Assemblage
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Assemblage

Here in Pleasantville

How a song by The Wallflowers inspired me to reassess my assumptions, beliefs, and values after my daughter Jeannine’s death

Photo by Andrew Brandy on Unsplash

The assumptions, beliefs, and values that determine who we are and how we view the world make up the very foundation of our identity. Over time, we cling to those parts of our foundation unless unanticipated events cause us to alter them.

Every beautiful house begins with a solid foundation. Over time, the most solid of foundations develop cracks for many reasons. Some foundations can be patched, but with others, the damage may be so severe that they need to be rebuilt. The materials that were used to build that original foundation may not work now. Because we are creatures of habit, we may try to fix a new problem with old solutions. We can attempt to patch or rebuild that foundation using the same materials, but we may soon discover that those cracks may become deeper, perhaps even causing that foundation to crumble beyond repair.

After my daughter Jeannine’s death in 2003 at the age of eighteen from cancer, I was faced with decisions about how I would go about repairing the seemingly irreparable damage to a foundation upon which my identity was comfortably built.

Living in the Past (For The Moment Anyway)

During Jeannine’s illness and after her death, I created an unpublished written journal of my thoughts and feelings. One of the benefits of journal writing is that we can go back and review them years later to determine progress made or lessons learned. When we reread those journals, our past, for the moment, becomes our present.

One of my early grief journal entries was titled “Here in Pleasantville.” Inspired by a song of the same name by The Wallflowers, this entry described the raw pain that I had experienced when Jeannine was first diagnosed with cancer and how that unceremoniously wrecked the foundation upon which my world was built. Some of my original passages from that entry will be included here so that the reader can understand how my perceptions of the world changed following her diagnosis and death. I will then discuss the steps that I took to challenge my assumptions, beliefs, and values in order to be able to re-invest in life once again.

A Pile of Rubble

Photo by Oleksii Hlembotskyi on Unsplash

So grab your coat
And grab your hats
There aint no sayin’ if we’re coming back
Cause something’s gone so terribly wrong
Here in Pleasantville

When Jeannine was diagnosed, I felt like I had been inside of a building that just blew up without warning. Though I survived the blast, the explosion reduced the foundation of the values and beliefs that kept me safe and my world predictable, to a pile of rubble. The knowledge that Jeannine could die from a life-threatening illness permanently altered my worldview.

Predictability would never be my friend again. My safety net was permanently shattered and fear of the present and future dominated my thoughts. Even if Jeannine went into total remission and became a cancer survivor, I knew that her disease could rear its ugly head again and again. Whether she lived or died, I could never go back life as I knew it, or as I wanted it to be.

Burn Down Pleasantville

And no matter how far you think you’ve been
The beginning is where you are
So I am using my last match
To put a fire up on every hill
And burn down Pleasantville.

In the immediate aftermath of Jeannine’s death, it didn’t take me long to realize that what I had valued in both my professional and personal life had little if any relevance to my current situation. My version of Pleasantville, as I knew it, burned to the ground.

In retrospect, it had to because the values and beliefs that were sacred to me no longer applied in my new world. In order to rebuild my foundation from scratch, I needed to examine those pre-existing values and beliefs. I then needed to decide which ones would be modified and which ones would be put aside.

A Flawed Assumption

Though in my heart and mind, I know that today I have taken positive steps to reconstruct my belief system in the aftermath of Jeannine’s death, reviewing my early journal entries nudged me to look once again at this process. I was particularly nudged to re-examine the underlying assumptions that defined my belief system prior to Jeannine’s death. My early journal entries were cloaked in anger, confusion, and bewilderment. I routinely questioned why God or the universe chose our family to experience the death of a young woman whose light shone brightly for only a short period of time.

Before Jeannine’s death, I believed in and valued hard work, being a good father and husband, treating others as I’d like to be treated, and integrity. Because of what I valued and how I lived my life, I assumed that would be enough to insulate me from losing one of my children. That flawed assumption fueled the emotions found in my early journal entries. I believe that what also reinforced this assumption was that I never entertained the possibility that one of my children could predecease me. It never once entered my stream of consciousness.

The things that I valued prior to Jeannine’s death remain unchanged today. Something also worth mentioning is that prior to Jeannine’s death, I valued the science of psychology over spirituality. However, my foundation today integrates the best of both of those and together they have helped me find clarity. Here are some of the key components of that foundation:

•Learning to value sacred law rather than human law in matters related to the mystery of life and death.

• That we do survive death and that our consciousness is capable of living on in some form. I believe that we can connect with the essence of our loved ones any time we choose.

•Life success is not determined by our ability to be insulated from catastrophic loss, but through our ability to effectively address those challenges arising from them.

Death and Rebirth

Doing the work to consciously build or rebuild a foundation that facilitates new life purpose in the aftermath of unfathomable loss, is an individualized process. In the early phase of grief, the challenge becomes more pronounced because raw emotion blends with our thoughts and interferes with our belief work. But over time, our emotions can become more manageable and our belief work more focused and productive.

I am grateful that I opted to rebuild the foundation of my belief system after Jeannine’s death. In the process, I discarded certain assumptions that I held onto through my late forties. Eliminating those assumptions constituted another type of death…a death of a part or parts of myself that would no longer serve me going forward.

Life and death and rebirth live within me.
Alberto Villoldo

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Dave Roberts

Dave Roberts

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Adjunct prof., Utica University. Co-author, When The Psychology Professor Met The Minister, with Reverend Patty Furino. www.psychologyprofessorandminister.com