Tom Pisello 0:10
I’m here with a very special guest, Terrell Whitener, and Terrell, he’s an accomplished author. He’s a motivational speaker. He’s a coach. He’s based in St. Louis, Missouri. And most importantly, he’s the author of a really important book that I recommend. And we’ve listed in our tools section on the site, the first 365 learning to live after loss. We’re here to talk about the book, I talk about the challenges that many widowers face in their first year, the first 365 days after their loss, and how to potentially avoid pitfalls and overcome obstacles that that first year presents and thereafter. Welcome, Terrell.
Terrell Whitener 1:28
I’m so glad to be here. Thank you for the invitation. I appreciate it a lot. It’s always fun to talk about the book and then to share, when I have the opportunity.
Absolutely. So I want to go back to the beginning of your relationship with your late wife Robyn, how you all met. So how did you meet Robyn?
You know what, how I met Robyn was an amazing story. I had the privilege of growing up in the household with my great grandmother who lived to be 102.
I met Robyn because she was my great grandmother’s social worker, because one day about two weeks before reaching her 100th birthday. She dropped a spoon in the kitchen at home and bent over to pick it up and broke her hip. She ended up in the hospital. I mean, your talking about a lady who used to read the newspaper from first page to last page, would never miss the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game on the radio and was fully sufficient living on the second floor of our house.
And then all of a sudden this happens. So Robyn was her social worker. Now my father was alive at that time. And you know, was kind of the person that took care of my great grandmother and they made all decisions together. But when it came to during the time that she was in the hospital, one of the things that was determined was that she would have to go to a rehab facility before she came home. My father communicated that to the family.
We were all on board with doing what needed to be done. But for some reason, he decided that when they were doing the planning meeting that I needed to be present. So me having been divorced for about a year at that time. I’m like, Why do I need to be there? So, I said, you have our full support. We understand it. You know, if you need me to convince my great grandmother because we did have a great relationship. I can do that. But I don’t have to come to the hospital to do that Pop, you got it? No, He insisted. He insisted.
I started not to even go. But then I thought at the last minute, you know what, maybe he needs my support. So I go to the hospital, I walk in the office, and I knew what he was up to right away. On the other side of the room is this lady with this wonderful smile, and I said, “I’m glad to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you”.
And then it was confirmed what he was up to. You have to understand, Tom, my father was not that kind of guy. He was the most discerning of people I ever knew. I’d never knew him to play matchmaker at all. What in the world was he up to then? So needless to say the first thing he said is “This is my son Terrell. And from this point forward, he will be the primary contact as it relates to my grandmother”. And the rest is history they would say
There was no denying that you were going to be with her and kind of in Robyns faceall that time. Right?
Well, yeah. And then the irony is that there’s my father who didn’t live long enough to see us get married. But he knew he was the antagonist… it’s his fault and I’m gonna talk to him about that when I get through the pearly gates as well.
Absolutely love that … total destiny there and maybe with the guiding hand of your Dad, I totally love that. And then you and Robyn built your lives together. Talk a little bit about that.
Yeah. You know, I always describe Robyn as the comet dashing across the sky of my life. Robyn came into my life at a very pivotal point. And we were a team. Like all marriages, we had our times. Robyn wasn’t exactly a picnic all the time. And she would probably tell you, I wasn’t either, but what we did was we formed a bond of love over that 16 and a half years, and I had the privilege of being her husband. I’d never met a person in my life that believed in me more than Robyn, and that at a time when I really wanted and needed somebody to believe in me.
So I was coming out of a divorce with my first wife and because I had a divorce pretty early on. you feel like a failure coming out of that.
And the other thing about me is when I look back and being 100% transparent, I wasn’t the greatest husband in my first marriage. And for me, too, one of the things Tom that I look back on with Robyn and one of many reasons why I’m so grateful. Robyn was evidence that God had forgiven me for the man that I was before. And boy, did he forgive me in a big way? She was everything that I would need at that point. And I would nowhere near be the man that I became, without Robyn in my life.
But then she got ill, And you wound up losing her. Talk about that a little bit?
Well, you know, Robyn was, was the comet that streaked across the sky. She had a highly responsible job. She was the Director of Social Services at Missouri’s Veterans Home. So she was big into veterans and a very patriotic woman, and she believed in taking care of those guys, because she believed that they deserve the best and the dignity and she rode the emotional roller coaster with her residents.
She was a battler and a fighter and an advocate and an amazing social worker. And many times when you keep giving and giving and giving sometimes something gets lost in translation. So she didn’t always take the best care of herself. But our purpose, I have come to understand in this life, was to serve. So one time during a trip to one of her relatives. She had three strokes over four days. And, she was not always compliant related to her blood pressure medication and that type of thing.
But the interesting thing on a scale of one and 10 Robyns personality used to be an 11 and a half, you had to tell her every once in a while, will you please come down from that ceiling, you’re embarrassing us.
And after her stroke, I will never forget, we were out at a social gathering not too long, after she was well enough to start to get out. And she even returned to work, believe it or not, after that, and tried to maintain her position, so you know that she was a fighter. One of her friends pulled me to the side and said, So how is she really? You know, he leans forward and kind of lowers his voice a little bit. And I said, I’ll tell you what, you remember how Robyn used to be hat 11 and a half on a scale of 10? Yeah, I said, it’s like they pulled some curtains down. And she’s like a five and a half now. She was just a little bit quieter and more introverted.
I learned how to crack the code, because the only lasting effect that you could really see with Robyn was that her mind worked faster than her speech. So I learned how to crack the code. She was always two words behind where her mind was at, so I did a lot of translation in those last, what ended up being almost nine years of her life.
In the last two and a half years she wasn’t able to work anymore. And I used to tell her that she had two jobs. The first one was to get well, and the second one was to show up. And, you know, she did. She always did show up and she fought the good fight. Robyn did not give up, Robyn gave out. And I honor and love her so much for the fight that she fought.
And then you found yourself alone for the first time after 16 years of marriage.
Yes, 22 and a half years together, 16 and a half years married. We were both climbing our career ladders at that time. And, you know, we didn’t have time to get married, we had other things to do. You know, so she was in my life for 22 and a half years. And to have a partner and an advocate, and a friend and so many things that she did for me for 22 and a half years, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was. I truly didn’t know what I lost until Robyn wasn’t around anymore.
Yeah, I was the same way, I definitely took a lot of my Judy for granted. So you lived the first 365 and began penning about your experiences to help others. What are some of the first things that you went through that are important for others to consider and to think about?
Well, the the First 365 book was born out of the recommendation of my grief counselor. I knew when I lost Robyn that I couldn’t get to where I wanted to alone. Friends can try to understand, family just wants you to get better. But you gotta have that honest broker, that person that you can say whatever you want to say and do whatever you want to do. And that, they can just be there to help keep you painting inside the lines.
So I reached out very early, because I knew I couldn’t do it alone. So during the two years, and maybe a little bit more, I worked with my grief counselor. Over those years, she ended up saying, “I’ve never worked with anybody like you before, you need to write a book about this”. And so, I looked at the books and information that was out there, and you know, men I believe grieve differently. And the one thing that I was determined not to do was that I was not going to fumble this and mess up the wonderful life and a wonderful person that Robyn helped me to become.
I believe that what we don’t talk out, we act out. And sometimes we create a lot of collateral damage within our misbehavior. I didn’t want to be that person. So sharing those sessions, I believe my grief counselor, saved my life. Because you can reach a point of decision where there’s whether you have to go on and that so many of our statistics show. I believe that if you break a man’s spirit, you can kill him. And I just didn’t want that to happen.
I miss my wife every day, but let somebody else carry all those packages. For a while I didn’t share the load but I knew I didn’t need to join her right away. And that was one of my motivations was to be able to take that male experience and share it in book form. And it was really a tribute to Robyn, but it’s not an autobiographical book. I mean, it really is about the walk from pain to livability.
So the counselor, very important. I know that there are widowers that are friends of mine, and they don’t have that yet. I mean, that sounds like it was absolutely essential. And I know for me, it was essential as well.
I only met with that person for maybe that first year, and then kind of fell out of it. It was a woman as well. I switched over to a male therapist, and I didn’t like it nearly as much and I don’t know if you had any similar experiences, but I was much more comfortable talking about this with a woman therapist, however she was not necessarily a grief counselor. But I think that it’s important to know someone who really understands grief. And we worked on not just the grief of the immediate loss, but other losses and other hurts that went way, way back that were now coming on full force and full light under the weight of the grief of the main loss in my life.
You know, losing Robyn was different than any other loss I’d ever experienced, it seemed a lot more personal. Because honestly, you know, as her primary caretaker in the last two years, that was a battle that we were in, I used to always tell Robyn, because there would be times that she would apologize for being sick. And for me, that was ridiculous. Because I told her at one point when she was in rehab, I just told her, I said, “Sweetheart, from the very beginning of time, God had decided that we would need each other for a time, and it wasn’t a trips, it wasn’t the house, it wasn’t all the good times, it was this time. He put me in your life and you in my life for this time. You know, you just didn’t get sick, we got sick. You don’t have to do this by yourself. And I’m not going to allow you to do this by yourself, I am with you in this, just like I was with you when we were on the top of the mountain”.
A lot of guys, when they go through that battle, mine was really long, it was 10 years. And the last three, certainly the last two were very bad. Your ego takes a hit. Your identity gets lost. But I think you might have transcended this. So I want you to comment on it.
Many of us feel like a big loser, because we lost that battle. We couldn’t do the one thing that we always wanted to do, which was protect our wives through sickness and heal them. And, I think any of us would have said “I readily replace my life for your life”, especially those of us who have kids who we believe would rather have the wife going on managing the kids than us. Talk about the lost battle and the loss of identity.
You know, I had a bit of a different experience. Because one of the things that I did was that I had 1,000% confidence in the team we built around Robyn to provide her care. We are very fortunate in St. Louis to have some pretty special hospitals, and some pretty special institutions in place. And we have some very talented people, because we are in the middle of two of the country’s great teaching hospitals. So a lot of talent is centered here as they are learning and some of them stay to be professors and things of that sort.
So the team that we had, I had 1,000% confidence in because it was a different team as the years went on than what it started out with. So for me, I knew I had surrounded her with the best. I knew that we fought the good fight. We brought out the heavy artillery and we fought.
I feel that the thing that I’ve learned was when my faith put me in a position because it said that once you’ve done everything you can, I had to accept the Masters decision. I fell in the place of saying that I emptied the tank, and it was his decision. Just like the gift that he gave me at that special time when I needed her. I just always looked at it when he reclaimed this prize. Boy, was it a loss? Yeah, it will. It’s the greatest battle that I’ve ever fought. It is the greatest loss that I ever encountered. There won’t be another one like that. I mean, there have been people that I’ve lost since, right? You know, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t matter. It just means how it hit me is different. So I feel I didn’t like his decision. But I learned to accept his decision and understand his decision. Because in closing on this particular part, the last thing I would have ever wanted to do is to watch Robyn suffer. I loved her enough to let her go. And that is what I had to do.
Absolutely love that. And your faith obviously has been really important through this whole process. I know that a lot of widowers start to question their faith. They can lose trust, like, “I trust you, Lord, but I don’t like this decision”. Like you said it or, or others that are flat out, they’re angry. And yeah, a lot of their anger, they project it upward, unfortunately. Talk about that a little bit Terrell,
I can understand and empathize with people, because one of the things about it is in our fundamental beliefs about our faith, we know that we all have an individual walk. So that walk is different for everybody. God is a God.
I always tell people this. And I hope people don’t think it’s sacrilegious about what I’m trying to say. But, I just put it out there. Everybody loves the Lamb of God. But nobody wants to live with the Lion of Judah. Just like he is wonderful and gifts us with wonderful things and wonderful lives. And he takes us through the hard times. And he allows us to cry, but he always will take away the tears and allow us to continue to go every day, every once in a while.
So the answer was no, I’m not going to allow you to grow old with Robyn, because there was never any of your business. When I gave her to you for day one. It wasn’t your business when I was going to end it. Because she didn’t belong to you. She always belonged to me.
And that is the arrangement, in all the majesty. He is not going to ask my permission. Never has and never will. But I do understand those individuals who get angry because their walk isn’t where mine is. If he loved me, why would he hurt me? You know, I would have rather it have been you?
He does what He will. He makes us grow more mature. Sometimes both through our triumphs and through our trials. So I understand them being in that place. I understand their anger. But I never have a tendency to take on battles that I know I’m not gonna win. Why get angry? You’re gonna walk through the house and Robyns gonna be sitting there when I get home today? Yeah. So if I’m going to do this thing called life, if I’m gonna make the best that I can on what I have left, if I truly believe as I believe that I will be with her again someday, then don’t be angry
That is a waste of time. Go through the process and be angry, but understand that it needs to be a season. Don’t park there. You know that at some point, you’ve got to get some joy out of what’s left. If she was everything, and there was nothing else left for me to experience in a good way. Maybe I would have been one of those angry people. But I chose instead of blaming God, for taking her, instead I took the path to choose to honor her within days I have left
I understand his reverence and sovereignty. You know, we hear all those words and we hear those sermons. We call ourselves people of faith. But you gotta take the whole book it’s not like a fine steakhouse is an ala carte is the whole. And I know that through those valleys and through the pain is how we build and how we grow.
At the gym, the building occurs in the rest, but it’s that pain that gets inflicted through the work that gets you ultimately to being more fit. And I think it’s the same with God. I know that I’ve had many, many triumphs in my life and I’ve been totally blessed. But I don’t learn a lot from those moments. And he really sometimes beats me, because I can be thick headed Italian with lessons, because I need to learn them.
What was the big lesson, what God saw that he was like, “You know, Terrell, I’m taking Robyn home. And here’s what I want you to do”. Did you get the new purpose message
I didn’t fall into regrets. But I did fall into a shuffling of the priorities. I always thought we had more time. You know that one of the things that kept her going, she said, “Terrell, when I get better, I’m going to show you Paris”, because she traveled a lot more extensively during her lifetime than I did. And she said, “You know, I gotta show you Paris”. And if that kept her going, there were two things she wanted to do. She wanted to drive again. And she wanted to take me to Paris.
Now to drive and she was never that good at that to begin with. I wasn’t gonna let her do that no matter what, but it would have been everything in the world to me, to be able to go to Paris with her. I haven’t. In the seven and a half years since Robyn has been gone. I haven’t had the nerve to go to Paris. Because there’s just something about being there without her. That just doesn’t seem like something I have the courage to do yet. It might be too much. Or it might not be enough. Because she’s not there.
My wife and I wanted to go to Barcelona but we never did. And the beautiful thing is, my daughter is there now and she’s studying there for the entire year. I can’t wait to go and visit her.
And I feel like that wasn’t just an odd circumstance., I think it was destiny that she ultimately got to go there to study abroad. I don’t think that was chance. And I can’t wait to go. She’s already enjoying it so much. And I cannot wait to go and experience it with her in place of my Judy.
Talk a little bit about some of the other issues, like for example, chronic sleep issues is something that I know that a lot of widowers face in the beginning. Talk about that. Did you experience that?
My bed remains a lot bigger than it used to be. But I didn’t have that torturous tossing and turning. Because really, honestly, it was because of the fact that I emptied the chamber.
I didn’t have that that torturous stuff. I always complain to people now that you know what, I’m really kind of mad at her because, for the seven and a half years, she’s been gone. She hadn’t talked to me one time. In the seven and a half years, Robyn’s been gone. I’ve only dreamed about her three times.
Me too. I don’t dream about Judy the way I thought I would.
The first time I dreamed about Robyn, and the second time as well, I kept asking her if she was okay. And I realized that wasn’t about me being worried about her being okay, that was about me worrying about me being okay.
And the third time, we just took off walking, just talking and laughing like we always did. And supposedly I guess we were walking to the car. And she said “Where’s the car”, and I’m going like “Well, we must have passed the car. Where’s the car?”, and so we turned to find the car and then she was gone. And it didn’t make me sad. It just made me grateful.
I didn’t have those toss and turn moments. Those terror moments. I also have long used a method called my own personal debrief. I sit in the chair in the room that used to be Robyn’s chair, and I let the cares of the world go so that I can go to sleep in peace. And I think it helps me to sleep.
The thing that I learned after Robyn was gone is that I had sleep apnea. So she was gonna let me die in my sleep and never even told me that I snore that bad and stop breathing in my sleep. And see, that’s another issue I’m gonna have with her.
So you know, I learned how to sleep better because I now have my CPAP machine, it helps me sleep better after all those years. She let me stop breathing and all that kind of stuff and didn’t say anything, just trying to get the insurance money. What’s she up to now, you didn’t get the job done?
Too funny. I know that Judy had a lot of insurance on me too. So I think she was definitely thinking about me going first, but it didn’t didn’t work out that way.
Well, you know what, I believe we had a good financial plan. I tell you that helped so much. I just think we tried to make sure that whatever the decision was, that we wouldn’t have to change our lifestyle that much. And the truth of the matter is that my lifestyle has changed. I have to be a good steward over the resources I have. But because she raised me so well, I’m still very resourceful now, and I, I’m okay. You know, I never will be as Okay, I won’t say never, never. It’s a long time. But it’s different.
Terrell, have you met anyone else special? Talk about relationships after Robyn and give a little insight that others might want to consider?
The first thing I would tell you is “Don’t go too fast”. I went into a relationship with a really nice young lady. Way too soon. And if I would have given it more time, it might have had a different result. She could have been the right woman, but I just got involved at the wrong time.
It was my misstep, not hers. You know, and I believe very much Thomas that I own what’s mine to own. And I own that. So that was not too long, maybe like nine months after Robyn was gone. Way too early, way too early.
And so for the next five years. I did my time alone.. I was lonely every day. But I healed and I got used to being by myself and I created my own space and my own pace and my own life. I focused on some other things, like travel and those types of things. And then, not out of nowhere, but God delivered to me another unexpected gift. I am now soon to be engaged. I will be moving. Hopefully, there’s just a couple of more things to negotiate professionally. And I will more than likely be moving to Las Vegas where she’s located.
And she is 22 years younger than I am. So everybody in my family thinks I’m nuts, but that’s okay. You know, I mean, you would have thought that I told him that I had stage five cancer you know, but it’s okay. Because people love you, and they worry about you, but in reality family can be very selfish. And one of the things that I’ve learned from being a widower is that “time”. I look at time completely differently than anybody else. They could want the best life for me, but I have to create the best life for me. And my soon to be fiance and wife makes me happy. Everybody else needs to line up behind. And that now, I’m probably being a lot more selfish than I used to. But I’m not going to apologize for that.
And we do deserve to be happy. And I think that that’s something that a lot of widowers sometimes don’t give themselves Grace about. They’re like, No, I need to keep suffering. I need to keep suffering because my wife’s not here, and she didn’t get to live, so I’m not gonna live. And I’m like, No, God didn’t put you here for that God put you here to live, and to create a new life.
Yeah. Well, you know, again, it’s about respect in his choices and in his decisions. You know, I tell men all the time, and I challenge men all the time,”You get no points for suffering in silence”. If you hurt, you deserve to say it. If you hurt, you deserve to be honest and say that I’m hurting and I need help.
You know, if you want to do penance, then you are choosing your life. You’re suffering, and self imposed suffering is not going to make the Master come and get you a date earlier than he plans to. He will let you keep suffering and sit there because it’s your choice.
I tell people all the time that one of the greatest gifts that God ever gave us was free will. One of the worst gifts God ever gave us was free will. So what do you do with that free will? You know, I mean, they’ve got to understand that, and I believe that the first big question and I’m gonna get asked at the gates when I’m trying to sneak in the slide doors, you know, in heaven? What did we do with the gift that I gave you? And how did you love and serve your fellow man? If my answer is I died the day Robyn died? That’s not a good answer.
I agree. And we are given these gifts, and we are here to serve. And the more that you can recognize that, that you still have gifts and going on you can leverage those for a greater good outside of yourself, and that you don’t deserve to die suffering, that there can be happiness for you that God didn’t intend for this to be a continuous suffering for you, that’s important.
It’s such a missed opportunity. When you have someone that you love as deeply as I loved Robyn, when I watched her have the courage to go through what she did, what kind of person would I be to not go on.
Death is a little less scary to me now. Because if she could do it, I should be able to do it. And so it just isn’t, I don’t think it’s a productive way to spend what I have left, making myself miserable. It’s the reason why I love the fact that I wrote the book, that book will outlive me.
There aren’t that many books, you know, I went on a search and like you said, you don’t want to suffer alone. So one of the ways is you do research. You listen to podcasts. There’s definitely some stuff out there. But there’s not a lot. There’s more books on how to DATE widowers Terrell, than there are to help support widowers. It blew me away.
You know, my book is not a long book, It’s not war and peace. It doesn’t need to be. It’s just a book of tools, not a how to book and it talks about the seasons of grief. And the other part of the book talks about what I call the 10 tenets of grief, which is almost like my 10 rules. That was the structure that I put within my life to help me heal. My publicist keeps threatening to stop working with me if I don’t bring out a workbook to support the First 365 and allow people to go through it and build their own tenants and their own rules. So I guess I’d better do that at some point. Not for the publicist, but for those listeners who I know want to heal and want to grow, and
Terrell, this is definitely your mission. So what’s the one piece of advice you’d like to leave our widowers, our growth warriors with today?
Be patient with yourself. Be loving to yourself. Healing, and your purpose and the quality of your life. Because we have no control over the quantity that we have left. But the quality of your life is built on the foundation of being loving to yourself and having grace with yourself.
Ask for help, if you need it. Pray if you must, because I believe that you should. I don’t tell you who to pray to and what to pray to. But find something that you believe in. If you look in the mirror, and that person on the other side of the mirror is the person that inspires you to move forward, do that.
There’s no right and there’s no wrong way to do it. Don’t look at me, don’t look at Thomas, don’t look at anybody else. And say because I’m not like them, I’m not doing well. You woke up and you are doing well, so just make today a little bit better than yesterday.
Find that place if you need to put pictures in the house of the good times with your spouse, let that be joy in every room. You know, if you need to move, move, but whatever it is, don’t quit.
And notice he did not leave you here to punish you. The other thing is, everybody did not have a good relationship with their spouse. Everybody doesn’t have good relationships with the family that is behind. Some of them can’t stand you. It does not matter. The only person that lost their spouse on that day was you.
Own what’s yours to own.
And the last thing I say is consider becoming the curator of the memories called the love that you had for your spouse. Don’t let anybody else be the curator of the museum of your love.
Terrell, thank you so much. I know that there were very specific questions that I’ve gotten for some widowers that you were able to answer today, I’m going to share this with them. And the book, the First 365 is available on Amazon, we’ve got the link in our tools section already. So please order that. And thank you Terrell for participating.
Reach out. Reach out to me as we’re living in a little bit more open world, and I look forward to hopefully conferences or whether it’s online or whether it’s in person. You know, we have work to do, Thomas, we got a lot of people out there. You know, if you get in a room with me and people like me, you won’t come out the same. We deliver hope.
Yes. 3.6 million in US alone need our help.
Yes. there are millions, so I’ll spend the next chapter of my life trying to connect with men and I don’t care where I have to travel. Wherever there is pain, there’s a need for me to be there.
All right, Terrell, I will take you up on that because I am going to get a retreat together before too long. And it’s definitely part of my mission plan what I think I’ve been put here to do, and you’re going to be front and center of other hey,
Let’s do it. Let’s do it. Let’s start a movement because we know it’s necessary. Thank you for the privilege. I hope it’s been of some help for you and I look forward to seeing it.