Renee and Bruce McIntyre have been married 35 years and have five grown children and four grandchildren. Life is good for the McIntyre’s, but it was a rocky road that got the family to where it is today.
Renee is a family therapist practicing in Madison, CT. She is cofounder of The Cove Center for Grieving Children and trains their facilitators. Bruce is the director of Race for the Cove, the organization’s major annual fundraiser.
The McIntyre’s have a plethora of valuable experiences and lessons they learned along the way that they are happy to share.
“My first wife Judy died in February, 1974. We had four kids ages 3, 6, 8 and 11,” Bruce says. “People asked me how did I get through it? Somehow in my mind came out the fact that I was the lucky one—I get to raise the kids. And that carried me through so much. It gave me not only a sense of purpose, but a vision of whatever I could do to raise the kids, knowing that Judy was there in spirit, and that I was going to make it through and the kids would make it through.”
Bruce remembers making breakfast every day for the children and sandwiches for them to take to school.
“Although I was working, I’m self-employed in sales,” he notes. “I’d read bedtime stories, then go down to my office and work until midnight pretty much every night. I always made sure if I couldn’t be home, there would be someone right there when they got off the bus. We ate dinner together every night. Those were non-negotiables.”
It was particularly difficult to be widowed with children in the ‘70s, Bruce says, because there were no books, virtually nothing, about how kids grieve.
“The mantra everybody shared was ‘keep the kids busy and time will cure all,’ he says. “Not necessarily so. What happened was we never dealt with Judy dying. Each kid was different in how they absorbed and understood the severity of mommy dying. But we didn’t communicate a lot about it. And that was very detrimental to starting the grieving process and getting everything out in the open.”
As time went on, Bruce did a little dating, but says there were no fits. Bruce had known Renee because he had worked with her ex-husband at a previous company. Renee had a 5-year-old son and was a teacher in Madison.
Bruce asked another teacher he knew if Renee was dating. One thing led to another and they had their first date in June of 1978.
Renee says at that point she wasn’t interested in getting married again.
“I spent 10 years of Catholic guilt in a marriage that should have lasted six months,” she says.
When she and Bruce started dating, Renee found that Bruce’s four kids were more daunting to her friends, who said, “You’ve got to be kidding,” than they were to her.
“Bruce dated before and the fact that he had four kids had been a deal breaker on several occasions. The thought of it was too overwhelming,” Renee says.
Renee didn’t take it personally when the kids rejected her because she understood that grieving kids are hurting kids and they engage in a lot of hurtful behaviors.
“The most difficult thing for kids—especially adolescents—is loyalty,” she explains. “And Bruce’s first wife became Saint Judy. I think the difficulty is when people think about families, they use an intact family as the model, and families recovering from the death of a parent are in very different places. There are such loyalty issues. Memories get really complicated with the guilt.”
Renee points out that she never called Bruce’s kids her stepchildren or expected them to call her “mom.”
“I always called them my heart children,” says Renee, who has heart-shape objects she finds in nature displayed throughout the house.
Bruce and Renee were engaged for a year and Renee moved into Bruce’s house. They were married two years later and remodeled the house as a wedding present for the kids.
“There was such resentment from the two older girls and by default for the two younger ones, who were ready for a ‘mom,’ because if they were even nice to me, the older girls made it difficult for them,” Renee recalls.
Renee became a full-time mother when she and Bruce married. When the kids were older, she became a social worker, which she says is absolutely the best profession.
“I think the reason we made it—particularly the first five years—was it never occurred to me that we wouldn’t make it,” Renee stresses. “There was a lot of family conflict initially. [The children] engaged in eating disorders, substance abuse, attempted suicide—some really ugly realities of hurting kids.
“That’s why I’m a therapist today and that’s why there’s The Cove for Grieving Children—and why all the kids eventually went to some sort of therapy,” she says.
“Today I work a lot with adolescents and families, because I’ve lived that journey,” she adds. “I’ve been a resource for grieving families.”
Tips for Entering a New Relationship
Bruce says one of the things he was “clueless” about when he and Renee started dating was “Daddy I Want.” He was trying to please each of them and they were very needy. Renee suggested that he pick a day of the week and take each kid out individually for dinner and let them pick the restaurant.
“I could really start to develop a relationship with each of them that continued when we got married,” Bruce says.
Another thing Bruce and Renee did that they found helpful was institute family meetings on Sundays.
“We did the hard work of traditional family meetings, rotating the chairs and letting them put anything they wanted on the agenda and we addressed it,” said Renee. “In retrospect, we were doing a lot of therapeutic things and didn’t even realize it.”
And they instituted the rule that for every negative thing they said to each other, they had to say two positive things.
Bruce points out that Renee’s son was hurting, also. He’d had his mom all to himself and now he had to share her with four others and figure out how he fit into the family.
Renee says the greatest gift you can give your children when you’re creating a blended family is a healthy relationship between the adults. And don’t get defensive, and don’t personalize anything.
Three of the kids decided to live together in Tahoe in between college and jobs, which pleased Renee and Bruce.
“The kids today are all really close. It was my ‘mission’ because it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t work, that we would work out a way to be a family,” Renee says.
Bruce and Renee agree that what finally made things turn around was “unconditional acceptance and hope and love, and belief in the larger landscape.”
Bruce emphasizes that anybody who is recently widowed with children needs to understand that grief is a process.
“It’s a myth that time heals. Time takes away the raw pain,” Renee adds. “But especially with older kids, they have to have the opportunity to process it—a process that they’re going to go through at every developmental level.”
Today all the kids except the oldest call Renee mom, but she has a great relationship with all of them.
“In the end, love prevails,” Renee says. “If I did nothing else in my life, I’m grateful to Judy, and thank her for the privilege of raising her kids.”