By Dave Roberts
“All parents must carry within them biographies of their children, unwritten but available at a moment’s notice.”
– Disaster Falls: a family story by Stephane Gerson
I wrote and gave the eulogy at my daughter Jeannine’s funeral mass, a few short days after her death on March 1, 2003. Jeannine, age 18, died due to a rare and aggressive form of cancer. A couple of my friends, out of concern for my well-being, questioned whether I was up to the task.
Though a legitimate question under the circumstances, my desire to pay tribute to her life took priority over and perhaps temporarily suppressed the emotional pain that I had experienced in the days leading up to and following her death. Besides, the unwritten biography of my daughter was firmly entrenched in my mind, heart and soul, and was mine to tell. I delivered Jeannine’s eulogy and vowed that I would do this with grace, some humor, and dignity. Here is an excerpt from my tribute to my daughter:
There is no playbook or guide on how to deal with the death of a child. As someone told me recently, our assumptive thinking about death changes when a child is involved. I, personally, never thought I would be before you today burying one of my children.
Until the final stages of her disease, when her pain became unbearable, Jeannine attacked her disease relentlessly and dealt with it on her terms. But Jeannine has always been relentless, and dealt with life on her terms. Jeannine told me when she was first diagnosed that she wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
And her fight was a noble one. For Jeannine, conventional wisdom was highly overrated, and that was one of the many reasons why I loved her so much. She had the heart of a warrior, an indomitable spirit, and I am proud of her. She will always be my kid; she will always be in my heart and in my soul. But most of all she will always be daddy’s little girl. Thank you God for selecting me to be her father. It has been an honor and a privilege. In addition to having a warrior’s heart, Jeannine exemplified the true meaning of grace under pressure. The world has lost a special, beautiful child. And to God, good luck, you have truly met your match.
To Never Forget
My tribute to Jeannine at her funeral mass, represented the first of many episodes of telling her story either in public, or in conversation with friends who were willing to listen. After her funeral, I needed to tell her story over and over again to wrap my head around her illness and death. Additionally, I needed to remain tethered to the memories of a life that we shared, and ended much too soon.
Those memories were an important part of her story in early grief. I was determined that those with whom I shared her story, would not forget that she lived. Jeannine came alive through the stories that I told about her. Because of that I would never forget that she lived either.
Today, I don’t have a burning desire to tell Jeannine’s story in the same manner as I did in earlier grief. I don’t feel the need to talk about every memory of our life together as father and daughter, her specific accomplishments, or details of her illness. Those aspects of her earthly life have been firmly integrated with my grief, changing my life narrative to reflect the person that I have grown to be, in the aftermath of a loss that defied human law. Jeannine now permanently lives within me.
In Later Grief, Our Stories Evolve
Jeannine’s story evolves, not just by what she taught me in her brief physical life, but what she continues to teach me in eternal life. Her gift to me has been consistently demonstrating that love knows no earthly boundaries. Every sign or whisper that she sends, consistently reinforces that message for me. Every teaching that she reveals in the context of our sacred relationship motivates me to share what I have learned with those individuals navigating the uncertain, and in many cases lifelong path of grief and loss.
Since my daughter Jeannine’s death, I have come to believe in the importance of storytelling as a tool to address life challenges. Stories need to be shared with both individuals and communities that support their expression. Those individuals and communities need to commit for the long haul to bear witness to the owners of those stories, and validate their importance.
Our stories about loss is one of the most intimate of experiences that we will share in our lifetime. If you are chosen to be a recipient of an individual’s story of loss, you have been determined to be a genuine, trusting and compassionate presence in that person’s eyes. Being a companion to their ever evolving story will be the gift that directs you to your greater life purpose. Discovering your greater life purpose will subsequently inspire others to find theirs’ as well.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you”-Maya Angelou
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.
Mr. Roberts has contributed articles to the Huffington Post blog, Open to Hope Foundation, The Grief Toolbox, Recovering the Self Journal ,Medium,and Mindfulness and Grief. He has also been a speaker and workshop presenter on grief and loss issues nationally and locally.
To find out more about Mr. Roberts’ work please visit www.bootsyandangel.com or email him at : firstname.lastname@example.org.