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A Father’s Perspective: How Early and Later Grief Are Different

I am in the 11th year of my journey as a parent who has experienced the death of a child.  My 18-year-old daughter Jeannine died on March 1,2003, due to a rare form of cancer. I have adjusted to a world without Jeannine’s physical presence while finding meaning through service to others.

My grief will last for the remainder of my life; it is just different, more manageable and more integrated into my life.  Based on my own experiences, I would like to illustrate some differences I have discovered between the early and later stages of my journey, using specific essentials that I believe are common to the experience of all bereaved individuals.

For me the early stage lasted about 2½ years after Jeannine’s death and the later stage started about four to five years after her death.  I also present my observations with the knowledge that experiences between individuals differ and with the intent of helping individuals who have been affected by loss to begin to articulate their own progress during their journeys in a way that represents their unique experiences.

I identified four specific essentials that were meaningful for me in assessing my progress from early to later grief.  They are as follows: journaling, emotional pain, milestone events, and support.

During early grief, my journal functioned as an uncensored day-by-day written record of my emotions and thoughts after Jeannine’s death. My journal also served to at times recycle my thoughts and emotions. The recording and recycling of my thoughts and feelings were crucial to my ability to move from the raw pain of early grief to a point today where I have found meaning and am able to view Jeannine’s death from a different perspective.  I was also able to look back on my early journal entries and acknowledge progress that I had made amid the raw pain that I experienced.

Today I journal only when I feel the need to remember something significant, like a dream or event that I wish to revisit later. My journaling today has a specific purpose: to provide clarity and new insights that helps me continue to thrive in a world without the physical presence of my daughter.

Emotional Pain
In the beginning, I was consumed with and immobilized by the pain of Jeannine’s death. Today, I strive to manage it, transform it, and to learn from it.  My transformation started with simple intent, a desire to see Jeannine’s death differently. From there the universe provided me with the necessary resources to facilitate this process.

Milestone Events
In early grief the anticipation of Jeannine’s birthday, holidays and her angelversary date, made me extremely uncomfortable.  Consequently, I had a strong urge to avoid them altogether.  Today I look at them as the opportunity to promote the deep spiritual bond that Jeannine and I share, through ritual and ceremony.  One of the most powerful ceremonies that I conducted was on Jeannine’s ninth angelversary in 2011. My ceremony involved incense, prayer and music.

My ceremony began at about 5:30 a.m. The numbers 5,3 and 0 add up to 8, which among other things is the symbol for infinity. I burned Native American incense that was designed for, from my perception, cleansing and purification of the mind, body and soul. The music that I chose was a combination of instrumental and lyrical pieces that had the same intent as the incense. I alternated music with prayer.

There were two prayers that I used. One is a Native American prayer that I discovered. This prayer reinforces that our deceased loved ones are still with us in all forms in the universe. The second was a prayer that I wrote specifically for Jeannine, using Native American influences.  In it, I prayed that Jeannine would continue to develop the wisdom and spiritual growth in her new life to help enlighten others, on their life journeys.  It was empowering for me as Jeannine’s father to give her spirit permission to grow outside of our spiritual relationship; I also experienced a profound sense of peace.

In the beginning, the support was most meaningful to me, was exclusive to bereaved parents. It was crucial to be with other parents who understood the pain of experiencing the death of a child.  I also felt less alone with my pain when I was in the company of other bereaved parents.

Today, my support group has expanded to individuals who have helped me develop clarity and spiritual awareness that has allowed me to look at life and death from a totally different perspective. These individuals have not experienced the death of a child, but their ability to be witnesses to my journey has been a tremendous source of inspiration to me.

Additionally, I don’t measure the effectiveness of support from others through frequency of contact; I measure it more by quality of contact.  There have been individuals who have come into my life for the sole purpose of getting me through a challenging moment in my journey, never to appear again.

In early grief, I never appreciated the gifts I received from my transient angels, but today I realize that they have been just as crucial a part of my support group as those who have been with me for the long haul.

How we measure progress in our grief journeys varies for everybody. Different essentials will be used to assess progress because of individual differences. The key is to commit to transforming our lives after catastrophic loss, to thrive as a result of the challenges presented by adversity.

When the world says, “Give up,”, Hope whispers, “Try it one more time.”
— Author unknown

David J. Roberts, LMSW, CASAC, became a parent who experienced the death of a child, after his daughter Jeannine died of cancer on 3/1/03 at the age of 18. He is a retired addiction professional and is also an adjunct professor in the psychology and psychology-child life departments at Utica College, Utica, New York.  You can read more of his work here. [1]