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