By Dave Roberts
I have danced with grief and loss since I was 5 years old. Each loss that I experience carries the same weight of sadness and longing, as previous ones. Each loss compels me to take pause and reflect on the nature of the physical relationship torn asunder and any unresolved issues intrinsic to that relationship.
These revelations were made known to me, as I was listening to a song by Sting called Fortress Around Your Heart. I also found this excerpt from an interview that he did for Musician magazine in 1985 about the song’s significance: “Fortress is about appeasement, about trying to bridge the gaps between individuals. The central image is a minefield that you’ve laid around this other person to try and protect them. Then you realize that you have to walk back through it. “
Sting’s comments encouraged reflection about my daughter Jeannine and her challenges with cancer. Jeannine died at the age of eighteen in March of 2003, ten months after she was diagnosed. Though her cancer was incurable, I held myself accountable for not protecting her from it. This was the minefield that I laid around myself and one which I repeatedly walked back through over and over in my mind during early grief. It was fertile ground for intense guilt and anger over my inability to protect her. I held myself hostage in a prison of my own making.
This prison has now become your home,
A sentence you seem prepared to pay.
Fortress Around Your Heart
My self-imposed sentence lasted in excess of two years and was one I was prepared to pay. I justified it as the price of love for my daughter and as a buffer against forgetting her. It was also a way to punish myself for a death I could not prevent.
Sting’s reference to Fortress as being a song about appeasement (i.e. reconciliation) stimulated my intellectual curiosity about its relevance to the path that we walk after the death of a child.
Appeasement can be a process that facilitates self-discovery and speaking our truth after loss; it allows us to have a profound impact on others who cross our path. We also become non-judgmentally aware of our limitations, which permits us to find peace with our perceived foibles.
Brand New Day
If we are to climb out of the abyss of darkness and embrace a Brand New Day (a reference to a Sting song of the same name) we must learn the value of appeasement. Here are some of the appeasements that I have made with myself or others, since Jeannine’s death:
- I did the best I could in untenable circumstances, and that all that was required was my best.
- Being with the yin and yang of me is better than being with either the yin or the yang separately.
- Sadness was not something to be suppressed and ignored but honored for what it has taught me. Without sadness, there would have been, among other things, the absence of a deep, genuine compassion for myself and others.
- Acknowledging that I could learn to live a peaceful existence in the aftermath of unfathomable loss.
- Breaking ties with some family members following Jeannine’s death was necessary and key to my overall well-being.
- Walking my own unique path after loss is better than walking my path based on the expectations of others.
- It is not a disservice to our deceased children to experience joy in the aftermath of their deaths.Relationships have no earthly limitations and are forever. That those individuals who irritated me either before or after Jeannine’s death taught me more about myself than I thought possible.
Bridging the Divide
Let me build a bridge, for I cannot fill the chasm
Fortress Around Your Heart
After the death of our children, we build bridges between ourselves and individuals who support and understand the unique challenges presented to parents and other family members affected by the death of a child. The bonds that are created are capable of transcending any perceived cultural or ideological differences and help us deal with the chasm or abyss that we face following the death of our children.
Bridge building also involves reconciling the hurt we felt from others who may have said insensitive things to us. In the process, we demonstrate the ability to let go of what we had no control of in the first place. In the process, we may also learn to forgive others.
We must also learn the value of self-appeasement. Self-appeasement occurs when we build a bridge that reconciles the divide between the person we were or felt that we should have been prior to our loss, and the person we have become or need to become to navigate grief. We learn to reconcile the civil war within after loss.
Self-appeasement is an ongoing process, a reminder that we are forever a work in progress following catastrophic loss.
David J. Roberts, LMSW, became a parent who experienced the death of a child when his daughter Jeannine died of cancer on 3/1/03 at the age of 18. He is a retired addiction professional and an adjunct professor in the psychology department at Utica College in Utica, New York. He is also the chapter leader for The Compassionate Friends of the Mohawk Valley.
Dave has been a past workshop facilitator for The Compassionate Friends. He has also been a past workshop facilitator and keynote speaker for The Bereaved Parents of the USA.
Mr. Roberts has contributed articles to the Huffington Post blog, Open to Hope Foundation, The Grief Toolbox, Recovering the Self Journal and Medium.