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What Cancer Has Taught Me About Life and Loss

The Need to Honor

I have learned to create a space for everything that comes my way in life, whether good or bad. After my 18-year-old daughter Jeannine died in March of 2003 as a result of cancer, I tried to suppress or distract myself from the seemingly endless wave of intense pain that permeated the core of my very being.  I discovered that no matter how hard I tried, the pain just kept resurfacing.  I think trying to suppress the pain of loss is like trying to suppress a beach ball in a tub of water. After a certain amount of time that beach ball will come to the surface. 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 because of the opportunities for spiritual growth and self-discovery that were created because of its presence.

Making Room for Cancer

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know”      

During the last few years of life, I find myself returning to this wisdom from Pema Chadron, when a theme repeatedly plays out in my life. More often than not it has helped me to see the greater purpose in that repeated event.

Recently, I began to think about the impact that cancer has had on me. In addition to my daughter, I have experienced the death of another relative and two close friends and mentors due to cancer.  Once I became cognizant of that, I felt it was time to determine if there were any teachings to be discovered. I have been able to transform my perspective on life and death because of the challenges presented by Jeannine’s death, not because of her cancer diagnosis.

 The Face(s) of Cancer

Before I could discover the teachings that cancer revealed in my journey, I needed to put a face to it. After some reflection, my face of cancer became the faces of my daughter and everyone else I have known and loved who have died from cancer and survived it.  Having that collage in my mind inspired me to search within, without the visions of the physical deterioration and excruciating pain that is so much a part of this disease. After my search concluded, I discovered gratitude for what cancer has allowed me to discover:

  • The resiliency of the human spirit is a beautiful thing to witness. When we first got home after Jeannine’s initial consult in Boston (the prognosis was not good), I collapsed to my knees and buried my head in her lap and cried like a baby. I looked up at her and she simply said to me: “Dad if you can’t sleep and need to talk with me, come and get me.”  “I am not going to give up without a fight.”  Her resolve, determination and compassion gave me the strength to witness the challenges that she faced due to her cancer diagnosis.
  • Jeannine’s cancer and subsequent death and rebirth into a new existence enabled me to become more intensely compassionate towards others.  I transcended the catastrophic loss of Jeannine, in part by exuding compassion for others who faced similar challenges. I derived purpose and meaning in my life, while honoring my daughter’s life. As I developed more compassion for others, I was also able to learn the importance of witnessing others paths and choices without judgment, allowing me to learn from the totality of their life experiences.
  • There are different types of grief.  My first hand experience with Jeannine’s cancer revealed to me that there is grief that occurs before the actual death; due to the physical deterioration and loss of the person they were before the illness. Then there is the grief experienced after the actual loss. My experience has been invaluable in empathizing with the journeys of those parents who have experience the death of their child due to terminal illness.
  • Nothing is guaranteed. Certainly, Jeannine’s death has taught me that life is precious and that each day is meant to be lived to its fullest. Even if Jeannine became a cancer survivor, I still would have developed that same belief about life.

Though I have created a space for cancer as a teacher, I realize that it can again manifest in my life.  I am a man who has not gone through life unscathed and understand that things can change without warning and at lightening speed. There is always the possibility that cancer will be a challenge that I will once again have to embrace.

 

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About the Author

I became a parent who experienced the death of a child after my daughter Jeannine died of cancer on 3/1/03 at the age of 18. I am a retired addiction professional and am also an adjunct professor in the psychology and psychology-child life departments at Utica College. In 2007, I established Bootsy and Angel Books, LLC(www.bootsyandangel.com). The mission of Bootsy and Angel Books is to provide information, support, and services to individuals and families who have experienced the death of a child or other catastrophic losses. I have presented workshops at national conferences of The Compassionate Friends since 2008 and at gatherings of the Bereaved Parents of the USAin 2009 , 2011 and 2012. I have been a keynote speaker for national gathering of the Bereaved Parents of the USA in both 2011 and 2015. I am also the chapter leader for The Compassionate Friends of the Mohawk Valley. I have contributed articles to Living with Loss Magazine ,We Need Not Walk Alone, Hello Grief and Recovering the Self Journal. I have co-authored two books with Linda Findlay of Mourning Discoveries on navigating through grief during the holidays and pet loss. I am a contributing writer for the Open to Hope Foundation and have also appeared on Healing the Grieving Heart and the Open to Hope Television show.. I am also a featured speaker, workshop presenter and coach for Aspire Place(www.aspireplace.com) You can also find me on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/david.j.roberts1

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