our time together was of the highest quality I could make it. Yet when it comes to parenting, to do the job all the way you need quantity time. With enough time serendipity can happen — that random fun, those unexpected conversations both serious and lighthearted, those hard life events where a well-timed word from Dad can ease the difficulty. These are experiences through which you connect meaningfully, where you share deep love. We got a little of that, here and there, and I think they were our most valuable moments. I wanted more. We needed more.

Damion has let me fully off the hook. “You’ve been fantastic,” he said. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out between you and Mom. It would have been great if I could have seen you every day. But I have several friends whose dads live with them, but ignore or mistreat them. I’m better off than they are.”

Garrett was all shrugs, as the kids say today. “I don’t remember any time before the divorce,” he said. “This is all I know. It’s been fine.”

Even my dad told me not to worry about it: “You are five times the father I ever was, even though I was there every day for you.” It might well be the most encouraging, most affirming thing he ever said to me.

Still, I grieve. I loved the time I spent with my sons while they were growing up, and I miss it. But when court-ordered parenting time ended last spring, the door closed for good on the time I lost. I know that door actually closed the day I moved out so many years ago. But feeling that loss was partially deferred because during the parenting-time years I held out hope, however unrealistic and illogical, that it could be better than it was.

I’m beginning to feel it only now because the intervening time has brought several heavy life challenges to us. I’ve been in go/do mode for about a year. But fortunately those challenges are slowly clearing, giving me brain space to think and feel and process. Thinking lately about my own father’s successes in parenting has brought it up.

I’m choosing to cling to the good, kind words my sons and my father said to me.

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Personal, Stories Told

Monopoly money

Bonus Garrett story #1, from when he was about nine years old. Without knowing it, he taught me a lesson about coping with loss.

I was feeling pretty good about my financial situation as I headed into the summer. I was paying down debt pretty powerfully and had built up some savings. But then August was unexpectedly expensive. I replaced my car’s transmission, rented a car for two weeks, bought a new refrigerator, and had some medical and veterinary bills. Bam! Within a few weeks, my savings was gone and I had even gone a little more into debt.

I know that everything that cost me was just a matter of chance. Cars break down, 20-year-old fridges die, dogs and people get sick. It was better to spend savings on these things than to have borrowed to pay for it all. You might even say that God took care of me, providing for me through these misfortunes. But I’ve been angry about it just the same. It really hurt to get a little bit ahead only to lose it almost all at once.

PICT0733
Our Monopoly set, which my parents bought in the 1960s (and I photographed in the early 1980s), which we still use

On Wednesday, the boys and I broke out the Monopoly board. My youngest is starting to understand trading and can now stick with a long game, and so our play is starting to become vigorous. We’d made some trades and we all had monopolies — my older son had the violets, my youngest son had the neighboring oranges, and I was just around the corner with the reds. When we started improving our properties, it became hard to move along that side of the board without somebody collecting.

My youngest son landed on my Kentucky Avenue. With two houses, the rent wasn’t terrible, but having spent all his cash on houses he hocked most of his property to pay me. He weathered that with good humor, but he next landed on Go To Jail and so would make another trip down Death Row. His next roll put him on Community Chest, but then he landed on Indiana Avenue, which by then had four houses and was much more expensive to visit. Cash-strapped and hocked to the hilt, he had no choice but to sell most of houses. He was ticked. And then a few tears ran down his face. And then he buried his face in my shoulder.

The irony did not escape me as I hugged him and told him it’s bound to hurt when you build things up and get a little ahead only to have bad luck take it all away.

When I woke up the next morning, I didn’t feel so bad anymore.

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Personal, Stories Told

This cup is already broken

This was my favorite mug.

mymug

A long time ago I worked in a museum’s gift shop. We sold works of local artists and for several weeks featured a talented potter. I was taken with this fellow’s work for its bold color, especially four coffee mugs in this motif. I wanted them all, but could afford only one, and chose this one.

This mug was as much a pleasure to use as it was to behold. Its slender angled lip felt good on my lips. The thumbprint-sized indentation pressed into the top of the handle made it very comfortable to hold.

I’ve had very few possessions that satisfied me as much as this mug. I drank my coffee from it for 21 years, first at college, then in my first apartment, then at home after I was married, and finally at work. But sadly it was damaged when I moved it to my last job. Something must have struck the box it was in. When I filled it with coffee, a puddle quickly formed wherever I set it.

Buddhists have a saying: This cup is already broken. It’s meant to teach us that nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it. (The book of Ecclesiastes agrees, by the way, if you aren’t too keen on Buddhist teachings.) Enjoying what I have has been a recurring theme on this blog. For example, I’ve written before about how I was so focused on taking care of my first brand new car that it robbed me of some of the pleasure of driving it. I have struggled with this lesson all my life.

I grew up in a working-class family. We weren’t poor, but we earned every thing we owned, and little was handed to me. I saved to buy things I wanted, such as my bicycle and my first old cameras. Every purchase was dear because my money didn’t stretch very far. I was always very upset when something broke or wore out, because I would have to save for a long time to replace it. This shaped my attitude toward my possessions. I have tended to buy used or inexpensive things, because when they broke or wore out I could soothe myself by saying that I hadn’t lost much. When I have received especially nice or new things, I have tended not to want to use them.

After my grandfather died, I got his pocket knife. It was a gentleman’s knife, two small blades in a slender silver body. I left it in a dresser drawer for years, afraid to carry it lest I lose it. But I couldn’t very well enjoy my grandfather’s memory that way, and so one morning I finally slipped it into my pocket. When I got home that night, I found that it had fallen out somewhere along the way, and I never saw it again.

That loss stung. And in its wake I clenched even tighter on my possessions. That brings me to this mug. Because at about this time I realized I drank far more coffee at work than at home. I wanted to take my mug to the office, but I resisted out of worry that it would more readily be lost, damaged, or stolen there.

And then I found it necessary to sell almost everything I owned. It was not easy. But after it was all gone and I carried on with my life, I was surprised by how little of it I missed. Today, I occasionally wish for a couple old cameras I especially enjoyed and a few of my old record albums that have never been released on CD. That’s it. I can’t even remember some of the things I owned. It was, I am stunned to have learned, just stuff.

That my mug escaped being sold was merely an oversight, but one I was glad to have made. As soon as I came across it, I took it right to work where I could enjoy it best. And sure enough, that’s where my mug met its demise. But I got to use it for seven years at work before that happened – and in that time, I figure I drank at least 3,600 cups of coffee from it. I enjoyed it to the hilt!

And so I’ve been thinking about how to extend this idea. How will I behave differently if I think as though my kids are already grown and gone? As though I’ve already moved on from my current job? As though I’ve already remarried and left my single life behind?

What else can you think of?

Originally published in May of 2010. Back by popular demand. And since I wrote this, I’m almost empty nested, I’ve moved on from two jobs, and I’ve remarried. This reflection from seven years ago absolutely helped me enjoy my fleeting, temporary life more.

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