Today we have a very special guest and one of my widower brothers, Joey Pazzelli.
Joey lost his wife and mother to two college age. beautiful daughters Sophia and Olivia and that was just a short eight months ago from when we’re recording this so the fall of 2021. This was after a two-year battle with colon cancer.
Joey and Giang knew each other for a long time, over thirty years. As you can imagine, saying goodbye. helping his daughters deal with grief. and figuring out what’s next, definitely has been a struggle for Joey and we’re going to go through that whole story with Joey today: what
He’s been challenged with, and what he’s been learning from his faith and grief journey.
We’re here to explore the story of Joey and Giang, so first I love getting to the origin story. For me, my wife Judy and I had met on a blind date, and without that, we wouldn’t have created the beautiful family that we had. Joey, what’s your story on how you and Giang met?
Joey: We met relatively similar to what you just said actually. As a matter of fact little did I know, we grew up in pretty the same side of town, but she was actually three and a half years younger In school, somehow we never crossed paths.
I was introduced about ten years out of high school, attending my ten year high school reunion one summer, and at the time I would travel from south Florida, which was part of my sales territory back then. I was only on the weekends back here in Orlando, and then on the road most of the time during the week
But coming back from my high school reunion, I rekindled a friendship with a good old buddy from high school and we just hit it off.
At the time he was dating this beautiful young woman, her name is Christina, and Christina and I shared a little bit about where we were in life and relationships, and she said “how often are you back here in Orlando”. I said, “Well as a matter of fact it’s kind of every weekend thing you know, gone for the week and back on the weekend. She said, well we have this girl friend of mine that I think we’d like to introduce you and I think you two might hit it off. I said, “well I don’t know about this blind date kind of thing”. I’ve never been much for blind dates in and in fact I had never had a blind date before in my life so with some coercion …
She happened to have a picture, so in full disclosure it was not a true blind date… but for only just a moment she flashed a picture of Giang, and she is absolutely beautiful, and I said yes, for sure I’ll meet.
So on we went, and she said well let’s plan for the following weekend when you come back. Next Saturday we would gather together and meet at my friend’s house, and they would make the formal introduction and we would go through the process of kind of doing this blind date as a double, so I said “Okay I’m up for that”.
So fast forward, I go through the work week and I get back in town the next Friday, the day prior to the time we’re supposed to go on the blind date, and I go out with some friends downtown.
If you’re from Orlando, there’s a famous bar area downtown in Church Street Station, with the famous back in the day Phineus Fogg’s club. So i go to Phineus Fogg’s with friends, casually looking around, go over and down on the dance floor, and I look up and across the bar and, you know how when you see somebody and you think you recognized them but you can’t remember where you’ve met them or how you’ve recognized them?
I’m thinking and racking my brain, I’m going on for probably a good hour or two and finally you know you can tell when you’re gathering somebody’s eye and vice versa. You’re kind of taking notice of each other, so this kind of thing was going on for a period of time and finally as I look over her way, it dawned on me… I’m like, this is the girl I’m supposed to go on a date with tomorrow night!
I’m generally a shy guy, and I’m not the kind of guy to go over and have smooth lines to “pick up the ladies”. The only thing I could think of was to walk over to her and introduce myself, and I said “You don’t know me, but we’re supposed to go on a date.”
And she, thinking it’s a line. I go, “No, no seriously. You know my friend Robert” and she said Yes, and Ii said “Well he and his girlfriend have arranged our date for tomorrow night”, Then it all kind of came together and started to make sense for her.
Tom: Well Joey, you’re lucky that that was the girl, because it would have been a big mess otherwise with that line.
Joey: Absolutely, so we began to become acquainted. We spoke for a good period of time, got to know each other, and she’s obviously very attractive, but well beyond that, we had some things we found in common almost instantly. I said. “this is really going to work out well”, as we were wrapping up the evening, and thinking of tomorrow’s blind date night with my friends I said. “Let’s do this. When we meet tomorrow night, we have to act like we’ve never met before. And what if we act like that proverbial disastrous blind date kind of situation. Playing it off like a disaster of a date”. So we agreed to do just that.
I arrived at my friend’s house the next evening prior to her arriving, and he’s talking so positively about her: “You’re going to like her. She’s so sweet. She’s so genuine.”. He goes on about her and really builds her up, which he should because she’s such a superbly great person and so I’m playing along.
And the doorbell rings. And he walks us to the bell and I go there formally to shake her hand and meet her kind of thing. All good, and so we go on about our evening and we go from there to dinner, and we’re not really talking much and then we go from there two to another club / restaurant and we kind of separate away from our friends and we’re chatting a little bit but not much.
And I said, “So we’ve really got to play them off now. We’ve got to put this in play and let them know we’re thinking as though this is a disaster what they’ve set up here”.
So I kind of walked over to my buddy and I said “Hey can we go home now”? And he’s stunned, as I tell him how it’s just not working, and a disaster. He’s so apologetic, as he thought we’d really hit it off.
So we walk out of the the club, and as we get outside we’re walking ahead of them. We stop, turn around and say we’ve got a surprise for them. We tell them about how we met the night before, and hit it off. Thanks for arranging the supposed blind date, as we’ve got it from here!
I’ve always said that was my first, one and only blind date, the last I’ve ever had. We were so blessed by how God put us in each other’s path
Tom: Man, that was so serendipitous that you guys ran into each other ahead of time and then played that out with your friends. I love that story.
You dated and then went on to marry. How long after you met?
Joey: Well you would have to know Giang’s family background. Giang is the daughter of a three star general from South Vietnam, and her mother was even more strict if you can imagine that.
They are traditional Asian, so you don’t just walk in the door and become part of the family… come in and say I want to date and I want to marry your daughter… not in her family.
So it took a lot of time if you will, probably more time than I would have wanted.
I’m not a big dater, as i said, but I had some serious relationships before I met Giang, but it was almost instantaneous when I met her, I knew that she was a different kind of person.
Tom: And then you went on to have Sophia and Olivia, and build an incredible life together
Joey: Just an amazing experience, as we look through our lives and the time that we had before we started children was time for us and then an amazing time after.
The hardest thing I had to do was write her eulogy and I started by writing out in outline form what I called the Book of Giang. In the book, we are now at the DINKS, dual income no kids period, which was a fantastic one. But we both valued family, and we both knew, myself being Italian and her being Asian, both from large families, that family was important to us. We wanted to have a family but at the same time we were enjoying this really good part of our lives, where we were able to travel before we had children, so we waited a few years.
And then we got to a point where we wanted to have children. We had a little bit of difficulty and it took us a few years to become pregnant, and then God blessed us with two children. The first one took a little while to have and the second one came almost instantly, and we they called them the Irish twins because they were only seventeen months apart.
So we figured something out by the second one.
Tom: That’s an amazing blessing, and having been able to meet your daughters Joey, they’re just incredible young women, and I know they’re going to go on to do just great things.
Now, this is a fairy tale, but not every fairy tale ends the way that we like it. Unfortunately, mine ended that same, not good way.
Tell me how you found out that Giang was sick, and the struggle you guys went through.
Joey: There’s some things that when you get a diagnosis of cancer, and even before you get to that point, you always have the suspicion of the word in the back of your mind. And unfortunately it’s all around us in today’s world, it’s in our systems, and unfortunately as we get to this age, in our mid fifties, it becomes more prevalent that we’re seeing this happening with friends all around us. So to look back, to have hindsight, this makes it difficult at times, but we did have some signs… we had some indications, and you hope for the best, and sometimes you put it off a little bit…
I’ve reflected back on that, because we had a great life together. We traveled a tremendous amount, multiple times per year, and I don’t know in God’s plan, had we known a little bit earlier whether it would have changed the course of her fate, but i’ve tried to reflect back on that and look for some silver lining because if we had known maybe a little bit earlier it would have affected the way we lived our lives in that last year that led up to our battle, and I don’t know that it would have changed the outcome.
I would have hoped it may have, but I have to look at it as a glass half full, that the silver lining was that we had another year of just a tremendous life together with our children, with travel and experiences that we may not have had once you were in the battle.
I’ll never forget the day that we got the diagnosis, or if you will, the indication that it could be the “C” word. I worked from home generally and she was mostly an at-home Mom, and I thought this would go in phases, where she was just going to simply have a general physical exam and that would lead to tests that would then follow and then it would be some time before we really knew
I’ll never forget that I was working at home and she left for the appointment shortly before. I saw my phone ring and I saw her number come in, and my heart began to sink. For some reason, I felt uneasy and I said “Hey honey, How you doing, what’s going on?” and she said two words that I’ll never forget, and her voice was not good, and the moment she said that, my heart sank again further. I began to feel obviously there was something wrong and she said “come here”.
Fortunately the doctor that she went to is less than a mile up the road, so I remember racing to the car, racing to the doctor’s office and walking into the doctor’s office and being escorted right to the back room and she was there with her doctor. The doctor was trying to console her and we were both very emotional. From what we were hearing, we began to pray immediately to hold out hope, and we had a wonderful doctor that you know was prayerful right there on the spot and said we’re going to pray.
Based on what she had just seen physically, and through an examination, she felt a good probability that what we were looking at was a form of cancer, and that we would know more with tests to follow.
That was how we got the first diagnosis, the indication about what she might be facing in this battle. And that then sparked a two year fight with chemotherapy and radiation. The doctor almost immediately said, “I’ve already got a plan”, I’ve got this radiation oncologist, I’ve got this primary oncologist who’s going to act as the quarterback in this, I’ve got this series of doctors that she already began to name out that she had confidence in.
With all that experience we were able to dive in head first almost immediately, and one thing I will also reflect on right around this time, as we talked about our two children, we were facing the fact that we were about to send our first child off to college. We were starting this process of becoming empty nesters, and getting our oldest daughter off and away. Meanwhile we are in triage mode at home with this tragedy.
Tom: So fast forward a little bit, tell us little bit about when she passed
Joey: Absolutely, so in this very room that I sit, just a few steps away was where she passed physically. As mentioned, we had a two year battle and when we got the diagnosis we almost never got the cancer in remission.
My wife, she always handled herself with class and dignity, and I always knew she had a threshold of pain and strength that was well beyond mine. In the battle, she didn’t get a reprieve. We traveled to multiple hospitals. We were in a series of clinical trials, but we were always chasing the right treatment and the pain became so severe, to the point that she was on heavy pain medications.
A bit of good fortune if you will, this was during the time that COVID was going on and my job and my responsibility allowed me to be virtual. The fortunate thing, I have the corporation I worked for and my Vice President I report to said “Your family comes first. so take the time and devote to them, Do what you need to do to be there for your family”.
At the same time, our children were home from college and high school because of COVID, so we were all allowed to be closely around her especially in those final months in her battle. We look at that as a blessing.
The pain that she was suffering from was unimaginable. The only way I can explain it.
Even though we had a large sphere of friends, she was very much out in the public and very well known, there was a period in the last six months where she was not seen. People were curious, and I think a lot of people never understood the extent of what she was going through in the battle, and where she was in the process. She wasn’t one to share a whole lot, and was a very private person.
As she was nearing those last few months and we knew that we were losing the battle, we never gave up hope. We never stopped praying. We never stopped focusing on the next thing. It was my role as her fighter in her corner to say, “Honey, if this doesn’t work, I’m here to pick you up. It’s my role to be there for you. To be the guardian. To be the explorer. To be the fighter. All you have to do is heal – heal your mind, and your body, and we’re here as a family to love on you so that you can fight with all you’ve got”.
And so we were able to surround her and do that. But unfortunately the cancer began to take over and the body just began to fail, but her spirit never gave up and never faltered. And as we entered those last few weeks, and we battled it out, and traversed between hospitals, I’ll never forget, she was in the last hospital, and it was one thing after another trying to mitigate the pain: pain pumps where she was inducing, and then I had to induce the pain pumps just to keep her out of the cycles of pain. She looked at me, in the face, in the hospital and just looked at me with this serene look and said, “I’m done… I want to go home”.
I knew at that point we were very close, so we got her home. We transferred to a local hospital affiliate here, to put her in there at least for a few days to try to regulate some of the pain, but we saw that we could only do so much at that point, and so we took her home.
At this point, one of my faith friends and leaders said, you know we think that this is the time that we need to let her friends know where she is in her life, and that those that want to share with her… those that want to express their feelings with her, that they’d be able to share.
So we arranged a candlelight vigil just outside the window here at our home where Giang was now, and we arranged it rather quickly. And the friend of mine really helped coordinate. We put the word out and it was that evening and just a few hours later that we had a good amount of people standing outside our window with candles lit. We arranged a Zoom meeting, so that Giang could see her friends from her bed here in the living room. She could see everyone gathered out there, and she could hear and see the messages of love that they were passing on to her.
And it was her choice whether she wanted me to turn that camera on or not, and whether she wanted them to see because she was was a very beautiful person, as you can see from the picture right behind me, but cancer takes the external beauty away, unfortunately. But what I saw was an even more beautiful person from the inside those last months of her fight. And that’s when her true beauty came out to me: in her strength, in her class, and her dignity in how she handled things.
It was hard for Giang to stand at this point, and everybody was standing outside of that window just over there and she wanted to see them and her eyesight was failing and so she asked me to pick her up and I lifted her from the bed here and we walked her over to the window, and she could look out, but you couldn’t really make out the faces down below, but she could see the candlelight. She asked me who’s there, who’s out there and I began to name everyone.
Tom: It is such a blessing Joey that everyone came together like that for her.
Joey: It was, and it was that one last opportunity that people could see her and share their feelings for her. And I’m so glad, it was a blessing that she could be at home as well
Tom: Yes, I was lucky to have Judy home as well.
Joey: So she was home and in less than a few days, after we had seen her decline, I began to call in family members. She had family from the California area and DC area and we brought them in, and in this same room, we surrounded her with love.
It was the evening before everyone had arrived, and I knew she would pass, and the next day I had a serious conversation with my daughters. I knew I could only say so much, but we knew the end was very close, so that morning we had arranged for a Hospice representative to come out and she was a wonderful person. I met her downstairs before we brought her upstairs to meet my wife and I told her that this is the day she’s going to pass and we want to just have our space, We want to love on her, but we want your guidance to help us through this process.
One by one the family members began to arrive here and we had beautiful spiritual music playing. We had candles lit all around her. We had messages flowing in from friends and family and we began to share that with her and pray over her. As we tried to relieve her of the pain, we began to increase the pain medication. She began to drift off and began to lose her consciousness, but she was always held on to our hands up until the last very last moments.
Etched into my mind are those last hours and minutes that I will never, never forget.
Tom: We talked about how your faith was so important, and I’m blessed that you recommended me into a Bible Study group you are a part of, and how helpful you have been helpful in my personal spiritual journey. I unfortunately did not have my faith restored through the battle, and I know that has been an important foundation of how you got through the sickness, and in the progress that you’ve made so far. Certainly remembering and treasuring what you had, but also starting to realize that there could be a new purpose for you.
Talk about that faith and how important it was, and who’s helped you in that journey
Joey: Thank you. My wife and I, both of us having lived here in Orlando and grown up here, we have a great network of friends and it was actually a friend of hers before he became a friend of mine, a guy we knew from just being out casually. I’ve known him for I guess twelve plus years. We moved away for a period of time, lived in Tallahassee raising our children up there, and then came back. Shortly after that, my wife was social, she was out and she happened to know him from well before the days that I met her from over thirty years ago, and as we came back to Orlando and came back into the scene, we would meet out casually. Typically in restaurants and bars, where people are just at a surface level social. But this gentleman and I began to talk deeper about faith, where we were in life and what was important.
I was always a person of faith and always a believer in Christ, but I will admit that I had fallen far away from church, and far farther away from my faith.
Shortly after we got the diagnosis, he and I confided in each other and he began to pray for Giang and he brought this to a men’s group and so here was a group of men that were praying for us, as a family praying for her, as she went through her fight. And these guys didn’t know us from anyone, and he would share with me how they prayed again for your family today, and this person or that person said this and I said, “I need to move closer to this group”, and “I need to understand what they’re about”, because this is something I’m missing in my life right now. This is something that I feel I need to move closer to.
As I said, I was a believer and I had faith but I knew that the battle we were in and what we were facing could cause me to question my faith, and cause her to question her faith too. I knew that when you’re faced with this type of battle, you can either do one of two things: you can turn and run away from God, and you can run away from faith, or you can turn and charge head first and you can drop to your knees and you can pray and say “I don’t know how I’m going to get through this but all I know is through your guidance and prayer you’re going to find the way to get me through and get us through as a family”.
So I turned inward, and I turned towards my faith and I turned upwards towards God, and this group brought me back closer to that. It was a period of time that I joined this group and these loving men who began to pray over us as a family, and we began to share in life what we all faced as men.
I found this good for me in many ways, not just in this battle in life that we were facing. So I drew closer and closer to these men, and to this group, and it reached a point where they saw this light evolving in me and my faith growing.
But I felt I still needed something more, so there was an opportunity in the church that many of the men attended, a non denominational Christian church. Now, as are many listeners, I was raised Catholic, and was baptized and went through my full catholicism rituals. Yet here are men who were all believers in Christ, who helped lead me to know God better, and they invited me to attend a weekend gathering of men. In this event I really poured out a lot of the things that I was facing … it was really a session where I laid bare my soul, and I shared some things that I was dealing with in grief already.
What you wouldn’t think of before you’ve lost your love, when you’re facing a battle like this you are in grief already.
I began to learn that this process of growth and dealing through it while she was with us, that there was another part of the process of healing that I was still suffering from. Nine months before I lost my father who passed away, and my father was a wonderful man of ninety years of age, so he led a full life, and I spoke at his memorial and I gave his eulogy, but I was so wrapped up in our battle, in our fight that when my father got sick, and he went rather quickly, I never really had the time to mourn him and go through the grief in losing him.
This men’s group, it allowed me to open up and visit what I had not resolved with my Father’s passing.
This really opened my eyes to the experience of the group and church that I didn’t get as a Catholic. You’ve got the music playing and it’s a little bit more excitable and entertaining than a traditional mass would be, so there was an altar call if you will – a calling to the front – and I felt compelled to go to the front to be prayed over for the things that we were dealing with, to bring strength to our family.
So many men came to me and laid hands on me as we stood in a circle and prayed and I’ll never forget that experience. I closed my eyes, and I lifted my arms, and I began to seek out and pray heavily to God to give guidance to me as a father, as a husband, to give me strength to help her through the process. I felt love and I felt strength from above that come in to me that I had never felt this before.
It was at this point that I knew that I wanted to recommit. Although I had been baptized and I went through the process as a Catholic, I felt I needed to recommit with witness before my family, before my wife, before my friends, that i was recommitting my life to become a better husband, to become a better father, to become a better friend.
At this point, when I felt this Holy Spirit enter into my heart and soul. Shortly thereafter I scheduled a formal ceremony at the church to do just that. I’ll never forget Giang being very weak at this point, but we got her there and we sat her down and she was there, able to witness my baptism. I recommitment my life to Christ, and the experience before my family was really a turning point for me. This led me to where I am today and where I want to go.
Tom: I’m eight months into this journey, and I know I have a long ways to go and It’s through my faith a good part of that and the men that I experience within my group of faith that will help me recognize the process of healing through grief. It’s about moving forward, not moving on.
Joey: At the same time there are other things that I have in my life that are helping me in grief and in the healing process that have been instrumental. One of which was the company I worked for, and the great people I worked for, have always been considerate and allowed me the time to process.
At the toughest time, about a month after Giang past, my daughters were living at home from COVID and still had not returned back to school. I remember walking up the stairs to go to bed one evening, and I could hear as I passed by my daughter’s bedroom, my oldest daughter’s bedroom, and I could hear her sobbing and crying. So I opened the door and I said, “What is it? How can I help?”.
You know what you are going through personally, and she was experiencing for the first time something that I had never seen, and I didn’t know how to handle it. At the time she was actually having an attack, and she was almost in a frozen state, yet very emotional.
She said she heard my footsteps coming up the stairs and she said it made her think of Mom. In those last months, when she could make it up those stairs, she would always stop in when she was back home and they’d spend time together, and she would lay down with her and they’d just hold each other. They’d talk and share in that experience. She knew that she would never have that again, and it all came over her in a rush of emotions and feelings.
She didn’t know, and we didn’t know, and I didn’t know at the time how any of us were going to get through this.
Now we were a matter of weeks since her passing, and all I could do was lay down there next to her, and hold her, and try to comfort her while I was trying to comfort myself, and trying to understand what I needed to do as a parent to help my child through this unimaginable situation she was going through.
She asked me questions for which I didn’t have the answers, and I was praying as we were going through this that God would bring me the answers.
I recognize that God puts people in our paths at the time when we most need it, and that very moment i knew that He was going to do things that were going to help us through the process. I didn’t know how, but it was going to happen.
So the very next morning I got an early phone call from my VP just out of the blue. We don’t normally talk on a regular basis, and he said how he sensed that I might be having challenges. He said, “You know there’s a gentleman who’s rejoined our company, who lost his son”. His son was eleven years old and he lost him to an amoeba attack, just a terrible story, and he said this gentleman has gone through his healing, and as a result of that he’s joined his church and now actually overseas a Grief Share group. He asked if I was interested, and I said absolutely,
Amen. you know God has put you in my path and he knew that I just went through the most difficult night of my life, as a parent to help guide my child, and I knew I needed help and he put you in my path. So he provided me with his phone number and immediately I hung up with him and I called this gentleman who was overseeing the group, who’s now a great friend of mine. We spoke for hours, and we both cried. Both shared what we were still going through. You know he’s lost his child almost eight years ago, and he still deals with grief, so you know I was learning almost immediately that grief was not going to go away overnight. It was going to be a process, and I’ve learned that everyone heals differently and there’s no exact method or formula.
I learned that rather quick, but it’s through the Grief Share group, it’s through this men’s bible study group, it’s through friendships like yours where you came to me through a mutual friend when I wasn’t expecting it because unfortunately we share this common bond now we’re both widowers in our experiences and it was again it was you know a continued low point when you reach out to me and said “Hey you don’t know me, we have shared friendships with other people, but I feel compelled to reach out to you”. And I remember, you dropped a book at my front door (The Group), and we began to talk ,not knowing each other.
So it’s people like you, and friends that I’ve known since I was five years old, neighborhood buddies that we grew up with and I found that those were the ones that knew me deepest, at my heart and soul level, that I could share with. So they have come back into my life more so than they were in the past. They continue to remain there for me ,and we’ve got this bond where we make it fun. We text each other almost daily. We share the challenges we are facing in each other’s life, knowing we’re all facing the same pains and sufferings, of our bodies ailing and all things that we deal with. So it’s those bonds and those friendships amongst other men that are helping me through this process and continue to help me through the process.
Tom: Blessed. The words that came to me as you were speaking Joey: “You were not alone”. You weren’t alone because Christ was with you the whole time. Members of the church were with you. The bible study group was praying over you and continues to pray over you and your family every week. Your friend groups, the grief group that you belong to and go to most weeks.
I think that’s important, that we don’t have to go through this alone, and by reaching out to you I was calling to help you, but you actually helped me. Helping to get my faith to that next level via mentorship that I needed to get to. Seeking others help, you will be able to help some people and share your experiences, and they in turn can help heal you, and it is through that kind of social healing that i think we all get to a better spot.
Joey: it’s funny you would say that, and it is a lesson that’s taught in Grief Share, that part of the healing process is frankly helping others.
When you can reach out and you can help others, that’s part of your healing process, and I began to do some of that intentionally and unintentionally.
I change my social media so that people can see I’m now more spiritual. I’m not necessarily religious, but I’m letting my spiritual body known and in sharing others have reached out to let me know I’ve touched them, and they are reaching out to me in a different way.
There are now different friendships that I’ve been able to help, and you know coincidentally just last night, I’m sorry to say that I am still battling sleep issues. I don’t sleep a whole lot, so it was late in the evening and I was on social media and I posted a song and I must have hit somebody. There’s a woman who came into my life that just met me only through social media, who knew my my wife and unfortunately she just lost her significant other to suicide. This woman was reaching out to me because in some way I was exemplifying the healing process and she wanted to know what it was about whatI was doing, and how I was getting through the process.
So I began to share with her, and now that’s just another form, as we said the healing, when you can help others and feel as though you’re helping others That’s what Jesus asked us to do, to love each other and provide the love. Through us flows his grace
Tom: There’s a couple of other things I know that you’re doing that are helpful as well.
Spirit is definitely that solid foundation that you’re building everything on.
Body is another dimension as is Mind. I’d love for you to talk a little bit about why you think that’s important, what you’re personally doing.
Joey: We are spin buddies, so we go to spin class a few days a week and that’s good, a kind of positive forward movement that has helped in the healing. And the mind is important to …you know it’s the mind, body and spirit right, that we all have to heal all of those parts of our lives.
You know you can’t be good to anyone unless you are good to yourself first So you have to learn to love yourself again. This is not being selfish, but just focusing a little on yourself so that you can be better for others.
You have to take care of yourself so you can take care of others, and in this case for me I knew I had to be there for my children. My wife, she did an amazing job raising our children and we’re fortunate that they were late teens early twenties, and they already had core values, they have the foundation, they have those things that are instilled in them. But they still need me as a father. They still need some of that guidance, and they need to see me heal through the process and grow … that I’m healing in a healthy way
That’s my interpretation of healthy, and it’s physically healthy, so I’m exemplifying to them, where they see me getting back into the gym and doing things physically. You’ve got to take care of your health so you can take care of others, and I’ve certainly done that as a focus.
So there’s the body. I’ve been talking about the spirit. The other part is around the mind you know. I had to refocus my mind and so I’m doing some things differently that I don’t traditionally do. I’m starting to read more and educating myself about what I’m facing: in the healing process, in the grief process. I’m trying to expand beyond my current knowledge base and think differently..
You can’t spend thirty years of your life with someone where you are affected daily. Everything you did daily was with your wife and children in mind. And so take that away after thirty years of doing this and now you have this “freedom” if you will or this “curse of time”. You’ve got a lot of time on your hands, and so what are you going to do with that time and what are you going to focus on with that time, and how are you going to use that productively/
So I began to think about how I’m doing that, and some of that molds me. It’s changing me as a person. It’s changing some of my interests and where I focus. I am still so new in this process, but the things I’m focused on are the mind, body and spirit, and each of those are important to me.
Tom: This is how I progressed through this process as well. I started with body to get some forward movement going there, which is one way of how PTSD patients heal, by moving forward and then second was mind, growth mindset podcasts and reading, and last was faith.
I think your order is a better path than what I took. And yours is what I would recommend to folks.
I know that you mentioned trouble sleeping, and with Giang passing away in the home, I know I faced some issues with my home here having Judy pass away at home as well. Do you want to share a little bit about the challenges that you face there being home alone?.
Joey: For those of us that have become widowers, maybe it was my circumstances, but we were in a battle ,as I mentioned previously. I felt my role was as her guardian, as her fighter.
And I’ve always been a fighter, all my life. I’ve been an athlete.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a lover too, but I’m also a fighter and that’s an instinct for us as men, that we have to protect, and have to fight.
As I mentioned, it was her role just to heal and to it was my role to be out there and be looking for the next thing, and with cancer that’s not easy as it’s more of an art than it is a science today.
There’s this whole path of conventional medicine, but there’s this path of alternative medicines as well. Everybody has an opinion, and everybody has an experience, and what works for one may not work for the other. So I took that as my role to investigate those things and when something didn’t work when we didn’t get the results we needed, I was there to say ”Okay honey, this is the next thing that we’re doing … I’ve already been researching this, so if this didn’t work we’re going to do this now”.
So it was always the next thing when something wasn’t right that I was responsible for.
Being able to fall asleep and being woken up in the middle of night, frankly those were the nightmares I had for a period of time. You know you were in the battle, still you’re sleeping but yet you’re in the battle and you’re experiencing this fight in the battle and you are awakened to the fact that the battle is over and you have all these other intentions. You have all these other desires. You have all these other things that you would do unfortunately that you no longer have that ability to do.
Coming to grips with waking up to that nightmare: that the battle is over was what was waking me up a lot in the middle of the night. Now I’ve gotten into this strange cycle where I sleep a few hours and then I’m awakened and then the mind begins to race. So I’m trying to use these other methods we talk about like reading a concentration prayer or other things that can calm the mind as I wake up on these cycles of sleep that I’ve been going through.
I will tell you that I’m certainly not anywhere near mastering it. I’m a work in progress, but I’m trying to find that formula of the right things. I’m not a believer in medication and I’m not a believer in the things that can be thrown at you from the doctor’s side and I’m trying not to rely upon that. I will say that I have some of those things that they’re there, if I really need them, but I want to try to do this with other means in other ways. I’m not saying that those other things are wrong and that they don’t help some people, but for me personally I’m trying not to have to rely upon that. So it’s a work in progress, to fix my sleep.
Joey: As you went through your story and you talked about the experiences and the fight you were in, and that battle being over, and you’re going back and replaying it in your mind. If you listen to a veteran talk about their service it is not too dissimilar to the way you describe it. I know I feel that same way. It was a battle that we fought for years, and lost, and all of a sudden you’re like, now what?
It sounds a-lot like post traumatic stress?
Joey: I’ve never clinically been diagnosed with PTSD, and haven’t yet gotten professional counseling, which I think needs to be a part of my healing process.
But I have had others help me through this process – you and the folks in Grief Share, and they have said “Yes, you are going through PTSD”. As you said, it was a battle that you have gone through, and you still face those emotions and experiences in your mind today.
As we talked about the Body and getting physical, one of the things that I’ve reincorporated in my life is yoga. Yoga does a number of different elements, but it’s definitely designed to help the mind, body and spirit connection. It certainly helps the body, and does good things with mobility and strength, but the toughest part about yoga is the very end, savasana, in which you’re supposed to lay in a totally still state on your mat and you’re supposed to just let your mind free and escape into meditation as you finish your practice.
That is the hardest part for me, being able to free my mind: to turn off the noise and turn off those concerns. In the toughest of times, when I first started getting back into yoga I would say that my mind went to frankly ugly parts of her passing, the ugliest parts of her last days that are disturbing to me. And that sounds like a form of PTSD that we talk about.
Tom: I’ve recounted some of my PTSD triggers in a blog or two, the same same exact type of thing involving those final days and moments.
In my yoga practice, I too have the hardest time letting my mind free, but this is definitely an important aspect with yoga to put into your exercise routine because of the meditative, breathing aspect: both of which will help calm your anxiety, calm your amygdala, and gives you a tool that you can rely on to calm your mind.
Talk a little bit about Mind and what you do there.
Joey: I will say that your mind is powerful, and your mind can and lead you in certain ways. It can take you frankly take you down a rabbit hole, in some cases and that’s what we learn in Grief Share also, is to be able to see that coming on in waves.
When you see it coming you need to move your mind and you need to move your thoughts so that you can experience and know that this is not the end certainly. That there’s a purpose and there’s a reason for you, and God’s got you, and that he will see you through. He’ll see you through the darkness of the valleys.
I’ll reflect on one of my first trips, and only a few weeks back you know we come out of COVID and I’ve just started to begin to travel again for my business. I left my home and my children went back to school, and it was the first time that I was reflecting on my week and where I was going and what I was doing. I’m on the interstate and I’m traveling at a good rate of speed and I was triggered by a song, which then sparked a thought and feeling. I started thinking about my day and the week ahead and what was back at home, and there was a sense that I realized that physically those people that were important to me were no longer there. I looked back on this day or this day and I began to tell myself I don’t have to be back there any day.
And that’s a change for me because I always had a home with a wife and the children to go back to, and so that moment began to overtake me as I’m traveling at a high rate of speed down the interstate and so I had to clear my mind. I had to do the things you said. I had to start to breathe and control my breathing, and let my mind look beyond that moment and look beyond that wave and focus on what was important beyond that: for my children, for my life and for my well being. What I needed to focus on was not the bad experiences, but on those that helped me through the process to recognize how to respond.
That’s why I say the mind can take you to places where you may not want to go. So having that sense of that and being able to see through that and know how to try to mitigate that I think it’s important for us all to focus on. Learning that we’re all going through this experience.
Tom: I wrote an article called Amygdala Hijack, and there’s four-Ts that I use, which is a way to transition and to get out of that emotional trigger, to get back to your conscious mind, get your emotions quelled, and the to transcend those issues once and for all, so definitely checkout the article (Transition, Think, Thank, Transcend) –
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone who is in a similar time frame as you.
Joey: It is said that grief and healing isn’t a linear process. You can look at books and textbooks that say that it’s this step first, then this step next, and so forth, and if that’s what is indicated, you’re not reading the right book.
I’ve already experienced that this linear process is not so. That no two people go through the same process, so it’s okay to take steps backwards. It’s okay to have bad days. One of my faith leaders in our men’s bible group says: “You don’t let bad moments make bad days”. And so recognize it for a bad moment, but don’t let it take your day away and and recognize that it is a process.
For others it’s a longer process than others, and it’s not wrong, you know.There’s no wrong about that, but so long as you can provide or try to surround yourself with people that bring you strength, that will lift you up.
You don’t have to have a lot of friends, but it’s important to have those one or two close friends that you can confide in. I’m fortunate and blessed that I have many of those around, so you know if that’s a formula, that’s what works for me.
Tom: Joey, thank you so much for that because I think a lot of times we think that there is this linear process that you have to go through. That there’s a timeline for it. Unfortunately there’s a lot of others that will define these timelines for you … when you should be done grieving, when you should be dating again.
Let it be there for yourself, give yourself grace. There will be times where you’re feeling similar to the day or two after loss and that still happens to me almost five years in, and for your friend you eight years in since he lost his son. It’s certainly not a linear process even for those who counsel on and write about it and try to help others. It can still impact us as if it was yesterday.
And I love how you said you were triggered in your drive by a song, because I swear if there was a love language addition, that we should make music one of them for me. I would add music as a love language, as much as touch, gifts and time. For me, music can be a trigger. The wrong song, or the right one can come on, like our wedding song came on the other day, Just the Way You Are (Billy Joel) and I was just a fountain, an absolute fountain.
Joey: One of the things I always enjoyed was a good opera song here or there, and in honor of my upcoming trip to Italy and my back to my homeland, I needed to engross myself in some in some opera, and I happened on a Pandora station and I found a romantic opera
I had a long drive over the week and i was traveling from one coast of Florida, east to west to meet with Giang’s family and then my own. I could take the path which would be the interstate and all but I saw the need to have some reflection time. So I turned on my opera music and took the path less traveled, country roads and what an experience. Through the music and through the visual, this allowed me time to reflect and I will tell you it was an emotional time, and probably driven by the music too
I was halfway across the state, and there was a song that that Giang always loved, by Andre Bocelli, A Time to Say Goodbye. The song came on, and of course naturally I’m losing it. I’m in the midst of singing, belting this out in the car, you know and midway through the song it just stops. I said what happened and right in the middle of the song the very next song that came up was Claire de Lune which was Giang’s second most favorite opera song, and nothing planned. I don’t know how the sound track came together, as it did, but I turned what was an emotional moment into a moment of laughter and I just stopped and I sensed her presence all around.
Me, I said, “Thank you Giang for doing that. Thank you for pulling me out of these tears and out of this crying. I had to laugh, that you stopped me right in the middle of that song, to grab me in my tracks”.
And I said, you know God is great. You’re still around me. You’re still with me and I love you for that.
Tom: Joey on that note, thank you so much for this interview and sharing as much as you did …the great stories with Giang and your family. Blessings to you brother.