By Dave Roberts

Every time that I drive at night, particularly on a rural, dimly lit road, I say a silent prayer that I do not hit a deer. It isn’t the extensive damage to my car that concerns me; that type of damage can be repaired.  However, it would be  extremely difficult for me to accept that I destroyed one of the universe’s most beautiful symbols of love and gentleness. I repeat my prayer each time that I drive at night for that reason. I have had several close calls, but have not yet struck, injured or killed a deer. For that I am grateful.

During our lifetime certain unpleasant experiences don’t find us, but others inevitably do. We will not get through life unscarred, battered or bruised, no matter how hard we try.

During the past several years, I have written extensively about my long standing relationship with grief and loss. One of the most common events that I have had to address is the death of several friends and family members due to cancer. The most significant and life changing loss occurred when my daughter Jeannine died in 2003 at the age of eighteen of a rare and aggressive type of connective tissue sarcoma.

Before my daughter’s death, I was never immune from the consequences of loss. However, Jeannine’s death took me to a level of despair and uncertainty that I had not previously experienced.


Run, Run, Run as Fast as You Can

The emotional pain that I experienced during the early phase of Jeannine’s death was beyond excruciating. As a result, I tried to either suppress my pain or distract myself from it, through work and other activities. It proved to be nothing more than a short-term fix.

In essence, I tried to outrun my pain. I discovered that no matter how hard I ran , the pain just kept resurfacing with greater intensity.  It was, in retrospect, a physically and emotionally exhausting endeavor.

Suppressed pain eventually comes to the surface, demanding to be experienced and demanding to be transformed. Once I discovered this truth, I was able honor my pain and eventually work through it. In the process I was able to utilize Jeannine’s challenges with cancer to eventually change my perspective about life and loss.


Cancer Sucks/Cancer Teaches

It is sometimes difficult to convince someone who is grieving that it might be beneficial to look at the very thing that he/she has feared or loathed, as having the potential to becoming an important asset during his/her grief journey. There are many challenges in life that we may not be naturally equipped to address, but we forge ahead and eventually acquire the necessary tools that permit us to look at the same things differently.

During the early phase of Jeannine’s death, I viewed cancer as something to be loathed and feared . My “Cancer Sucks” coffee cup was a symbolic expression of my beliefs about this disease during that period of my grief.  As time went on, I opted to look at the other side of cancer, the side that could help me discover a greater awareness about myself and my relationship to the world around me.

Here are three things that I have discovered …… far:

There are many layers to grief when a loved one dies from cancer

“Any major illness transforms a patient’s—really, an entire family’s—life.” 

– Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air 

I experienced intense grief before Jeannine’s actual physical death. For the duration of her illness(10 months) ,I grieved Jeannine’s  ongoing physical deterioration and the progressive loss of her personality and spirit. There is also the grief experienced after the actual loss ,where the arduous task becomes learning to live a life of renewed purpose without the physical presence of our loved ones. 

These two types of grief may also intertwine ,particularly when diagnosis dates, dates of first chemotherapy treatments ,and dates where our loved ones decided to stop treatments reoccur each year. When this occurs, grief may become more intense and debilitating. We need to be gentle with ourselves and simply do the best that we can, to work through those moments.

As an aside, I have also recently learned from a  young cancer survivor, who  is in remission, that she still grieves how her disease resulted in loss of some physical function. She has not let that  dampen her indomitable spirit, optimism and drive to make a difference in the world.

These revelations have not only been helpful to me personally, but when companioning other individuals and families who have experienced the death of a loved one due to cancer.

Never let tragedy rob you of  your compassion for others.

Several months after Jeannine’s death an acquaintance asked if I ever got angry when I saw fathers and daughters together in public. I told her that anger was never an emotion that I experienced . If anything, witnessing  the joyful interactions between fathers and daughters reminded me that I would no longer share those same moments with Jeannine. Sadness and yearning captured more accurately my emotions in those situations. Any anger that I had was directed at myself for the now misguided notion that I did not do enough to save my daughter and at the injustice I felt after Jeannine died.

After witnessing our loved ones decline and physical death due to cancer, we may not have the energy or desire to demonstrate compassion towards others.  In the early phase of our grief, even small acts of kindness and compassion such as holding a door for someone else or paying for a random stranger’s cup of coffee can help grieving individuals establish a stronger sense of connection to others .

We are all in some way shape or form, cancer survivors

I believe that individuals who have gone into remission after cancer treatment, and those left behind to grieve the death of a loved one due to cancer are all survivors and share a common belief:

“That life is precious and that there are no guarantees.”

Internalizing this belief allows all of us who have been effected by cancer to utilize our experiences as a guide to live a life of meaning, purpose and service each day, for the remainder of our time on earth.

 What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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, Thrive Global, 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 or email him at :


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