Where are we left to carry on
“Until the Day is Done”, by R.E.M
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.
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.