A sharp, memorable pain strikes when he's out of breath. Dr. Justin Grunewald was on a mountain run a few weeks ago through rain, snow and a blast of sun when suddenly he heard his late wife's heartbeat.
It thumped in his head, cutting into his throat, taking him back to Gabriele's last moments on the couch of their Minneapolis condo. As she drew her last breaths, he instinctively had switched into physician mode because the pain of being her husband was too great to bear. He grabbed his stethoscope and listened to the sacred sound of her beating heart.
When he heard the cadence again on that Colorado trail, the sadness — and joy — of feeling her presence brought him to his knees. So he pulled out his phone and typed.
"I'll never regret doing that," he wrote. "Despite listening to thousands of heart beats and feeling thousands of pulses, i can still feel and hear yours when i need it."
He later sent those words out to his more than 60,000 followers on Instagram, where Justin regularly reveals the traumatic, complicated experience of what it's like to walk through grief — and to find love and happiness again.
You may be familiar with Gabriele "Gabe" Grunewald's heroic, decade-long battle with a rare incurable cancer. A former Gopher and elite middle-distance runner, she kept going despite surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and even started a foundation, Brave Like Gabe, for cancer research. A national champion in the 3,000 meters, she inspired thousands of social media followers all over the planet to keep doing what they love in the face of insurmountable hardship. Gabe died three years ago this month at the age of 32.
Many of Justin's followers had become acquainted with him through her very public journey. It was he who announced her death on Instagram. But some of his followers did not take it well when he started to post about falling in love with fellow trail runner Amanda Basham, with whom he now has two daughters, 1.5 years and 2 months old.
Justin told me he knows it's weird. To be this fortunate. To lose one fairytale ending, only to land another fairytale.
"Amanda essentially saved my life," said Justin, who's 36. "It's dramatic to say, but life is hard when you're alone all of a sudden. I'd spent 10 years of my life with Gabriele — the happiest, best life — and then all of a sudden, you get off your shift, and you come home to an empty condo every night."
A hospitalist at Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis, he switched to the night shift because coming home at 6 a.m., rather than 5 in the evening, blunts the pain. He could just give into his fatigue and pass out without having to think.
Replying to trolls
Yet some people seem to want his story to end with Gabriele's death, uncomfortable with the sight of him moving forward. An ultramarathoner who runs 100-mile races, he inherently knows suffering and soldiering on: left, right, left, right. A small portion of his followers have sent him the cruelest messages, "stuff that makes you want to throw up," he said, accusing him of forgetting about Gabe.
He often writes them back. He senses they're hurt, too.
The widowed are told they are moving too fast, or not moving on at all, that their grief is too open or private. A few years ago my brother lost his wife, my beautiful sister-in-law who was just 38, to breast cancer. Selfishly, I root for Justin because I see so much of my brother in him. When you've watched people you love walk through hell, you want more than anything for them to find their way back to joy.
When we love someone deeply, we render ourselves vulnerable to the worst kind of pain. Gabriele knew that.
"There were conversations I was incredibly fortunate that she forced us to have many times, that she'd murder me if I didn't continue on my life and find happiness," Justin said.
He remains close to Gabriele's parents, who've experienced far more trauma than any family should. Last year their younger daughter, Abigail Anderson, was on her way to a soccer game when she was struck and killed by a driver who authorities say was high on opioids. "It's like a horror story that doesn't make any sense," Justin said of the family's pain.
After Gabriele died, Justin said her father cried and hugged him. Justin remembers his father-in-law's words: "You're not going to spend the rest of your life alone."
A hug that felt like a hug
In January 2020 he met Amanda, a professional trail runner and endurance coach based in Boulder, Colo., through a mutual friend at a race in Texas.
After the race, Justin was complaining that he didn't do his best because his stomach hurt. But Amanda wouldn't indulge his excuses.
"It was very nice not to be coddled because everyone just wants to make sure I'm not going to break down and cry," he said. "And she was like, 'Don't be a baby, just run faster.' "
He remembers thinking, "Maybe I need more of this in my life."
Around that time, he recalls having a visceral, nails-on-chalkboard reaction when anyone, even his mom, tried to embrace him. He thinks it's because his subconscious was trying to remember the exact shape and size of Gabriel in his arms and cling to what he had lost. But when his new friend Amanda reached out for him, "a hug actually felt like a hug."
Amanda started to coach Justin. They were invited by a brand that filmed them running the Kalalau Trail in Kauai in February 2020. Running together in paradise right before a pandemic cemented their relationship.
Justin, who now splits his time between Minneapolis and their home in Boulder, Colo., is not healed. But he says Amanda, who lost her brother a few years ago, can sense when his grief is spilling sideways into crabbiness and irritability. Having a family with her is better than any scenario Justin would have foreseen for himself three years ago.
If you follow Justin on social media, you'll see he's wearing his grief on his sleeve, even though he's sensitive to the trolls and to the sadness of others who share their suffering. He does it because he can connect with — even inspire — those who feel like they've lost everything.
"You can't sit things out because of guilt," he said. "Whether you fall in love with your spouse's best friend, a complete stranger, or someone on the other side of the world, you never know what's going to happen. Life's both too long and too short to spend it without love and happiness and camaraderie."
Even in their devastation, people can move forward. Just like Gabe.
If you go
The fifth annual Brave Like Gabe 5K will be held Saturday at Lake Phalen Regional Park in St. Paul. The event also has a virtual option. Proceeds will support the Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma Research Foundation. More information can be found at bravelikegabe.org.