By Dave Roberts
For several years after my 18 -year- old daughter Jeannine’s death in March of 2003, I commonly identified myself as a bereaved parent. According to the late Robert Kastenbaum, author of Death, Society and Human Experience, the actual definition of bereaved or bereavement is: “The status of having lost a family member, friend, colleague, or another significant person due to death.”
The term bereaved may also carry a different meaning for those who continually view themselves in this light. Someone who consistently labels themselves as bereaved may experience constant feelings of powerlessness and despair due to experiencing the death of a child or other significant person in their life.
I am no stranger to the use of terms that attempt to label our human experience. I worked in the human services field for approximately 27 years and diagnostic labels were a big part of that world. Diagnosis, if done correctly, allows human services professionals to develop accurate treatment interventions for individuals requesting services for life challenges. If we allow them to, diagnostic labels can also contribute to persons served being defined as their diagnosis. Because I am assessed or viewed as depressed, doesn’t mean that is the person I am, or is destined to become. In other words, being depressed is a part of that person’s experience; it is not the totality of their experience. Any person has individual gifts and strengths that transcend their diagnostic labels. Being a bereaved parent once defined my entire experience as a human being; it no longer does, nor will I let it.
Early in grief referring to myself as a bereaved parent, reminded me of the importance of honoring my daughter’s legacy and in the process, discovering renewed purpose and meaning after a loss. However, I was so focused on doing the work of a bereaved parent, that I didn’t honor the other aspects of my life that could also provide me with joy and purpose. Due to the influence of some very wise spiritual mentors, I was able to understand about midway in grief, that I needed to honor and embrace the other parts of my experience, that I repressed while walking the path of a bereaved parent.
As I embark on my 16th year of negotiating my world without Jeannine’s physical presence, I simply identify myself as a parent who has experienced the death of a child. As we make a choice to look at things differently, so should how we view ourselves. Jeannine’s death is a now a part of my experience as a father, husband, teacher, and friend. Does that mean, that I no longer yearn for the physical presence of my daughter nor choose to acknowledge the impact her absence has had on my life? Of course not; the yearnings will always be there and the impact of Jeannine’s death on my life always profound. Her death was truly the most life-altering event I have experienced in my life. I just choose to conceptualize Jeannine’s death in a way that fits how I now perceive myself today. Choosing to look at myself differently empowers me to be the author of my own life experience and enables me to look at life through my own unique perspective. Choosing empowerment enables me to continue to discover teachings as a result of the challenges presented by Jeannine’s death, without the traditional expectations attached to being bereaved.
I now celebrate Jeannine’s presence in different ways, knowing that who she has become and will continue to become, will always be a part of the sacred relationship that we now share.