Red Letter Days

Reflections about grief and loss 20 years following the transition of my daughter Jeannine from this world

by Dave Roberts

My sincere thanks to all who have supported me on a path that I never, in my wildest dreams, thought I would ever be walking. In particular I am grateful for the presence of Reverend Patty Furino my dearest friend,colleague and mentor whose guidance helped me embrace new perspectives that allowed me to find peace with my daughter’s transition.

Jeannine age 16

Red letter days are defined as “ memorably important or happy occasions.”  March 1, 2003 would not qualify as a memorably happy occasion by any stretch of the imagination. At 12:30 am my 18-year-old daughter Jeannine transitioned into a new existence following a 10-month battle with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and incurable connective muscle tissue cancer. She left behind her mother Cheri, her brothers Dan and Matt, and a daughter Brianna. Brianna is an almost 21-year-old mother to a two-year-old daughter, Teagan Marie, who shares a middle name with her grandmother Jeannine.

March 1 turned out to be a memorably important occasion however, as this marked the beginning of my own transition to a perspective empowering me to continue the relationship with my daughter in the purest of forms.  As a result, I experienced a renewed desire to re-engage in life and be of service to others experiencing life altering challenges. This transformation did not occur without challenge, however.

Approximately two and a half years into my grief, I grew weary living in a world without my daughter’s physical presence.  I wanted God or their representative to come down from the Great Beyond with Jeannine, telling me that we made a mistake and are giving you your daughter back, your life back. However, the universe met my repeated requests for the intact life I once had with deafening silence. Besides it was continually frustrating and emotionally draining to wish for something that I could no longer have. So prior to the completion of year three of my grief journey, I  decided to embrace my identity as a parent who experienced the unthinkable, rather than reject it.

March 1,2023 will be 20 years since Jeannine was part of the physical world. I still have moments, days when I am transported to the early days of grief, where the pain is raw and as suffocating as a suit two sizes too small for me.

Today, I have learned to sit with whatever emotion makes its presence known , because ultimately it will teach me something about myself, or minimally reinforce the resilience that I have had to develop in the face of catastrophic and untenable circumstances. 

Every angelversary I have experienced usually reveals one revelation about myself or my grief journey previously unknown to me. This year has been different, in that no one profound teaching has manifested. In light of this development or non-development, I decided to take inventory of some of what I have discovered during the past 20 years of life without Jeannine. Here they are, in no particular order of importance. I hope many of these resonate:

  • There is a lot to be said for the will to survive in early grief, particularly during the second year, which is more challenging than the first, for many of us.
  • Happiness by itself doesn’t add up to fulfillment.  Fulfillment for me ,is being able to authentically express the totality of my emotions at any time. l discovered the importance of having a support group who embrace wholeness and authenticity, and who are not intimidated by my grief or my refusal to be happy all the time.
  • We can empower ourselves to re-engage in life with purpose and meaning in honor of and with our transitioned loved ones, or we can withdraw from life, never desiring to move beyond the prison walls created by the enormity and weight of our grief. Catastrophic loss can rob us of much but can never take away our free will.
  • It is ok to feel as though you are stumbling through the darkness of grief. Stumbling is movement, which is better than permanently sloshing around in the quagmire of grief.
  • I realize that my bad days can teach me as much about my grief as the good ones. Everything and everybody are in service to my continued growth  in the human experience and for the evolution of my  soul.
  • We can always find hope and light amidst the darkness of grief. When darkness envelops me, I take comfort from this teaching from The Afterlife of Billy Fingers by Annie Kagan:

When life is joyous, the light will be there. When there is hardship the light will also be there.

  • I have discovered that any act of love towards our fellow human being, is an act of self-love and perhaps even self- forgiveness for the things we thought we should have seen or should have been to our deceased loved ones.
  • I am not the person I once was 20 years ago. In fact, I would need a search party to find the person that I was prior to Jeannine’s illness and transition. If I had no desire to evolve, I would have been permanently stuck in the abyss of grief, with no desire or path to move forward.
  • I have integrated spirituality with my core science beliefs. Belief expansion has empowered me to look at life and death differently. I will commit to belief expansion until the day of my transition. I still have plenty to learn.
  • From my perspective, acceptance involves in part, a willingness to create continued bonds with our transitioned loved ones. Establishing continued bonds with Jeannine empowered me to find peace with her transition and to reinvest in life with meaning and purpose.
  • Any kind of trauma changes who we are, at any age. The more we can embrace those changes, the more empowered we become; the more resilience we develop.
  • I can live a human experience while embracing continued spiritual growth and completely re-engaging with all the world has to offer. During early grief, I may have considered this point of view as disrespectful to the memory of my daughter. Now I view total re engagement in life as another way to honor the legacy Jeannine has left for me to carry.

 It is at times surreal that I have survived and thrived following the transition of my daughter, for two full decades.  In fact, I have walked the path of a parent who has experienced the death of a child, longer than some of my undergraduate students have lived. That among other things, also adds to the intermittent surrealness of the last two decades of my life.

As mentioned previously ,I am not the person I was 20 years ago. I believe I have become more compassionate, open and present for my family and those who need support in trying times. I have mentioned in some of my other writings that I wish it took something less drastic than my daughter’s illness and transition to facilitate my metamorphosis . However, what I have learned is that we have no control over the challenges we will encounter in our life. All we can control is how we transform and transcend them.

It’s… Death that gives the world its point

From The Twilight Zone episode Long Live Walter Jameson

The Past As A Teacher

©Kathleen Spatuzzi Photography, Used with Permission

Editor’s Reflections

The Past As A Teacher is Kierra Caissey’s first contribution to The Story Continues blog. Kierra was another one of my best and brightest students and like Kali Regan( another of our contributors), in the top 1% of my students at Utica University. Her piece particularly resonates with me because of my affinity for the teachings of crow. Jamie Sams and David Carson speak of the teachings of crow in their book, Medicine Cards:

Honor the past as your teacher, honor the present as your creation, and honor the future as your inspiration.

Kierra not only teaches us that we are never too young or old to reflect on the teachings of our past, but that we can learn to make room for perspectives we can incorporate in addition to our core beliefs. She also eloquently reminds us that we need to make room for experiences that are not readily explained through science, but nonetheless real to those who experience them. In the process, she explains how integrating different perspectives helped her transform the relationship with her late grandmother.

Because Dave was one of my favorite professors at Utica College, it is of no surprise to me that When The Psychology Professor Met The Minister found its way to the top of my list of favorite books. As a student in Dave’s classes, many of the stories he shared in the book are even more touching when heard in real time. Many of the lessons he covered in his classes were always enjoyable, but the lessons he encourages his students to learn often transcend past the classroom and into a plethora of areas within their lives – I can personally attest to this.

Dave’s humility and openness to experiencing the world around us for all that it is – even when things cannot be easily explained – not only made him a professor I deeply admired but a friend and colleague I cherish. Patty was a guest lecturer in one of my classes with Dave and I still remember how scrunched up my face and how furrowed my eyebrows were as she discussed her journey as a minister and her spiritual relation with the afterlife. Dave is incredibly perceptive and after the lecture finished, he engaged me in a conversation about how questioning everything around us, the unknown, and being open to what varying perspectives can offer us can be gratifying. Being fortunate to have gotten to read Dave and Patty’s book a couple years later, I see the stories they once shared in the classroom with my peers – and all of their newly discussed stories, with fresh eyes (and less brow furrowing).

Much like Dave discusses, the field of psychology calls for evidentiary support for any claim, to be concrete in one’s approach, and to justify thoughts, emotions, and behavior in scientific ways. I often furrowed my eyebrows and grit my teeth against Patty and Dave’s lessons in undergrad, likely for a few reasons, but mainly because I had to recognize how uncomfortable it can be to experience things that are ostensibly unexplainable by science and fact, even though they are not necessarily coincidences, either. Trying to find a balance between science and spirituality can be difficult. I feel grateful for Patty and Dave who challenge the status quo by integrating more than one perspective into their lives when facing grief, relationships, and the overall human experience.

One of the greatest lessons Dave has taught me is how the past can be one of our greatest teachers; reflection is powerful. Looking back almost three years later on the lecture Patty gave our Death, Dying, and Bereavement class, I have a great appreciation for the strength that lies within her vulnerability to have shared her intimate experiences with us as someone who supports families and friends in their grieving processes. I was inspired to delve further into my own grieving experience after reading When The Psychology Professor Met The Minister.

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Nana’s Cardinal Sign

As a result of Dave and Patty’s book, I developed a greater appreciation for the signs from my own deceased loved ones; I stopped over-analyzing every experience and began appreciating the comfort in knowing that love has minimal (if any) barriers,  if we choose to accept such a concept. Every cardinal that lands on the sun porch while my mother and I share morning coffee together (the way we used to when my late grandmother was around – my grandmother’s favorite bird), seeing “Nana” coffee mugs decorated with cardinals at the grocery store near my favorite snack aisle, or hearing her favorite song on the radio in the car reminds me I am still enveloped by the love we shared as nana and granddaughter, years after her passing. The beauty of Dave and Patty’s book is that they encourage their readers to dig deeper into their beliefs and to reflect with intention about what their successes, shortcomings, and connections to people can teach them. I have felt more empowered in my grieving process as a result of allowing myself to see the signs around me and feel comfort and solace as a result; even if I am the one assigning the meaning of each sign. Being able to choose my path during my grieving process has made me a stronger and more sentimental friend, daughter, granddaughter, and person.

The freedom one can gain from using the past as one’s teacher finds me now as I write this blog submission, knowing that so much of my grief experience and life path of my own has been made more peaceful from Dave’s presence in my life as a mentor, and from his and Patty’s experiences shared in When The Psychology Professor Met The Minister.

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Kierra’s Bio

Kierra Caissey attended Utica College, graduating in 2021 with a Bachelor’s in Psychology and a minor in Health Ethics. In between research projects and serving as a member of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), Kierra was a 4-year member of the Utica College women’s soccer team. Kierra now serves her local community as a residential counselor for Open Sky Community Services, using the skills she gained in undergrad from her classes and mentors to teach adults with various mental or physical health conditions how to lead fuller, healthier, and more confident lives. When she’s not working as a counselor, Kierra can be found coaching soccer for the FC Stars soccer club, where she gets the greatest joy and fulfillment through sharing her love and knowledge of the game with the next generation of kids in her area. She draws strength from her close friendships, her parents, and her best friend (dog) Rocky. She hopes that through her career in mental health and coaching that she can leave the places she gives her time to even better than they were when she found them.

How An Interfaith Minister Empowered Me To Be The Co-Creator With Spirit of My Life Story

by Judy Parker

Judy and Pat

Reverend Patty Furino was one of the first neighbors I met after moving to an apartment in Rock Hill, South Carolina, close to my daughter. Other than my daughter I knew no one in Rock Hill.  Patty’s kind words of encouragement as she walked her dog Coba past my patio meant a lot. From our initial encounter Patty’s deep genuineness and care for others was apparent. Within a couple weeks after meeting Patty I lost my beloved rescue Sophie. The support Patty gave me (along with loaning her sweet Coba to me on multiple occasions) confirmed my first impression of her. She has now become a very important part of my life.

I honestly don’t know how I would have made it through the last 5 months without the emotional support Reverend Patty Furino has given me.  Between dealing with the loss of my beloved dog Sophie on 2/15/21 after 12 years as my sole companion, transitioning to life in a new city far from my remaining nine siblings, and developing a new and healthier relationship with my grown daughter, it has been a challenging time to say the least.

Among many things Patty has taught me is that if I don’t take care of myself,  I won’t be able to take care of anyone else.  Thanks to Patty I am learning to listen to my own heart and to focus some attention on what Judy needs.  I no longer rush to anybody I perceived as needing my help; to some it may sound selfish, but I have discovered that self-care is essential to my peace of mind. She has helped me see that being still is a wonderful gift we can give ourselves ,without feeling guilty. I have experienced first-hand the benefit of Patty’s advice to meditate and listen for guidance before making a major decision.

With Patty’s mentoring my whole attitude is changing to a more positive one.  More than ever before I see that the way I look at life greatly affects my experience.  As Patty likes to say, I am the co-creator with spirit of my own life story. So with that in mind, I work daily on keeping my thoughts more positive because I now believe that our thoughts affect our reality. I have always enjoyed helping others, but Patty has helped me realize that sometimes you need to help them help themselves. It is tough not doing what your loved ones expect but sometimes it is better in the long run to empower them to find their own truth.  Patty is teaching me to be cognizant of my impact on everyone with whom I interact including the lady at Walmart, the waitress, the store clerk, the guy at the park and not just on my loved ones. She is helping me see that by walking with awareness, together we can create a better world one small step at a time.   

Featured background image used with permission of Kim Doyle ©2021

About The Writer

Judy Parker was born on July 30,1951 in rural Williamsburg County, South Carolina.  As a middle child of 11 in a farming family she learned at an early age what hard work really meant.  Judy attended Winthrop College, in Rock Hill, South Carolina from August 1969 until December 1970, after which time she transferred to the University of South Carolina(USC) in Columbia.  Judy earned a Bachelor of Science in Education (mathematics) in 1974 and a Master of Mathematics in 1977 from USC.

Judy’s first career was as a mathematics teacher at junior and senior high schools in Columbia ,South Carolina from August 1977 until January 1983. After teaching, she transitioned to the field of Information Technologies. From January 1983 until her retirement in May 2013, her positions included: insurance and real estate computer systems installation and troubleshooting, data systems analyst, instructor of insurance principles ,system software, and computer systems problem management.  She enjoyed her career and found immense satisfaction in her work.

She is divorced and the mother of one 34-year-old daughter. After retirement, Judy had a little difficulty in figuring out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. Because of her passion for the outdoors, she quickly decided to use her free time to hike in state and national parks.  Judy is currently exploring the idea of buying an RV and “traveling this grand land of ours. “

8 Weeks Later


Photo by Jana Sabeth on Unsplash

Reflections

It has been approximately two months since the book, When The Psychology Professor Met The Minister was released. Pat and I are pleased to have heard from grieving individuals who have taken comfort in the fact that they can be empowered to maintain continued bonds with their loved ones. One young woman told us that she and her mother were reading the book and planned to discuss it. Another parent told us that she was reading it together with her college age daughter. One of the outcomes that Pat and I hoped for was that the book would inspire multigenerational discussions about how the integration of psychology and spiritual practices could empower present and future generations to transcend life challenges. We had hoped that people would resonate with the message we are trying to convey.

Though we are humbled by the positive response to our book, thus far, we both had to confront our own fears and doubts(e.g. our shadow selves) during the writing process.

We’ve both had to look at the idea that our personal stories are now out there for colleagues, students and family to see. It has brought a sense of vulnerability to our private lives. In fact, prior to our book being published, I had a dream of being naked and alone on a dark city street. To me, that was the ultimate and symbolic representation of being vulnerable. Sharing my spiritually transformative experience after 10 years, was risky for me because of how my science based colleagues in academia would perceive my experience. But I hold my colleagues in high regard because they are very clear with what they believe. And there is room in this world for individuals with different beliefs to coexist peacefully. If we choose to witness rather than judge another person’s beliefs, we integrate certain aspects of them into our core belief system, if we so choose. So I cast any fear and doubt I had aside and “completed the mission” with Pat. Besides, I was never really in total control of the writing process, Spirit truly inspired the content of this book.

Empowerment and The Mississippi Freedom Trail

Photo Credit: Patty Furino

The work that I did with Pat was not traditional grief work. Pat empowered me to use the wisdom she shared through not only my daughter, but my other deceased ancestors and her wise spirit guides to facilitate the development of a clear and peaceful perspective that would help me look at the world differently. She helped me peck at the shadows of my past so I could find clarity in the present and create the future of my own creation. What Pat does is probably best described as Spiritual Counseling, and she treats it as a ministry. Her guidance helps individuals to achieve the greatest level of awareness and empowers them to develop a sense of self-efficacy or belief that their actions can have a positive impact on the world around them.

I had previously attempted to convince Pat of our need to write a book about my experience and what I learned during our marathon conversations. But Pat always resisted, because she was always very private, not wanting to share her level of awareness openly with the world, for fear of being misconstrued. But as was the case with me, Pat cast all of that doubt and fear aside because she also knew that Spirit was in control. Writing a book for Pat, was a HUGE accomplishment, because she was never one to sit still, let alone behind a computer typing hours upon hours and day after day. Pat has always wanted to be among the people, helping those who crossed her path, just as the Masters did. She wanted to do her work quietly.

Pat is ready to get back to work on ground with people. In May of this year, Pat will go back to Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Mississippi, to honor Emmett Till and his courage. She wants to create a second butterfly garden just as she did 10 years ago in response to the emotion that ran through her in the 24 hours following the ceremony at Bryant’s Grocery, the first marker on the Mississippi Freedom Trail.

There is a Season

What we continue to notice is that not only are our lives shifting and expanding, but also those of the generations of humans that follow us on this planet. Our children grew up with technology being introduced, this next generation is growing up with technology being the main focus of their education for an entire year. When the youngest thinkers reach their adolescent years there will be another generation that will bring evolution and change to the way we perceive our existence on this planet. As Pat has described it, these are the signs that we are in The Great Conjunction of The Aquarian Age. A time where peace, inclusivity and tolerance can be our guiding principles.

There is a 1960’s folk song written by Pete Seeger and performed by the Byrds, that came to mind as we wrote these last lines.

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

Pete Seeger