Growing Through Finding True Meaning - Jennifer C. Page, Ph.D.

We are connected, you (the reader) and I, through our shared experience of loss. What follows is an account of my journey and how finding “true meaning” helped me grow through loss. Surprisingly, despite the fact that I lost my father over nine years ago, this is the first time I’ve shared a written account of my story. It is my hope that it will be of help to you as you find your own way through loss.

My story starts in the spring of my senior year of high school. The year is 1996 and it’s March. I live in a small harbor town on Boston’s North Shore so the air still holds that crisp nip to remind you that winter has not yet departed. But I am eager to get out of the house to go spring shopping with friends up at the outlets in New Hampshire. I rush downstairs to catch my ride and attempt to brush by my parents. My father attempts to engage me in a discussion about breakfast, which I quickly dismiss. My mother reminds me to be home in time for dinner since we are going out in my honor to celebrate a local journalism award I received for my work with the school and town newspapers. But I am preoccupied with the adolescent concerns that, at the time, seem more important than spending time with my family. I run out the door with barely a good-bye.

I wish I had known that was the last time I would see my dad. While I was gone shopping, he took our dog, Jasmine, for their weekly Saturday walk. But he didn’t come home. We never got to have our celebratory dinner. And I never got to say good-bye.

When I arrived home that Saturday evening my mother had already been worrying for some time. We, along with my 14-year-old sister, went out looking for my father by car and foot, called friends and neighbors, and eventually called the police. Neighbors and friends helped us search through the night as we called out for Dad and Jasmine, but the chilling wind and dark inhibited our efforts. We all tried to keep up hope, but a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach wouldn’t let me ignore the increasing gravity of the situation and the increasing sense of fear that my world as I knew it was slipping away. The night seemed endless, as did the tears. But with the morning light also came the reminder that time was moving forward and my dad had still not been found.

That Sunday morning in March our house was buzzing with people. I attempted to uphold a happy disposition for the benefit of my friends who had come to show their support, and it almost seemed possible to imagine that life was as I’d always known it. But the news reporter vans from local television stations camped in front of our house, and the over 100 officials from local, state and county police and fire departments outside searching for my father, reminded me of the terrible reality I was living. The specifics of the day are a blur in my distant memory, with the exception of the moment one of the police officers walked into the house and took my mother into the living room. I saw the exchange and instantly knew that there was bad news. I rushed in after them to find my mother in tears. My sister and I joined her.

One of the helicopters had spotted Jasmine lying next to one of the snow-covered ponds in the conservation land near our house. She had stayed at the scene of the tragic accident all day and night. Her leash and some dog biscuits were found near the break in the ice where divers from the local fire and police departments’ dive team located my father. He had fallen through the ice on the pond and drowned, but not without a fight as my dad had reportedly kicked off his boots and attempted to get out. That image would haunt me for a long time.

I’m a sophomore in college now and am in the car headed home for winter break. I think back to the day in the fall of my senior year that I received my early acceptance letter to my father’s alma mater. My dad came home from work, picked me up and spun me around the house as we laughed and cheered. But I quickly push this image out of my head as the pain of loss begins to build up inside. Put the wall back up, Jen, don’t let yourself feel. This has become almost impossible as of late. I find myself preoccupied with thoughts of the tragic accident. I feel sad most of the time and frequently break into tears. My grades have slipped and I no longer have an interest in my work as news editor of the school newspaper. I’ve been partying to excess. I feel out of control.

My adjustment to college had been relatively smooth. I made some close friends, joined the track team, earned good grades, and worked on the school newspaper. There were times when I would miss home, particularly having my mother and sister around to talk to when I missed my dad. There were times I would think of how the sudden loss of my father brought with it the loss of what had seemed a future of endless possibilities. Things once taken for granted were now uncertain. New and unfamiliar issues arose as I navigated the unchartered territory of living with loss. While my friends went on with their lives, I began to question a world that no longer made sense. It isn’t fair, why my dad? Why him? He was so young, he was such a good man, he was not ready to die. Why?! Why now? Why this way? I was angry, angry that my dad was taken from us. And then I would feel overcome with grief. But I quickly learned to cope by turning inward. In a world that seemed unpredictable, I attempted to gain a sense of control by striving for self-control. I set high standards for myself academically and in my extracurricular activities. And I became obsessed with exercise, perhaps the ultimate form of self-control. Running was not only my emotional outlet, it was my means of survival. I ran from the pain of loss. But I couldn’t run fast enough or far enough. An injury during the fall cross-country season of my sophomore year prevented me from running. And I found myself stuck, finally forced to pay attention to my feelings.

With the support and encouragement of my mother, sister, relatives and friends, I sought professional help that winter break to work through my experience of a delayed grief reaction. I allowed myself to feel what I was feeling, to express my sadness, anger, and fear, and to become more emotionally and cognitively self-aware. I also began to connect with others and share my experience of loss. By reflecting on my story I was finally able to make sense of my father’s death, and ironically to gain the sense of control for which I had been striving unsuccessfully. I had to answer for myself, what is it that really matters in life? Through self-questioning and much guidance from the memory of my father, I began to make meaning from my loss. I remembered peaceful summer afternoons sailing with my dad, I remembered Dad’s cheers of support during soccer games, I remembered reading the letters he would write when I was away at camp… When I think of my dad I don’t think of whether he was a successful businessman or of how much money he made, but rather I think of him as a beloved father and husband, a genuine and giving man, and a man who enjoyed the simple pleasures of life. And so my dad helped me discover that what matters most are relationships with others, with ourselves, and with the world around us.

This experience of self-reflection holds great meaning for me not only because it helped me understand and resolve my grief, but also because it created within me an increased sensitivity to and empathy for psychological pain. With this understanding came a sense of purpose so strong that it changed my college major. I wanted to learn how to help others who, like me, needed psychological healing in order to move forward with life. In particular, as a result of the negative impact my experience of psychological distress had on my academic studies, I wanted to learn how to help students who were experiencing problems that interfered with their educational pursuits.

I returned to college for the spring semester motivated to pursue an additional major in psychology. I would go on to pursue graduate training in clinical psychology and earn my doctorate degree.

The year is 2005 and it has been over nine years since the loss of my father. I work as a professional psychologist in a university mental health setting to help students with the personal, social, career and academic problems that interfere with their educational goals. In both my professional and personal life, I have found healing and growth through reaching out to and helping others. Every day I am motivated by the fact that what I have chosen to do is directly related to my experience of loss. And every time I help someone I feel that I am keeping my father’s legacy alive.

As you move forward through your own journey of loss, it is my hope that my story will motivate you to create meaning by writing your story of loss, reflecting on your story, and eventually creating your own story of how you grew through loss.