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Tim Madigan

Tim Madigan is a University of North Dakota graduate, a former part-timer in the Grand Forks Herald sports department and a native of Crookston, Minn. After working on a small N.D. newspaper after graduating from UND, he covered the police beat at Odessa, Texas, later writing features for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where he became of one the state's most recent decorated journalists (three times named the state's top reporter). He's also written several books including “See No Evil: Blind Devotion and Bloodshed in David Koresh's Holy War", “The Burning, Massacre, Destruction and Tulsa Race Riot in 1921” and “I'm Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Barbara Bush And The Aspiration To Goodness

My wife and I spent a healing hour watching the news Tuesday night. When was the last time anyone could say that?

The topic, of course, was the passing of former First Lady Barbara Bush at age 92. As the tributes poured in, how nice it was to be reminded that her human greatness did not derive from her role as matriarch of a political dynasty. Instead it was her commitment to family and friends, her wisdom, humor, strength, kindness and optimism through decades of triumph and tragedy. It was how she embodied the conviction that honor and service are the noblest of things.

Fred Rogers said, and I think it’s true, that it’s hard to make goodness attractive. But that was certainly never a problem for him, and never for Mrs. Bush. And the recent and ongoing celebration of Fred’s greatness, and the tributes to Barbara Bush are all the more affecting because of the bilious, vulgar, and spiritually corrosive nature of current times.

In my days as a high school hockey coach, I tried to impress upon my players the importance of sportsmanship, integrity, decency and kindness — not as abstract ideals but as things essential to success, peace and true happiness in life. I have often thought of coaches today, teachers and parents of young children who face terrible headwinds as they try to instill those values.

Not that any of us are perfect. Far from it. Every day I fall short of the person I hope to be. But that’s not the point. The point is that we try our best to be good to one another. However often we fail, it is the aspiration toward our higher natures and better angels that I believe is the highest calling in life.

Barbara Bush reminded us of that in her life, and now in her death. For that I am grateful.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — When Are You Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll?

I turned 60 in December, a season in life when, for hobbies, a more sensible person might have turned to watercolors or growing orchids. I have turned to Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Credence, Pink Floyd and REO Speedwagon. I’m not talking about the oldies station on the radio, or air guitar when no one is looking or belting old rock anthems in the shower.

Instead, every week, I haul my electric and acoustic guitars to a practice room at the School of Rock in Fort Worth, Texas, and begin blasting away.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one suffering from this post-post,-post-midlife crisis. Dr. David Donahue, age sixtysomething, is an internationally known pediatric neurosurgeon by day, our drummer by night. Dave is typically late for rehearsals, showing up each week in a stretch limo and with full entourage. Drummers, I guess, are that way.

On keyboard and vocals is Gary Kelly, also aged sixtysomething. Gary is an old friend and veteran of some of our area’s top classic rock bands. He is totally slumming with us, but Gary shows up week after week mostly because we encourage him to channel his inner Mick Jagger.

Joaquin Reyna is 21, our ringer, the music director of the School of Rock who is a guitar savant with a very, very old musical soul. He seems greatly amused by guys who, for whatever reason, refuse to grow up.

On those gloriously loud evenings at the School of Rock, we barrel through the music of our youth. As of now, we go by the name, Loved Starved Dogs, which was suggested by my wife and daughter, and inspired by our codependent puppy, Scuba. Other possible names — Grateful We’re Not Dead; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Not Young; and the Boobie Brothers  — were considered and rejected. As I speak, Gary is composing our own original rock anthem titled … wait for it … Love Starved Dogs.

You cringe. I mean, AC/DC, is on our set list, for crying out loud. Consider the lyrics to “You Shook Me All Night Long,” which I attempt to screech.

She had the sightless eyes, 

Telling me no lies,

Knocking me out with those American thighs.

American thighs? Really?

Yet I do not apologize. Over the decades, I’ve tried to be a loving and responsible husband and father, a friend. I’ve worked hard to tame my many demons. Now, with a dwindling fraction of my life yet to live, perhaps I’m entitled to care less and less about what other people might think. It occurs to me that each week at the School of Rock I’m inoculating myself against regrets later, when I am indeed too old to hold a guitar. I’m living out loud, and I mean loud. I haven’t had this much fun since I quit coaching ice hockey.

I also spend many hours each week practicing guitar, and I am trying to teach myself to sing. Our band will perform some day, coming to an arena, backyard or garage near you, but none of us want the Love Starved Dogs to be a shameless novelty act.

“Isn’t that cute — these old guys up there on stage, making fools of themselves.”

Instead, eventually, we want to be just good enough that when people hear our music they can almost forget who is playing it, can just enjoy the great old tunes, sing along, dance and, to steal a phrase from Billy Joel, “forget about life for a while.”

Of course, this could all end in abysmal, embarrassing failure. Then again, I’ve suffered abysmal, embarrassing failures before, and evidently they are not fatal. I’m still here.

Let me suggest a greater failure — ignoring a passion and stifling a joy because a guy my age should be dabbing at water colors, thinking he is too old to learn to rock.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Three Hours And Thirty-Two Minutes

I was the new kid in September 1970, attending public school for the first time after years of being taught by Catholic nuns. I walked toward the front door on that first day, passing clusters of unfamiliar junior high students gathered in the morning sun, waiting for the first bell. I imagined whispers about this scrawny, shy newcomer.

Joe Rood.
Joe Rood.

Then one of them stepped out to greet me. My town in Minnesota was a small place, so Joel Rood and I sort of knew each other from Little League, but only sort of. I never would have guessed that he would be the one to extend his hand, tell me he was glad I was there and invite me to join in with his friends.

And this wasn’t just anybody. Joel was the top student in our class, the star athlete. He was a big deal, on other words. If he had my back …The rest of that day, that year, was pretty much a breeze after that.

When recalling that day, I’m reminded of a story that Fred Rogers told me in 1995. The icon of children’s television had been a shy, chubby, musical teenager  — an easy target for bullies — until Jim Stumbaugh, another top student and star athlete, made it known that he thought this Rogers kid was OK.

“Little did I know that that would be the beginning of a lifelong friendship,” Fred said in a speech a year later. “There he was, probably the best-known, smartest, most active person in our class, and he welcomed me day after day.”

Fred called it a “liberating friendship,” one so pivotal to his later success in life “because I had someone who believed in me and wasn’t afraid to say so.”

… and Tim Madigan, in 1976.
… and Tim Madigan, in 1976.

Jim had died of cancer a few weeks before Fred and I met in 1995. Fred spoke at length of his grief.

“You hate to lose such a spirit,” he said.

Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say that Joel Rood had the same impact on my life. Then again, maybe it isn’t. And a few weeks ago, I, too, thought I was about lose a person so foundational to my life and being.

– – –

Like Jim and Fred, my friendship with Joel endured across decades, though our paths diverged sharply after college. He graduated from Princeton and a career in engineering and business took Joel, his wife, Leslye, and their two children around the world. I attended the University of North Dakota and began a career as a writer, eventually landing at a newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas.

Joel turned 60 late last year, a few weeks before me. He and his family had settled in North Carolina, where he was scheduled to have surgery March 27 to repair a faulty heart valve, a serious procedure but not inherently life-threatening.

At 10:25 that morning, Leslye told me in a text that the surgery had gone very well. Her next message came four hours later.

“Terrible news,” it said. “Internal bleeding won’t stop.”

Joel had been rushed back into surgery. Leslye began to cry when I called. She, son, Tim, and daughter, Anneke, had begun a desperate vigil, one that I joined from Texas.

I tried to work, but memories kept intruding. I remembered all the hours Joel and I spent as high school kids, driving country roads at night, talking about girls and sports and the larger world that might be waiting beyond rural Minnesota.

I remembered the baseball games, particularly the final loss on a muggy night in the summer of 1980. Joel and I lingered together in the dugout that night long after the rest of our teammates had dispersed because we knew that the game marked the end of a shared childhood. We would both graduate from college in a few months. There would be no more hometown summers.

Leslye, Joel, Tim and Anneke.
Leslye, Joel, Tim and Anneke.

But mostly I thought of the sunny morning nearly 50 years before, when Joel welcomed a scared new kid to the eighth grade. Strange as it seems to say now, I hadn’t thought of that day for decades. It began to seem less and less likely that I would have the chance to tell Joel how much his kindness and friendship meant.

Five o’clock passed.

Leslye’s text finally came at 5:37. That was three hours and thirty-two minutes after her first dire message.

“They have found the problem and they have fixed that,” it said. “He will be out of surgery soon.”

I was numb with relief, then deeply grateful, but for more than just the obvious. I was reminded again of how Fred Rogers began most speeches. No one becomes who they are alone, he would say, asking his audience to take a few seconds and think of those who “loved you into being.”

That’s what I did on those three hours and thirty-two minutes when Joel was fighting for his life. As harrowing as those minutes were, I am so incredibly glad for the reminder of Joel and what his act of kindness and inclusion had meant.

I talked to him on the phone a few days after his surgery and he sounded great. I started to tell him what I thought about during those terrible hours but struggled to get the words out.

“I know,” Joel said simply. “I know.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — The Right Time For Mister Rogers

Five years ago came the news that my memoir, “I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers,” was going to be a major motion picture. Two young screenwriters, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, had developed a beautiful script. The directors of the movie “Little Miss Sunshine” had signed on. There was significant buzz in Hollywood and in the Madigan household. Then, for reasons I can’t discuss, the project collapsed. Ugh!

Recently, the world learned that there will be a “Mister Rogers” movie after all, with Tom Hanks in the role of Fred. Noah and Micah have developed another script, this one based on Fred’s friendship with writer Tom Junod of Esquire magazine.

After the news broke, many of you have kindly expressed your disappointment that this movie will not be based on “I’m Proud of You.” And yes, I have recently have had occasion to wonder about what might been. But those thoughts have been fleeting, and my own disappointment has been just a tinge.

Here’s why:

I don’t spend a lot of time these days getting het up about things that I can’t control.

Noah and Micah are two beautiful guys who have devoted so much of their professional lives to telling a story that appropriately venerates our beloved secular saint. No one deserves success more than those two.

Tom Junod is also a very nice man and one of the country’s finest writers. His Esquire profile of Fred is iconic. If you haven’t already, take the time to read it at this link. http://www.esquire.com/…/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/

Fred Rogers and Tim Madigan.
Fred Rogers and Tim Madigan.

But most importantly, our world needs the example of Fred Rogers now more than ever. This thought occurred to me just today. Five years ago wasn’t the right time for Fred to make it to the big screen. Now is the time, a unique moment in human history when all of us need to become reacquainted with this embodiment of presence, kindness, compassion, civility, love and nonjudgement. We thirst today to be reminded of what is most true about the human spirit.

I do hope that in researching this most challenging role, Tom Hanks finds his way to IPOY. I think he will find it enlightening and useful. But whether he does or does not, I am encouraged, Hanks has been cast in the part. So far as I can tell, he is one of the few actors of our age with the heart and soul to play Fred Rogers.

Godspeed everyone.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — A Great Heart; A Great and Questioning Mind

One day recently, it occurred to me that I had not seen or spoken with my friend, Dick Lord, in more than a year. I found his number and planned to ring him up for a game of golf or another of our long breakfasts at Denny’s, but I heard the news before I could call. Dick had contracted the West Nile virus and was near death. On a hot July morning, hundreds filled University Christian Church in Fort Worth, Texas, to say goodbye.

Dick was 82, but his father was shooting his age in golf well into his 90s, and I assumed that my friend would be doing the same. His loss was a shock to so many, especially the utterly random way his fatal illness came about.

But something powerful keeps intruding on the sorrow I feel for Dick’s loss. That is gratitude. I had a chance to luxuriate in the grace of a great heart and a great and questioning mind, contained in one extraordinary human being.

Dick and Janice Lord.
Dick and Janice Lord.

Dick was founder and longtime pastor at Rush Creek Christian Church in Arlington, Texas, a congregation just down the street from the home where we lived for many years. It was a uniquely welcoming and progressive place. One example was the importance Dick and his wife, Janice, a nationally known victim’s rights advocate, placed on building relationships with Jewish and Muslim faith communities in Arlington.

When we joined the church in the early 1990s, Rush Creek became a sanctuary of love and support for my wife and I at a time when both of us needed it. From my book, “I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers,” some of you will recall the story of my young son’s singing performance at a Christmas pageant, which put me in touch with years of unshed tears. That was at Rush Creek. Dick was one of those who wept with me that night.

He was a shy man, very humble, but something came over Dick when he preached. Inspired is the only way I could describe it, taking the various strands of Scripture and Christian teaching and weaving them into a message that was always achingly relevant.

But he was more than my pastor. I used to kid Dick that it was very unseemly for a man of the cloth to cheat at golf. Not that he did. I’m sure it was just an accident, all those times he stepped on my ball in the fairway. He loved golf, and loved beating me at golf, without apology.

What I remember most now, however, are all those mornings when we sat across from each other at a booth at Denny’s. As I listened to the stories of his life at Dick’s memorial service, this dawned on me: It is a pretty good bet that we were the only two customers in Denny’s discussing the Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard.

But that’s what Dick and I talked about — what religion and the great thinkers had to say about good and evil, about suffering and redemption and the seeming randomness of it all. He was a person of profound faith, without doubt.

But Dick was never content with the pat answers of dogma. In book after book after book, in conversation after conversation after conversation, he insisted on exploring the mysteries of life, insisted on asking the great questions, knowing there wouldn’t be answers for most of them in this life.

A great heart. A great soul. A great mind.

The funeral was so Dick. The great hymns and blasting organ music, which he loved. A tinkle of a bell, followed by periods of silence. And readings from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Genesis and the Book of Kings, but also Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel; German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident, Detrick Bonhoeffer; the great Catholic writer, Richard Rohr.

That morning, as we said goodbye to Dick, a memory from one morning at Denny’s came back to me. I had stumbled across a quotation from Kierkegaard and shared it with him over eggs and coffee.

“There is no remembrance more blessed, and nothing more blessed to remember, than suffering overcome in solidarity with God,” Kierkegaard once wrote. “This is the mystery of suffering.”

That I should remember that on the day we said goodbye, after the great suffering of my friend, was Dick’s last gift to me.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — A Grieving Son Named Scott And An Unlikely Turning Point

By the mid-1980s, my friend and co-author, Patrick O’Malley, had started to suspect that the stages of grief were a harmful fallacy. But as a grieving father himself, and a therapist who worked with the bereaved, what would take their place?

An excerpt from our new book, “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss.”

The year was 1986. I had grave doubts about the stages of grief but had yet to turn my back on them completely. I had nothing else to fall back on, was groping around for a way to help my grieving clients, and was still trying to come to terms with my own lingering heartache. Scott was a turning point.

At the time, it was a rare guy courageous enough to consult a shrink, and Scott was a strapping, 35-year-old construction worker. He and his father had worked side by side in the family business for eighteen years; that partnership ended the day the older man suffered a fatal heart attack. Six months later, Scott came to see me at his wife’s urging.

When he sat down in my office, he looked like he would rather have a root canal. I’m sure he thought I would light incense and break into a chant.

“Dad would turn over in his grave,” he said. “My wife and pastor said I should come. It wasn’t my idea.” “Why do they think you need to be here?” I said. “My wife says I’m irritable and drinking too much,” he said. “They both say they’re worried about me.”

“Do they have reason to be?” I said.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “But I have been hitting the bottle a little too hard since Dad died. And I’m not very focused at work.”

“I get it,” I said. “But we won’t go forward if you don’t want to, unless you’re open to at least giving this a shot.”

“That’s fair enough, I guess,” he said.

Although I had serious doubts about the stages of grief, I thought there was a chance Scott might be able to relate to them, like a blueprint on a construction site. “People tend to go through stages when they’ve had a loss,” I said, listing them. “You might be dealing with some anger and depression. That’s pretty normal. We could try to figure out where you are with that.”

Scott didn’t bite.

“Sounds like mumbo jumbo,” he said.

“Come to think of it, maybe it is,” I said.

“So now what?”

“You said your dad would turn over in his grave,” I said. “Why is that?”

“He was one tough fella,” he said. “You should have known him.”

For the next 45 minutes, he spoke nonstop.

“He came from hard times. Nobody ever gave him anything,” Scott said. “But from the time he was a kid, he wanted to own a business — and sure enough, he built ours with his own sweat and blood.”

Scott’s dad was his Little League coach. He taught his son how to hunt and fish.

“In high school, I got caught stealing some beer,” Scott said. “My dad let me sit in jail that night. The next morning, he put me out with the guys unloading cement bags from a boxcar. For a month he made me sweep floors and clean the toilets at the office. He never said two words to me the whole time.

“Then one day he comes and says, ‘It’s about time you decide whether you’re going to be a man or a thug.’”

“So you chose,” I said.

“I chose,” he said. “The beer was never mentioned again.”

I was torn as I listened. I felt a little inadequate because I hadn’t persuaded him that the stages might be useful. I was still looking for clues about where Scott was with his grief. I was tempted to interrupt him, to guide him back to his “grief work.” It was my job, after all, to get him less impatient, less angry, and to curtail the alcohol. It occurred to me that Scott was trying to avoid his feelings by telling me his story, but he would not be deterred. I had no real choice but to sit back and let him talk. He was a natural storyteller and seemed to gather momentum as the minutes ticked by.

“I’m sorry,” I said finally. “We’re out of time.”

He seemed disappointed.

“We could finish the next time,” I said. “That is, if you want to come back.”

“I guess I could,” he said.

A week later Scott picked up where he left off. He remembered how after high school, he decided to go work for his dad.

“One day 10 years later, he called me into his office,” Scott said. “I wondered what I had done this time. Instead he said, ‘It’s about time you take your proper place here. From now on, you and I will be co-owners.’ He shook my hand and told me to get back to work. It was the proudest day of my life.”

Scott and his dad had their share of arguments but always resolved them.

“We were always competing,” Scott told me, a wistful smile on his face. “Shooting the deer with the biggest rack. Catching the biggest fish. Betting on football and basketball games. The loser had to buy the first beer the next time we were in the bar. But he never kept track. He always bought the first one.

“And I remember how he was always so patient with customers,” Scott said. “As tough as he was, he had really good people skills. The customer was always right, even though many times they were just plain wrong. He and I would argue about that. I wanted to charge more when people made unreasonable demands or changed their minds about a paint color. My dad reminded me that the next job might come from the last one. ‘A positive recommendation was more important than proving a customer wrong.’”

Then Scott paused, seeming to brace himself for what came next. The telephone call. The emergency room.

“He was gone by the time I got there,” Scott said. “He was laying there with these wires attached to him. His eyes were closed. But that wasn’t my dad. He was up with the sun every day and could outwork 10 men and now . . . nothing. I felt the room start to spin, but I had to snap out of it because my mother was holding onto my arm and she was a basket case. I had to keep it together for her. I’ve always had to keep it together.”

Finally, Scott couldn’t talk at all because of his weeping. I thought, “There are no theories or diagnoses needed here. Scott is doing exactly what he needs to do.”

Telling his story was his therapy.

While the official publication date is July 1, you can preorder on Amazon here and save more than five dollars on the paperback.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable —The Healing Power Of Music

Leonard Slatkin is one of the world’s most famous conductors, but for the last several weeks, he’s taken on a much different role in the music world, as jury chairman for the Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Leonard Slatkin
Leonard Slatkin

Part of his duties have been to announce which of the 30 pianists would advance from each round and which young musicians would not. Late on Monday afternoon, I sat down with the maestro at Bass Hall for a wide-ranging interview, parts of which will appear in the Star-Telegram on Saturday. But it’s the last thing we discussed that I wanted to share here.

In a few hours, Slatkin said, he would announce the Cliburn’s six finalists.

“I thought about what I was going to say tonight when we announce these awards,” he said. “I never know in advance what I’m going to say but I kind of frame it out. Again, I’m trying to talk to the contestants. It will probably be something about taking us all out of the crap that is going on in the world.

“It’s not a political thing,” he said. “What was it Saturday, when we finished here about this time? We went to the hotel. I thought I was going to go to dinner and turned on the TV and there’s London. Yesterday, same thing. I go back and it’s Portland, Oregon. And then it’s Orlando.

“This society of hate and violence. But what happens. You come here (to Bass Hall and the competition.) And whether you advance or not, the pianists have brought people to a place in the world where we’d all like to be. And that, to me, is the importance of music in today’s society. It’s why we all need to advocate more for the culture. Culture is going to be one of the things that is going to help ease the tensions in the world.

Leonard Slatkin, conducting in the 2013 Cliburn finals.
Leonard Slatkin, conducting in the 2013 Cliburn finals.

“Everybody does it in a different way. But with all the arts, everybody gravitates to something. Last year when I went to Istanbul, I heard the call to prayer, and it’s sung. It’s about music. And look at the event in Manchester yesterday. All those people came to get over their grief through what? Through music. So it has this ability to do that.

“This hall the last couple of weeks, it becomes a safe haven. It’s a place where we preserve what is great. We don’t destroy it. If any pianist can get that message through, they’ve accomplished even more than winning this.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — The Therapist Grieves

As I’ve written here before, I think my collaboration with therapist Patrick O’Malley on his new book is as important as any work I’ve done in a 40-year career. It is our belief and fervent hope that the book, “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss,” will bring comfort to untold numbers of bereaved people, those whose pain is too often compounded by unreasonable expectations of society and —  often unwitting —  insensitivity. Patrick learned of this through his own tragic experience.

Here is the introduction to “Getting Grief Right.” 

WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?

When Mary first sat down in my office, six months after losing her daughter to sudden infant death syndrome, she had already hired and fired two other therapists. The bereaved mother was clearly trying to get her grief right.

A successful businesswoman in her 30s, she was unaccustomed to the weight of sorrow; she was an “up” person who could cheerfully handle almost anything that came her way. Mary was proud of that persona and worked hard to maintain it, even in the face of such a wrenching tragedy. Within a few days of her daughter’s death, Mary was back at work, seeming to function largely as before. She was gracious when co-workers offered condolences but quickly insisted on turning conversations back to the task at hand. She said she was “doing fine.” Indeed, she seemed to have “moved on,” so convincing was the mask that she put on for the world each day.

The truth was another matter, as became increasingly undeniable to her and those around her. The effort to maintain the positive veneer sapped more and more of her energy. She started making uncharacteristic mistakes at work and found herself being short and overly critical with her employees.

“I really need to get back to my old self,” she told me the day in the late 1990s when we met. “You would think I would be at least a little closer to that by now. I’m totally exhausted. I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up. I hope you can help me.”

Mary was by then fully acquainted with the five stages of grief — that famous gospel of mourning based on psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1969 book, “On Death and Dying.” Like the typical grieving person (then and now), Mary expected that the pain of loss would proceed through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. The gospel also implied that an emotionally healthy person should grieve only so deeply and for only so long. For Mary, six months seemed like a reasonable amount of time.

But what if a person’s mourning doesn’t conform? When her sorrow lingered beyond the accepted norms, Mary felt that she had broken the rules somehow. That was why she and so many other clients had sought me out as a therapist — not only because of their heartbreak, but also because they felt they could not get their grief right.

In our first visit, Mary insisted that she was “stuck” in depression, which, in her mind, was keeping her from achieving acceptance and closure. Her questions were straight out of the Kübler-Ross theory: “Am I in denial? Am I angry enough?” A few years earlier, I would have wondered those things myself and reviewed the stages, as Mary clearly had, looking for the stage where her “grief work” remained incomplete. I also would have zeroed in on her suspected depression. Was there a family history? Had she been depressed before? Were the antidepressants helping? Did she suffer from a chronic mental illness, or was her depression temporary and situational?

But by the time we met, I had begun to approach grief in a much different way. I was a grieving person myself, and understood too well what Mary was going through. In the previous decade, I had traveled a dark road similar to hers: I had mourned the tragic loss of my own baby son. I had been a young therapist who had tried desperately to get my grief “right.” I had felt stuck in my mourning and had asked myself many of the same questions that Mary asked herself. I could relate to the confusion and the nagging sense of inadequacy when my suffering did not conform to the orthodoxy. I knew the exhaustion of pretending. I knew the loneliness and isolation when the support of others began to fade while my pain did not.

It was in the course of that excruciating journey, and thanks largely to the unique privilege of spending thousands of hours with bereaved clients like Mary, that I came upon a new understanding of grief and grievers and learned the life-changing lessons that are the heart of this book.

I began to understand why grief defied categorization, and I saw the fallacy of thinking that grief occurs in a predictable, linear way, one stage after another, until resolution is achieved. I was steadily drawn to another way of understanding and even embracing the experience of mourning — through the narrative of grief. It might sound simplistic, but I discovered that our stories were indeed the pathway to living with loss.

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them,” author Isak Dinesen once said. This book is an invitation for you to do just that. In the pages to come, I will help you both create and more deeply explore your story of grief. To help guide and inspire you, I will share my story and the stories I’ve heard from clients over the years. In fact, as you read, try imagining yourself in Mary’s place, sitting across from me in my office.

In that safe and nonjudgmental space, you will be free not only to tell the story of the one you lost but also to feel whatever previously stifled emotions might arise. You will unearth memories and feelings that you might not have come across otherwise. You will stop analyzing your grief and begin to honor your story of loss and to live it.

Indeed, I want to make clear at the outset that this book offers no promise that grief will end. I understand as well as anyone why we would wish that to be true. Mourning is painful. But it’s unreasonable to think that parents who have lost a child or a person who has lost a loved one to suicide or a spouse who has lost a partner of fifty years won’t grieve, to one extent or another, for the rest of their lives.

The writer Anne Lamott said it beautifully: “If you haven’t already, you will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and you never completely get over the loss of a deeply beloved person. But this is also good news. The person lives forever, in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through, and you learn to dance with the banged-up heart.”

This book and your own narrative of grief will help you learn to dance — that is, to move beyond the cruel but pervasive misconceptions into a larger truth. In the process of remembering, embracing, and sharing your own story, you will be liberated from the expectations of society and your own self-diagnosis and self-criticism about whether you are grieving correctly.

This book will not help you “get over” your grief, but it will help you experience your sorrow in its purest form. Your narrative of grief will help you more deeply understand your relationship to the one you lost and will, in turn, help you understand the pain you feel now. Your narrative of grief might actually allow you to deepen your connection to the deceased.

This courageous exercise of feeling and remembering will help you become a more authentic, wise, and compassionate human being who will be better able to support others who mourn. “Getting Grief Right” is written not only for those who grieve but also for those who seek to better support bereaved people in their lives but who do not yet have the knowledge to do so. To that end, I offer specific guidance that will allow you to go beyond the painful awkwardness and empty clichés and to be with a grieving person in ways that truly make a difference.

Few things could be more important than learning how to live with our sorrow and to support others who are bereaved. One thing is certain: Grief is inevitable and inescapable. If we love, we will also grieve.

Preorder Getting “Grief Right” from Amazon here, and save more than $6 on the paperback.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — A Sacred Night In An Amazing Place

Few things gave Fred Rogers more pleasure than making connections between people. Somewhere on the other side of the thin veil that separates this life from what comes after it, (Fred’s words) he is very happy at the connections I have made at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, Texas.

John McKellar
John McKellar

A few years ago, I heard that the memoir of my friendship with Fred had been mentioned from the pulpit at White’s Chapel, which was no small thing — the church is one of the largest in North Texas. I sent a note of thanks to Dr. John McKellar, the co-pastor, and asked if we could meet someday. John quickly agreed.

I was very curious about John, who in the 1990s had been sent by his denomination to White’s Chapel to essential shut down what was then a failing church. Instead, he turned it into one of our area’s most dynamic forces for good, a source of comfort and inspiration to its members in and around the affluent community of Southlake, and to suffering and impoverished people locally and around the world.

What sort of person could inspire such a transformation? A deeply humble one, it turns out. I sat down with John in his office one day last year for our first meeting, and within five minutes, it was like we had removed our skins and it was just two hearts talking. He was loath to accept any credit for White’s Chapel. Fred would have been in awe.

Todd Renner
Todd Renner

That day was the beginning of a deep friendship, which led to an evening at White’s Chapel a few weeks ago, when John had invited me to tell the story of my friendship with Fred. John couldn’t be there himself because of a recent surgery, but I luxuriated in the kindness and spirit of his co-pastor, Dr. Todd Renner, and longtime church worker Tracy Christensen, who attended to my every need.

Hundreds attended the traditional, Wednesday night, chicken dinner, then made their way into the beautiful sanctuary for my talk, which was live-streamed around the nation. (My mom in St. Paul liked that.) My wife, Catherine, was there, and from the altar, I could celebrate her healing after a very difficult year. Afterward, I was surprised to meet a close relative of Fred, who I look forward to speaking with again soon.

I have many memories from my travels with this story over the years, none more cherished than those from that recent night. I’m delighted to be able to share excerpts in the video below. Hope you enjoy.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — A Coming Comfort To Those Who Grieve

Is there anyone out there who is grieving? Or maybe the better question is this: Is there anyone out there who is not — to some degree, about some loss? That’s why I believe my latest book might be the most impactful of my career.

The title is “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss,” to be published July 1. It has been my great privilege to collaborate with my friend, longtime Fort Worth, Texas, therapist Patrick O’Malley. The book is his gift to the world, his story. I helped him tell it.

It is also fair to say that Fred Rogers and the beloved Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen, are spiritual godfathers of “Getting Grief Right.” They come up in the book frequently. Both urged us to embrace our pain, not be ashamed of it. “What is most personal is most universal,” Fred often used to say, quoting Henri. That personal pain is indeed what we have most in common.

But we can emerge from the shadows of our isolation. We need not suffer alone.  We can share our burdens with trusted others. “Getting Grief Right” is another beautiful and informative invitation to do just that.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Patrick O'Malley
Patrick O’Malley

Patrick was the office mate of my first therapist, truth be told. After we met some 30 years ago, he and I discovered a mutual admiration for Fred and Henri. Over long breakfasts and lunches, Patrick and I found a real kinship — could finish each other’s sentences about important things.

At lunch about a decade ago, Patrick first mentioned his idea for a book.

“That day, we wrote down on a napkin, ‘The Myth of Closure,’ as a possible title,” he remembered when we were speaking the other night.

A few years passed. He agreed to read a draft of my first novel and his insights helped me understand my characters much more deeply. He, in turn, asked me to look at an early outline of his grief book, which led to another lunch.

“I remember you said two things,” Patrick recalled. “One, you said this needed to be my story, not just the grief stories of others. And two, you said, ‘You can’t do this without me.’”

It was in his outline that I first learned that Patrick’s notions about grieving were not based on what he learned in graduate school but on his own tragic experience. In 1981, he and his wife lost their first child, an infant son named Ryan. Patrick was understandably devastated, but as a mental health professional, he had expected to mourn efficiently, to march through the stages of grief, achieve closure and move on with his life as before.

The reality of his experience was something altogether different. His grief endured, fit no theory.

“I had mourned the tragic loss of my own baby son,” Patrick would later write in the introduction to “Getting Grief Right.” “I had been a young therapist who had tried desperately to get my grief ‘right.’ I had felt stuck in my mourning and had asked myself many of the same questions that (Patrick’s grieving client) Mary asked herself. I could relate to the confusion and the nagging sense of inadequacy when my suffering did not conform to the orthodoxy. I knew the exhaustion of pretending. I knew the loneliness and isolation when the support of others began to fade while my pain did not.

“It was in the course of that excruciating journey, and thanks largely to the unique privilege of spending thousands of hours with bereaved clients like Mary, that I came upon a new understanding of grief and grievers and learned the life-changing lessons that are the heart of this book.

“I began to understand why grief defied categorization, and I saw the fallacy of thinking that grief occurs in a predictable, linear way, one stage after another, until resolution is achieved. I was steadily drawn to another way of understanding and even embracing the experience of mourning — through the narrative of grief. It might sound simplistic, but I discovered that our stories were indeed the pathway to living with loss. ‘All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them,’ author Isak Dinesen once said.

“This book is an invitation for you to do just that.”

– – – – – – – – – – –

Patrick and I developed a book proposal and submitted it to about 50 literary agents — with no takers. Traditional publishing is a tough business. Then, one day a few years ago, Patrick brought up a longshot idea. He would submit an essay on grieving to the New York Times, which had been publishing a weekly column on therapy. I helped him polish it, but given our slew of recent rejections, I secretly thought, “Good luck with that.”

He emailed it to the Times on a Wednesday. By Thursday he was told it would appear in Sunday’s paper, on January 10, 2015, beneath the headline, “Getting Grief Right.”

“I was in my second year of practice when (Ryan) died, and I subsequently had many grieving patients referred to me,” Patrick wrote in the Times. “The problem in those early days was that my grief training was not helping either my patients or me. When I was trained, in the late 1970s, the stages of grief were the standard by which a grieving person’s progress was assessed.

“That model is still deeply and rigidly embedded in our cultural consciousness and psychological language. It inspires much self-diagnosis and self-criticism among the aggrieved. This is compounded by the often subtle and well-meaning judgment of the surrounding community. A person is to grieve for only so long and with so much intensity.

“To be sure, some people who come to see me exhibit serious, diagnosable symptoms that require treatment. Many, however, seek help only because they and the people around them believe that time is up on their grief. The truth is that grief is as unique as a fingerprint, conforms to no timetable or societal expectation.”

The essay inspired a remarkable outpouring among its readers. Patrick’s editor said, “I’ve never seen so many (reader) comments that began with the words, ‘Thank you.'”

Needless to say, we had a wonderful agent, Linda Konnor of New York, within a week. Linda found us the perfect publishing home, Sounds True books in Colorado.

I will share much more to come on “Getting Grief Right” in future blogs. For now, let me say that I can’t wait for this book to be out in the world. It will bring comfort to so many, not just those who grieve the loss of a loved one but those who carry burdens of any sort. As I asked at the beginning, is there anyone who isn’t grieving, at some level?

Preorder “Getting Grief Right” from Amazon here, and save more than $6 on the paperback.