By Dave Roberts
Periodically, I watch a music video featuring Bruce Springsteen and his song “Tunnel of Love.” The background for the video is a desolate amusement park. For the majority of the video, Springsteen plays his guitar in almost complete darkness, surrounded by the surreal sounds and sights common to amusement park life. Towards the end, he walks into the light of day, where shortly thereafter, he comes across a sign that reads, “ This is Not a Dark Ride.” That one sentence reflects the perspective that I have currently embraced, as a parent who has experienced the death of a child. It is a perspective that I wish all individuals who have experienced loss can eventually embrace. Before I elaborate further, I must initially give you some background.
On May 26th, 2002, my 18-year-old daughter Jeannine was diagnosed with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare, connective muscle tissue cancer. A subsequent medical consult in June of that year revealed that she had Stage 4 cancer with bone marrow and lymph node involvement. After six rounds of aggressive chemotherapy, her cancer never went fully into remission. On March 1, 2003, approximately 10 months after diagnosis, Jeannine died at home.
After Jeannine’s death, I lived with and in total darkness for about two-and-one-half years. I could not envision living in a world without the physical presence of my only daughter. Darkness was further compounded by my having to learn how to walk again in a world where the laws of the order were terribly reversed; a world where parents did, in fact, bury their children. I did, like many who have grieved before me, try to suppress negative emotions associated with darkness, but as I soon discovered, they always found a way to resurface. I eventually learned that rebuilding our worlds after catastrophic loss begins by honoring the sadness, fear, anger and other emotions that are synonymous with darkness. By honoring them, I discovered many hidden gifts. My anger gave me the gift of feeling alive especially during those days where I welcomed joining my daughter for all of eternity. My sadness allowed me to embrace the stillness and discover truths about myself that helped me transform how I viewed the world. I discovered truths about myself and my path, which would not have happened otherwise.
Because of the work that I have done following Jeannine’s death, I have come to believe that the ride that I am on is not a dark ride, but simply a ride composed of a variety of emotions and thoughts that reflect my current perspective and outlook on life and loss. I discovered that embracing and honoring all that is a part of my path following Jeannine’s death, is an acquired skill. Many of us, for the most part, do not learn how to effectively deal with death in our society, largely because it is a topic that is not discussed or acknowledged very readily. Our society emphasizes happiness as the key to achievement and fulfillment, among other things.
In reality, many individuals learn to find joy and meaning after a life-altering loss not by embracing happiness but through experiencing a vast array of emotions that do not add up to happiness. Happiness by itself does not create metamorphosis after loss; getting in touch with our darkness does.
There is a line from the movie Elizabethtown, uttered by Claire Colburn (played by Kirstin Dunst) to Drew Baylor (played by Orlando Bloom), as Drew was ready to embark on a road trip with the ashes of his deceased father. It has always stayed with me.“ I want you to get into the deep, beautiful melancholy of everything that has happened.”
I have learned to get in touch with the melancholy that I experienced after the death of my daughter. In the process, I have learned the importance of love and compassion towards others, as well as myself, and increased awareness of self and the world around me. The ability to embrace melancholy is crucial because it allows us to live a life that is characterized by authenticity of emotional expression and transparency. In the process, we learn to accept that happiness, by itself, doesn’t define the totality of our human experience, particularly after a loss.
Dave Roberts, LMSW is a retired addiction professional and an adjunct professor of psychology at Utica College. He is a HuffPost contributor and a speaker on grief and loss locally and nationally. Dave is also the chapter leader for The Compassionate Friends of the Mohawk Valley. Dave may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org