Personal Growth Following a Loss: One Parent’s Story

Providence blinked facing the sun

Where are we left to carry on

“Until the Day is Done”, by R.E.M

Providence Blinked

According to Dictionary .com, Providence is defined as, among other things, the foreseeing care and guidance of nature over the creatures of the earth. Until May of 2002, I would have accepted that definition without reservation. I felt protected and maybe even immune from the tragedy that affected other individuals in society.  Arrogance didn’t drive this perception; I just never allowed my mind to go to the deep, dark places where others already had been.   However, providence did blink (mightily, I might add) and the foundation of my stable, safe world turned into a meaningless pile of rubble.  In May of 2002, my daughter Jeannine was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer.  On March 1,2003, Jeannine died at the age of 18 at home, under the care of Hospice.  Providence not only blinked, but it had abandoned me.   I questioned how I would ever carry on without my daughter.

The emotional pain that I experienced after Jeannine’s death was unlike any pain that I had experienced before in my life.  Children are not supposed to die before their parents, and in my world that was never an option that I even remotely entertained.   The first two-and-one –half years after Jeannine’s death was all about survival, a day and sometimes a minute at a time.  With the support of others, I blindly put one foot in front of the other, hoping that I would someday thrive rather than survive in the aftermath of the worst experience of my life.   Eventually, I was able to make the decision to thrive; to find meaning as a result of my struggle with Jeannine’s death.

In 2006, I taught a course at Utica College related specifically to challenges that parents face after the death of their children.  I developed the framework for this course during my survival mode with the support of faculty.  In retrospect, this was the first conscious decision that I made to make Jeannine’s life and death significant, while simultaneously making my life meaningful.  On the first night of class, I told Jeannine’s story; my students embraced not only her story, but also me in the process.  Today, many of my students are a source of inspiration, love and support.  Developing this course also allowed me to become familiar with a framework that I believe can help individuals who have experienced all kinds of traumatic losses learn to find joy and meaning again.

Posttraumatic Growth

During my research for textbooks, I discovered: Facilitating Posttraumatic Growth: A Clinician’s Guide, by Lawrence G. Calhoun and Richard G. Tedeschi. They define posttraumatic growth very simply as: positive change that an individual experiences as a result of the struggle with a traumatic event. The framework that they provide is an empowering one for individuals who have experienced catastrophic loss.  It also provides the individual who has experienced trauma with hope for a better present and future.  The following represents the domains identified by Tedeschi and Calhoun, under which posttraumatic growth occurs.  I will offer observations from my own journey as to how posttraumatic growth has occurred for me in each of those domains.

Changed Sense of Relationships With Others

Growth has occurred for me on a variety of levels since Jeannine’s death.  First, the relationship with my wife Cheri has become stronger than ever.  There were however, serious challenges after Jeannine died. The intense physical and emotional fatigue that we experienced in early grief made it virtually impossible for us to be supportive of each other.  Our grieving styles were also different as well as Cheri openly dealt with her emotions while  I distracted myself from mine.  Our marriage could have very easily ended in divorce after Jeannine died because of these challenges.  However, Cheri and I have always had open communication, mutual respect, love and trust in our relationship.  We relied on the foundation that we had built to understand how we grieved and what we could do to support each other in our journeys.  Our marriage has not only become stronger, but our friendship with each other has grown in leaps and bounds as well.

In addition, today the significance of the relationships I have with others is measured not by the number of contacts that I have, but the strength of connection that I experience when we do connect.  I have also been more tolerant of individuals who do not understand the unique challenges presented by the death of a child.  In early grief, I used their lack of empathy to feed the pain and anger I experienced.   Today, I am at peace with the fact that many people lack empathy with my experience and I choose not to hold individuals accountable because they can’t identify with challenges they haven’t experienced themselves.  I focus my energy on gratitude for the presence of those in my life who have unconditionally supported my journey.

Changed Sense of Self: More Vulnerable, Yet Stronger

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places”- Ernest Hemingway

After Jeannine’s death, my world was no longer safe, orderly and predictable.  I knew now that if one of my children died, that another or both of Jeannine’s two surviving brothers could die as well.  To say that I was feeling extremely vulnerable would have been an understatement; I was a broken man.  My faith, trust in a greater good, hopes for the future and values were shattered beyond recognition.   However, I chose to turn over the vulnerable and broken parts of myself to other parents who understood my pain.  Journaling, as well as reading about other parents who experienced the death of a child and understanding how they navigated the journey was also of great comfort to me.  Making a conscious commitment to healing has allowed me to become stronger at “my broken places.”

Changed Philosophy of Life

In the aftermath of Jeannine’s death, I have developed a greater appreciation for life.  Life turned on a dime for me over ten years ago, and I know that it can again.  I try to savor the experiences and people who are part of my present moments as much as possible.  I know that death can summon me at anytime; I use that knowledge to live a better life where I can be of service to others.  I also view the passage of time differently.  I used to think that time heals all wounds, but today I believe otherwise.   I will never be totally healed as a result of my struggle with Jeannine’s death, nor will my world ever return to the way it was when Jeannine was alive.   Today, the passage of time has and will continue to redefine who I am as a person, and how I view the world around me.  The person who I am today is in many ways wiser, more empathic and more resilient than the person I was before Jeannine’s death.  I will always be a work in progress.

My spiritual philosophy has also changed. I have learned that relationships continue with our loved ones after they die.  Jeannine has graced me with signs of her presence in a variety of ways since her death.  In the process I have developed a relationship with her that is pure and based on unconditional love.  The relationship that we share has not only given me greater comfort but has allowed me to develop greater clarity as it relates to my life purpose.  In the beginning of this article I alluded to the fact that providence abandoned me because Jeannine died.  Today providence has embraced me because Jeannine lives on in me and through me.

There will always be some degree of sadness in my life because Jeannine is no longer a part of my physical world, but I have discovered the joy of living again, as well.  I also know that her death will promote my continued growth… as long as I continue to embrace it.

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.

Photo credit.

17 Comments:

  1. Jackie Searl said on May 14, 2013 at 3:01 pm ... #

    David, Your message rang so true. Both of my children have pre-deceased me. Alex, age 30, 1996, heart condition, Dan, age 39, 2000, cancer. Alex’s passing was so unexpected, however, Dan had been five years cancer free prior to and after Alex passed so I had already thought what if Dan were taken…instead it was Alex first then Dan almost four years later. During these past seventeen years,my husband an I have grown together in so many ways. It was a struggle at first, however after much research, reading and most of all aksing GOD not WHY, but What Now do we do with all of this. Well, HIS message back was to take this experience and share with others whenever possible in honor of Alex and Dan’s memory. Reaching out instead of in to our pain has been the “on-going healing factor” in our daily living. Choosing to share with others going through “their grief” has been a blessing. We started a Grief Share Program at our church and continue to minister to others that we read about who have no clue about the journey they are about to travel. Your message will be shared with our group when we resume the fall program if ok with you. I can truly say that we have been given a gift…one that will continue to honor Alex’s and Dan’s memory by helping others…that is exactly what they would want us to do. Thank you again and God Bless you and your family.

  2. Dave Roberts said on May 14, 2013 at 5:01 pm ... #

    Hi Jackie:
    Thank you for your great feedback and for sharing your story with me. To both you and your husband, my sincere condolences for the deaths of Alex and Dan. I like you asked a lot of why questions for a long time after Jeannine’s death but when I focused (like you) and what could I do to help others as a result of the challenges I faced, I was able to find meaning again. I am glad that you and your husband have started a Grief Share program and are supporting others on this very unpredictable journey we are on. And yes, feel free to share this article with your group in the fall.

    Wishing you and your husband peace Jackie.

  3. Vicki Northey said on May 15, 2013 at 4:50 am ... #

    Hi Dave,
    I am trying to do what you have done. My mantra is ‘live for others’ because it was the only reason I could find to continue life when all I wanted to do was die. I turned the life support machine off two weeks after my daughter was injured in a car accident. Trauma… I know prolonged, acute stress. I also know the expectation from people that I had to heal within a certain time frame, and it has caused me great angst. It is six years since I lost my daughter and I continue to work to get to the place where you are now at. Like you also, I am very fortunate to have the love of good people… a husband and three other children. Thanks for this post. I wish I could sit and talk with you and I’m sure your wisdom would rub off on me but I live in another country. Instead I will follow your posts and appreciate your experience and wisdom.

  4. Dave Roberts said on May 15, 2013 at 12:54 pm ... #

    Hi Vicki:
    Please accept my condolences for the death of your daughter. I have discovered that there is no set time frame to get from the raw pain of loss to the point where you have learned to live with it and in the process find meaning again. The fact that you are working to get to that point is a plus. The fact that you have the support of great friends and immediate family is a plus as well.

    Take care Vicki. Wishing you peace.

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  6. Elizabeth Rayl said on July 25, 2013 at 11:39 am ... #

    Dear Dave,

    My deepest condolences to you on the loss of your daughter. I lost my Son Jayson to a brain tumor at age 29,four years ago tomorrow.

    I want to thank you for your article. I continue to share many of the same feelings during this journey, but have come to a place where I can be gentle with myself and others, to take one day at a time, and to thrive in my journey. It’s definitely not a journey I would have chosen, but living it has taught me incredible lessons on love and resilience.

    All the best, Elizabeth

  7. Dave Roberts said on July 26, 2013 at 2:54 pm ... #

    Elizabeth, you will be in my thoughts tomorrow ,on Jayson’s angelversary. Thank you for your insights. I am glad you have come to aplace where you can take one day at a time and thrive on your journey. It is my hope that all parents who have experienced the death of a child can come to that place on their journeys.

    Wishing you peace

  8. Patty Harris said on August 1, 2013 at 8:37 am ... #

    Dave,
    Finding your article this morning has been an answer to prayers. I lost my precious son, Rob, two years ago at the age of 46 to esophageal cancer. Rob had retired as a LtCol USMC 2 years prior to being diagnosed with cancer. He had spent several tours in Iraq and I thought those two years were the most challenging a parent could experience! He retired to spend time with his two young children and his wife. For 26 months, Rob fought his battle with grace and dignity, never complaining and lifting the spirits of others while he went through the horrid treatments in hopes of a cure. I was wise enough to know that the pain of loss would NEVER go away, but had no idea that two years after his loss, this overwhelming grief would hit me with such force, I have been unable to get a handle on it. It just has not made any sense to me. I have always been a believer and realize that only God’s grace has kept me standing the past four years, but it seems all the prayers in the world are not working thes days. Reading the thoughts, wisdom and words written on your post from other parents who have lost a child has given me hope that somehow I can put this grief to a purpose. Thank all of you for sharing your stories. Blessings to all of you.

  9. Kumkum Garg said on August 2, 2013 at 8:42 am ... #

    Though I hardly share my grief with others, but after reading your article and message of other parents, I got some courage to speak. I lost my 27 years old son Shaurya in February 2009. He was full of life, very caring, ever smiling handsome boy. Had thousands of dreams, and was doing good and achieved a lot in the short life he got. He was getting married after two months, but God planned otherwise. On 1st February 2009, he went on trekking and never came back. After an extensive search of five days, his body was found in a fault 1100 feet down the hill.
    Life changed after that. I never thought about this life. No parent ever thinks that his/her child will go before him/ her. Me and my husband have totally shattered after that. I agree that relation with my husband has become stronger. Silence between us speaks everything. As there is nothing to share any more.
    I got support from my friends too, and we started an NGO by the name ‘Shaurya The Brave Heart’, where ninety under privileged children come to study. Along with that we teach them hygiene, bonding, etiquette and different skills. The kids, whom we call Bravehearts, have shown pleasant improvement in last four years.
    I try to sooth myself with small things, which I feel Shaurya would love to do. Like Shaurya was fond of milk, so daily we give milk to all the Bravehearts. Shaurya never missed sending flowers on each occasion, so I bring one flower every day and put in the vase near his picture. I celebrate his birthday by taking all the Bravehearts to a nice restaurant, where I feel Shaurya would have loved to celebrate his birthday. He was fond of music and dance, so we have arranged dance and music teachers for the Bravehearts. And several times they have performed in front of big audience.
    Many times I feel this is all fake, but I have nothing else to do. I have to live my share of life. Days, months and years are passing. One day I will meet my son.
    As many of you have find solace in God, let me confess, that since my son has gone I have stopped talking to God. He has His own plans, everything is already destined. So I am living each day, till my time comes.

  10. Dave Roberts said on August 23, 2013 at 8:14 am ... #

    @ Patty. Thank you for your kind comments. It sounds like Rob is an amazing young man. Please accept my condolences for his death. The second year of our journeys for many(including myself) can be more challenging than the first( from my perspective) because the shock and numbness wears off and we are left with the reality of “what is.” I have said that this is a marathon and not a sprint, a life long journey. Wishing you peace.

  11. Dave Roberts said on August 23, 2013 at 8:22 am ... #

    @ Kumkum, please accept my condolences for the death of your son Shaurya. Through your NGO, Shaurya continues to live on through you. And you are right, no parent ever thinks that they will bury their child; it is unnatural and unthinkable. I lost faith in God in the beginning myself as many of us do when our children died. That faith has gradually been restored, but it was a process. Like you I also know that we will see our children again and that gives me the motivation to keep living my life a day at a time. Wishing you peace

  12. Jerry Feldman said on September 23, 2013 at 5:58 pm ... #

    Dave; My deepest sympathies on the loss of your daughter. I now find myself a member of a club I never thought I would join. I lost my son Michael 3 months before what would have been his 25th birthday. While he was a recovering drug addict, he had been “clean” for 11 months. He had made a conscious effort to turn his life around. He had gone through intensive in-patient therapy at a Jacksonville facility for over 3 months, followed by more than 90 days at a sober living house in Daytona Beach. While putting his life back together, he had decided to return to school in the Seattle area. He was doing so well that the news of his passing came as a complete and utter shock to his Mom and I.
    I continue to attend Nar-A-Non meetings and his Mom continues to seek help with a grief counselor. However, neither of us is “doing well. It is somewhat better than the initial shock, but our relationship is now different. We do rely on each other more, but my wife has difficulty socializing, or even just going out for dinner. I feel so bad for her and wish I could do more. But, there isn’t. So I just try and be considerate, loving, helpful, and supportive. I feel this will now be our lives going forward. Does time really heal all wounds?

  13. Kate said on October 26, 2013 at 6:22 am ... #

    Immediately after my daughter’s unexpected death last year, I felt resentful that I had been thrust into the bereaved parents club. It took some time for me to acknowledge that no-one else had asked to join this club, then eventually to realise how much bereaved parents are to be admired rather than pitied. This article is another confirmation of the strength and compassion I have come across and that gives me support as I find my way through this new landscape.

  14. Dave Roberts said on December 26, 2013 at 1:44 pm ... #

    @ Kate. Please accept my condolences for the death of your daughter. During my journey I have met many parents whose stories of their deceased children and their Journeys after loss have inspired me. I am glad my article was of benefit to you.

    I wish you peace as you navigate your journey.

  15. Dave Roberts said on December 26, 2013 at 1:52 pm ... #

    @ Jerry . Please accept my condolences for the death of your son Michael. I will keep you and your wife in my thoughts as you attempt to redefine yourself in a world without your son. From my personal experience, time helped me adjust to the reality of living in a world without my daughter’s physical presence. Time has made the pain of her loss softer while allowing me to experience joy and meaning again.

    Wishing you peace

  16. Taryn said on April 22, 2014 at 9:52 pm ... #

    My name is Taryn i lost my oldest daughter of 3 she was 35 she had 2 sons.She passed at the age of 35 she had a stroke i found her on a sunday morning about 530am on the floor in my living room she had stayed all night with me.She stayed in the hospital 6 wks then she passed its been 1 year.I think about her every day i cry every dayi left my church home,im trying to get my relationship with God better.i no i need to get back in church.Im raising her 2 sons keep me in your prayers its hard for all of us her birthday is June 1 im gonna have a balloon release and a celebration at my house but keep me and my grandsons in your prayers

  17. Charles said on March 12, 2015 at 11:57 pm ... #

    First I am sorry for your loss. I am a new comer to what was referred to as the “CLUB”. My daughter passed on January 20, 2015. She was 18, she was going to graduate this year. When she turned 18 she moved out with her boyfriend. We tried to talk to her and the young boy,18, to just wait until she graduated. But if you have ever been 18 your parents make no sense. So they moved to his parents home and were going to remodel a 12×12 shed next to the house and live in it. She was determined to stay in school and graduate. And she was doing a wonderful job even though she was pregnant. I was so proud of her that she was keeping her grades up. My wife and I were very supportive, we took her to all of her doctors appointments. Helped when we could. Then came, baby due day,we were blessed with a wonderful little granddaughter. Then 6 days later my daughter died. The Medical Examiner said it was an infection that got into her blood stream, caused a blood clot and went to her lungs. She was taken to the emergency room and the medical staff worked on her for an hour. But to no avail she decided to stay in heaven. I too had never given one thought that our child would pass on before us and after giving child birth too. This is one of the most devastating and hardest situations I have ever been through. So not only did our daughter pass but the 18 year old father is trying to keep our granddaughter from us.In 3 months we have seen her 1 time and for 2hours. I am well grounded in my Christian faith but as others I have had questions. I do not know how someone could deal with loosing a child and not have God in your life. I never have cried so much, never felt the heart break and pain that I have in this time. We are still one day at a time and sometimes one minute at a time. We have a 24 year old daughter who is having a very hard time also. However reading the article and comments has given me a glimmer of hope. Thank you for letting me tell my story of the loss of my daughter.

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