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.




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.


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.

Black and White Thinking

Editor’s Reflections

The following piece is authored by one of my best and brightest students, I have had the pleasure of working with during my 19 plus years at Utica University. Her stepfather John had asked that I meet with her as an incoming transfer student to provide some advice or guidance. Upon meeting Kali Regan, she presented me with her two-year plan to obtain her undergraduate degree in psychology. To say that I was impressed with her intelligence and analytical and critical thinking skills, would be an understatement. To date, she is in the top 1% of students I have taught at the undergraduate level. I am humbled that she acknowledged the impact she perceives I had on her and her perceptions of life, death and life after death. The impact that she and my other students have had on me has been profound. Within every student, is a great teacher. Enjoy the reflections in Kali Regan’s first published article titled, Black and White Thinking. Dave Roberts

Kali’s father Denny Regan

Dave Roberts could not have said it better when he said, “We don’t meet people by chance, that they are meant to come into our lives for a reason.”

My stepfather, John, always had a way of carefully placing what I needed right in front of me for me to take advantage of if I deemed it fit and necessary, as he knew there was a reason I needed to talk with Dave. When John introduced me to Dave, I think instantly he felt like family to me. I was quickly drawn to Dave’s style of writing, his love for life and his work, and incredibly fascinated with his perspective of grief and loss.

I, too, had encountered a great deal of loss. Spring break of my 7th grade year of middle school, I lost my father after a battle with epilepsy, after he suffered from a grand mal seizure. Losing my father at 12 years old put this weight on me that I could not bear.

I could not embrace that my life was imperfect causing so much dissonance impacting my psyche and beliefs every day. Every issue that ever came up just made me long for connection with my father and I did not know how. I spent a lot of time in the decade following questioning my thoughts and beliefs toward religion, spirituality, and any possible way I could connect with my dad. I just always thought; how could I possibly make sense of the tragedy I endured?

Shortly after meeting Dave, I reflected on my own journey with grief thus far. I shoved everything deep down so much that it was radiating from my aura and knew Dave could sense the pressure I put on myself to control the world around me because I could not control the pain I felt from the tragedy I endured.

My father was gone from me physically, and that to me meant he was gone from every aspect of life. I was afraid of people forgetting about him, that I would forget about him. As I delved deeper into the story of Dave losing his daughter, Jeannine, I had a more intricate understanding of his journey after the fact. Through this, I was able to indulge in a reformed way of thinking about grief, and how to live your life after losing one of the most important people in it.

Throughout my time knowing Dave, I often find myself writing down quotes he says to me, or I read that I wanted to remember. In a piece he once wrote, he said, “the tapestry of beauty is woven from the fabric of tragedy.” From there, I knew my connection with my father could only be furthered, and knew the importance of my loss, both positive and negative impacts it had on me.

The ability to self-reflect and integrate a number of perspectives and means of connection into my ever changing beliefs allows me each day to gain more clarity in a world where that does not come easy. Dave was the first person I knew who endured pure tragedy and loss, and channeled that toward bettering himself and developing a greater cognizance of the universe.

When Reverend Patty Furino and Dave collaborated and shared their story it sounded all too familiar. The influence Patty had in Dave’s life has created a rolling effect. As Patty opened Dave’s eyes amongst many others to a new worldview, Dave did the same to me. By sharing their story through When The Psychology Professor Met The Minister, the magnitude of their impact on how others grieve and connect will be infinite. To be guided by Dave, Patty, and their experiences is to transition beyond your experiences —to be empowered.

I mentioned how my stepfather John always had a way of giving me opportunities to explore the world and form my own beliefs (if I so chose). The world today and everyday always needs more tolerance and acceptance, allowing us to understand the beliefs of others while constantly developing our own.

Today, and everyday black and white thinking can only exist amongst a plentiful array of grays. Death does not have to mean someone is entirely gone from us in any sense, just our medium of communication must shift. Connection can exist in a myriad of ways if we allow ourselves to explore outside the norm.

Kali’s Bio

Kali is a Utica University, formerly Utica College alumni with her Bachelors in Psychology, living in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her passion for mental health advocacy along with neuroscience drove her to a career in alternative medicine, specifically neurofeedback therapy. As the executive director of MyBrain DR, Kali empowers others in recovery to think beyond the traditional expectations of mental health care. She is nothing without her other half, rescue pup London, and her love for spending time traveling to visit family and friends all over.