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. Donna said on October 4, 2013 at 8:56 am ... #

    I too lost a child, my son in 2011, I felt & feel much the same as you describe your journey, though know that we also have a very personal intimate relationship with our children. I have learned more about life and love in the past 2 yrs than ever before in my life~
    It is a journey filled with intense immeasurable heartache and pain and as I travel through it I also find pure compassion and a depth of love that has helped me survive and live again. I am still working through my grief, I embraced it to teach me how to live with this, and discovered many blessings along the way, I know true gratitude and living in the moment. May your heart be filled with love and my heart feels your pain~blessings.

  2. Dave Roberts said on October 6, 2013 at 9:46 am ... #

    Hi Donna. Thank you for your kind words and valuable insights about the journey after the death of our children. Please accept my condolences for the death of your son. I wish you peace as you continue to navigate the journey after loss.

  3. Lisa Ratnavira said on October 26, 2013 at 8:17 pm ... #

    I appreciate the hope and quote in your article. We lost our daughter 16 months ago to a brain hemorrhage she was a Div 1 soccer athlete, it still seems surreal to us. I appreciate your gratitude and spiritual insights thank you. I write poems to process my emotions and tend to pour myself into working. I am grateful for our 3 living sons, but often just miss the eye roll of a daughter, the mother daughter communication, how much she reminds me of my husband…this is the closest I have come to hope…Twilight Liasons

    The aromas of chocolate embracing peanut butter
    arise from my oven
    Nat arrives eyes crinkling with joy
    a quick hug as she
    pops the first bar into her mouth
    graham crackers crumbling on her shirt
    her smile so wide her face can not contain it
    as she eagerly reaches for another
    I smile so happy meeting her at night
    as the stars announce their presence
    grateful I can still bake for her in my dreams

    It reminds me of my Grandma’s house baking together
    apple and rasberry turnovers
    we rolled and laughed
    and did yoga together on our heads
    while the oven wove it’s magic
    at that moment I was her daughter
    she had held so many years before
    at that moment the love between us
    made generations heal
    knowing the outcomes did not change
    that night my Granddad ate all of them
    hungry for our union.

    Here as the night sky
    so lovingly parts the veil between us
    like young lovers
    reaching out to become one at dawn
    these quiet hours are so filled
    with intimacy
    with possibilities….


    Lis Albright Ratnavira

  4. Dave Roberts said on November 6, 2013 at 7:46 pm ... #

    Hi Lisa: Please accept my condolences for the death of your daughter. Creative pursuits are a beautiful way to process our grief and help us find clarity. Your poem is beautiful and has a hopeful message. I found hope in the fact that I could still have a relationship with Jeannine and that her death did not change that. Once I discovered that , I began to wallow through the muck of grief.

    My wish is that you and your family continue to find hope amidst the sadness of your daughter’s death.

    Wishing you peace.

  5. Susan said on April 16, 2014 at 9:30 pm ... #

    Dear Dave,

    I’m 3 months out from losing our older son, who passed suddenly at 29. I really want to ask you this: How did you discover that you could still have a relationship with Jeannine after she had passed? And also, can you please tell me HOW this is possible?
    I hope that you continue on your path of peace.
    Many thanks,

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