For almost 40 years, Pat Miles was a broadcasting fixture on Twin Cities airwaves, anchoring the nightly news on WCCO and KARE and closing out her career hosting a daily radio show on WCCO-AM.
When she remarried in 2006, Miles retired. She and her husband, Minneapolis attorney Charles "Bucky" Zimmerman, settled in Arizona.
After 13 years, their love story came to an abrupt end when Zimmerman died of pancreatic cancer. His death plunged Miles into paralyzing grief accompanied by unanticipated financial and legal complications.
Now 72, Miles has co-authored a book, "Before All Is Said and Done: Practical Advice for Living and Dying Well." Frank, raw and full of her hard-won knowledge, it details what Miles said she wishes she would have known before she became a widow.
It includes her plea to others to "not be in denial and stupid like I was" about getting their affairs in order.
Miles talked to us about her grief, her transition and her next chapter. The conversation has been edited for length.
Q: In your book, you're honest about your mistakes. You're an award-winning journalist and your husband was an accomplished attorney. Are people surprised that you found yourself in such trouble when he died?
A: We thought we were smart and sophisticated, and we weren't. We did our will and trust, but I didn't pay attention like I should have. My husband was a successful, complicated man with investments in some things I didn't know about. We didn't talk about that stuff. I didn't know account numbers, and I wasn't on all the accounts, so after his death they wouldn't even talk to me.
Not knowing what I was doing cost me a lot of money and put my life on hold. If I could do anything over, I would have really listened when Bucky tried to tell me about finances.
Q: What was your life together like?
A: Bucky was that Renaissance man who wanted to travel, go, do. He wasn't going to miss anything; my challenge was keeping up with him. We went all over the world. Three years ago, he arranged and planned a cruise with my two girls and their significant others. He stood up the last night and said how much he loved having this family, how much we all meant to him.
But he was tired on that trip, and he got his diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer the day we came back. He lived three months from diagnosis to death.
Q: Did you use that time to prepare for being without him?
A: Once someone gets sick, it's too late. You're trying to keep them alive, going to chemo, going to doctors. You feel the ground underneath slipping away and you're trying to get your feet steady. You don't ask about policies and banks and investments when someone is sick and drugged.
Q: You write about how shocking it was to realize you were a widow.
A: When you're grieving, you're not normal and you can't make good decisions. Grief is a whole different animal, changing how you think, sleep, eat. When you try to deal with problems in what I call the grim fog of grief, you're screwed.
I had friends who embraced me in my dark days, but others weren't there. It's a couples world, and some people don't want to get too close. I now know this happens a lot. Women, in particular, get lost. Men who are widowed are more likely to get taken care of.
Q: Why did you want to write this book?
A: I want other people not to go down the rabbit hole I went down. I'm still mad that I was so stupid.
We don't think about, talk about or plan for the day we're going to die. It's a cultural problem. If you don't plan and organize, you leave a trail of problems.
The time for this is now, while things are good in your life. If you wait, it's too late. Prepare and leave a good legacy. Do what Bucky and I didn't do and make it easier on the people you leave behind so they don't have to worry about anything beyond missing you.
Q: What resources did you seek out as you put the book together?
A: I interviewed a lot of widows who've been through this; we connected through the internet and on the phone. Sometimes we just sat and cried together. I also talked to experts who pass on great advice about managing the financial, legal and medical pieces.
Q: Some of your suggestions for the newly widowed are pretty simple.
A: I stress the importance of getting a trusted adviser. I wish I had taken someone with me to every meeting, someone who could help me through the fog. I felt frozen, stuck, I had amnesia. When I couldn't remember important details, I thought I was losing my mind.
Out of ignorance or arrogance. I wound up trusting some people I shouldn't have. Not everyone had my best interests at heart.
Q: Another bit of practical advice you offer is to keep a file of confidential information.
A: On our last trip, Bucky took hundreds of photos on his phone. When he died, I didn't know how to get into it. I guessed his code and put it in four times, then got locked out. I never got those precious pictures, and I never will. When someone is sick and dying, you don't ask, "Can you write down all of your passwords?" The time to get it is when things are good.
Q: Your marriage to Bucky Zimmerman capped quite an unusual love story.
A: When I moved to the Twin Cities in 1978 to do the noon news at WCCO, I didn't know a soul. I made one friend, and he was friends with Bucky and set us up on a blind date.
I was living in an apartment by Lake Harriet, and I made my roommate answer the door when Bucky showed up. I told her, "If he doesn't look good, tell him I'm sick." She said, "He's OK. You can do this."
We dated a few years, but we were consumed with our careers and went our separate ways. We both got married, I had a family. We stayed in touch in a casual way.
Q: In the meantime, you suffered a setback in your private life that played out in public because of your role as a news anchor.
A: In the '90s I faced a health crisis with eye problems. I had a tiny raised callus on the eyeball, and a doctor decided I needed to have it removed. After that, my eyeball grew to my eyelid and it set off an autoimmune disease. It went on for years; I had 16 surgeries and at one point my eye had to be sewn shut for a year.
That was a traumatic time in my life. I think my eye problems cracked up my marriage.
By this time Bucky was divorced and living in Santa Fe. He read about my eye problems in the paper, and we reconnected over lunch when he was back in town. Something was still there for both of us. It was a second chance that felt like a miracle.
Q: What's next for you?
A: I recently became a grandmother; my daughter and son-in-law had a baby boy and named him Miles — isn't that a thrill! They live in Ely, so I'll be in Minnesota a lot.
An expert I interviewed told me, when you're widowed your life becomes smaller. Before this, I had a big life; Bucky and I had a big life together. I'm working on figuring out this new chapter for myself, imagining myself without Bucky. I'm not there yet, trust me. I think my next book is going to be called, "So What Do I Do Now?"
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based writer and broadcaster.