My daughter Jeannine died on March 1,2003, at the age of 18 due to cancer. One of the things that I struggled with during my early grief was regret and guilt over the fact that I was too wrapped up with work and finishing graduate school to see what was happening to her sooner.
Of course, given the fact that the type of cancer she had was incurable did nothing to lessen my regret or guilt. I was her father and one of my jobs was to protect her from harm. That was the one task that God gave me as a parent and in my mind, I had failed it miserably. Today, I revisit that place periodically, but choose not to stay there long because of a conscious decision to change my perspective on life and death. Plus, I can’t change my initial response to her illness; I can only hope to learn from it.
Let’s now fast forward to January 29,2012. I was driving back from our Compassionate Friends chapter meeting in Little Falls, New York when I got a text from Patty, who is an interfaith minister, a dear friend, and mentor for and witness to the spiritual path that I have embraced during the last 15 or so months of my life. When I called Patty, she told me that she felt Jeannine’s presence during her walk on the beach and that Jeannine felt strongly that I needed to pay more attention to our two cats, Bootsy and Angel, but more so Bootsy at this time. I further discovered that paying attention meant being aware of the behaviors that could signal their transition from life to death.
Bootsy and Angel are my daughter Jeannine’s cats. They have both provided a source of comfort and companionship for me since Jeannine’s death. I will be saddened when they cross over not only because of that but also because of their connection to Jeannine.
Prior to my conversation with Patty, Bootsy, who is 14, had a check up because he has been losing weight. Our veterinarian did blood work and found no abnormalities. He did note that Bootsy lost two pounds since his last visit (roughly five years ago). He suggested that Bootsy take steroids to stimulate appetite, but me and my wife Cheri felt that the side effects outweighed the benefits. We decided to supplement his dry food diet with canned food, and for now it seems to be working.
On the following Monday the 30th, I instant messaged another friend of mine who I will refer to as “Mary”, and during the course of our conversation she told me that her golden retriever of nine-and-one-half years was going to be euthanized on Tuesday due to a brain tumor and other health concerns that were not responding to medication. During the course of our conversation, I began to reflect on our family’s journey with our golden retriever Ginger, who we euthanized many years ago due to cancer and a variety of neurological problems.
One of the things that eventually hit me was the fact that I was the last person to be present with both Ginger and Jeannine when they took their last breaths, which brought up a lot of painful memories. When I shared this revelation with Patty, she told me rather than being the last person to witness their deaths, that I was the first person to help Ginger and Jeannine transition to a new life. Having this shared with me gave me a new perspective on my pain.
In a subsequent conversation with “Mary” to see how she was holding up following the death of her beloved pet, I also talked with her about how angry and guilty I felt because of my perceived oblivion to Jeannine’s cancer symptoms prior to diagnosis. “Mary” had also told me about the amount of attention and love that she and her family gave her beloved pet during the process of transitioning.
Then at that moment, I realized that the message Jeannine relayed through Patty had additional significance. By paying more attention to the shifts in Bootsy’s energy and other behaviors signaling his transition to the other side, I would get the opportunity to do what I did not do with Jeannine. I could not go back in time and redo how I handled the shifts in Jeannine’s energy and behavior, but I could do it now in the present, with her pet that she loved dearly. I would also have a second chance to learn from my past.
In addition, this experience reinforced for me the need to continue to challenge and modify beliefs that no longer apply to me in my journey as a parent who has experienced the death of a child.
“We are not human beings going through a temporary spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings going through a temporary human experience.” – Teilhard De Chardin
Updated: January 10, 2015