BY AL VICERE MARCH 26, 2023 7:00 AM
It’s March 30, 1981. My wife Nancy had gone into labor hours earlier that morning with our first child, our daughter Jana. Things progressed slowly. That was the start of a pattern. Jana always was late.
The slow pace continued, so I went into work for a while returning home to learn that President Reagan had been shot. Another pattern — Jana always was accompanied by drama.
Finally, 24 hours later, Jana was born. Heading home from the hospital, exhausted and euphoric, I missed my exit. Momentarily lost, a third pattern emerged. Jana always was surrounded by excitement and confusion.
Jana was an incredible kid — smart, creative, cute as a button with an infectious smile. Unfortunately, bouts of depression, anxiety and rebelliousness enveloped her, and we rode a roller coaster of challenges including school problems, suicide attempts, substance issues and treatment centers.
Until spring 1999, supposedly her senior year in high school, when Jana ran away from a treatment center in Florida — and back home to us.
Jana had pulled her act together. She rapidly earned her GED and enrolled at Penn State, earning her bachelor’s degree with honors in 2005. An incredible story of resilience and recovery.
Jana became a counselor for at-risk young women. She also tutored GED students, winning a statewide volunteerism award. Things went well until a car accident from which a serious bump on the head resulted in migraine headaches.
Unknown to us, Jana was directed to an out-of-area “pain specialist” who prescribed a month’s worth of Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycontin at each appointment, triggering a downward spiral.
When Nancy and I learned what was happening we were desperate. We joined an Alanon group, unsuccessfully tried tough love, but mostly learned the meaning of frustration and desperation.
Just before midnight on June 18, 2011, ironically Father’s Day eve, a police detective knocked on our door, asked me to get Nancy, had us both sit down and informed us that Jana had taken her own life.
We instantly fell into grief’s unimagined abyss. First shock. Then denial — Jana couldn’t have done that. Certainly not that way. Then anger. Those pills. That doctor. I contacted every pharmacy in three counties, demanded Jana’s records, and delivered them to the authorities. They eventually informed us the doctor was no longer practicing in Pennsylvania. Vindication? Not really. Resolution? Absolutely not.
Meanwhile, a friend who had lost his son shared a tough insight — that I would never get over Jana, I would never get past her loss, but I would learn to go on. He urged me to focus on what made Jana special, on that infectious smile. And he urged me to find an outlet for the negative energy of my grief.
Another friend with whom I was working on a major project kept reminding me that we were too far into the effort to lose focus. Too many people were depending on us. He urged me to see a grief counselor, to get “back on my feet.” Fortunately, I took his advice.
Another colleague with a wicked sense of humor sent random, uniquely encouraging messages. I looked forward to those messages, realizing if it weren’t for a supportive spouse and people like him who reached out, I might still be trapped in grief’s abyss.
That same friend sent me some readings by psychotherapist Hans Loewald on the transformative impact of grief. There was this quote:
“The task of a healthy life is to turn ghosts into ancestors and resentments into regrets.”
What? I had to read that again.
And again. And again.
Suddenly, it clicked. I was haunted by Jana’s ghost. She kept me awake at night and disrupted my concentration by day. And her ghost was fed by my intense resentment of what could‘ve or should’ve been done to save her.
Loewald noted that ghosts long to be set free from their ghostly life and led to rest as ancestors. There they can live forth in the present generation. But as ghosts they are compelled to haunt.
It was another pattern — my resentments had become a never-ending source of exhausting anger preventing me from leading Jana’s ghost to rest.
So, I redirected that negative energy toward something positive, the incredible organization created by our daughter and Jana’s sister Marisa — the Jana Marie Foundation.
That connection turned out to be liberating.
The connection freed me to lead Jana’s ghost to rest so she can live forth in the spirit of the foundation that bears her name.
It freed Jana’s spirit to live forth beside the amazing JMF staff — reaching over 5,000 people last year alone, promoting mental health and working to prevent suicide.
Most importantly, it freed me to live forth to see Jana again with that incredible, infectious smile.
Al Vicere is a board member at Jana Marie Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in memory of his daughter and committed to promoting mental health and preventing suicide. He also is professor of business administration at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business and president of Vicere Associates Inc., a consulting firm whose clients span the globe. This column is coordinated by www.learningtolivewhatsyourstory.org, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.
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