home · contact

About Carol Kearns

Questions and Answers

Questions and Answers about Carol and Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare: How the Death of My Daughter Taught Me the Meaning of Life.

Q: Carol, can you tell us something about Kristen, the daughter who is mentioned in your subtitle?

A: Kristen was my 7-year-old daughter, a very vivacious and sweet little girl who died in 1976. She was playing on a beach in Oregon with her brother and some other children when a rogue wave swept her out to sea. I never saw her again.

Q: What is the "Legacy" you mention in the book?

A: When Krissie died, I realized I had a choice: I could stay bitter and watch the memory of my daughter fade away; or I could preserve the love we had by accepting a life without Kristen and doing something positive with the love she gave me.

Q: That sounds impossible. The world was cruel and unfair to you. How did you make the change from bitterness to happiness?

A: Surprisingly — and today as a psychologist I find that this happens to many grief-stricken people — I felt compelled to work with other bereaved parents who were also struggling with tragic loss. It's the most amazing thing: Somehow, in the depths of our pain, we feel better when we seek out and help people in their pain.

Q: How did you find a way to help other people?

A: At the most difficult time following Krissie's death — when I felt my own sanity was falling apart — I happened to meet the Swiss psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who helped me see that I could stay strong for my 9-year-old son, Michel. She asked me to work with her at a new center she was opening in the mountains above San Diego called Shanti Nilaya. The center was devoted to helping people like me who were paralyzed by grief and couldn't find a way to move on.

Q: What kind of work did you do for Elisabeth Kübler-Ross?

A: At first I swept the floors and worked in the center's garden, but soon I was assisting Elisabeth at grief workshops and learning her approach — very new at the time — to help people vent their anger and guilt, pour out their feelings, and find the positive side of grief.

Q: There's a positive side to grief?

A: Absolutely. We all feel it even in the midst of loss. Grief, after all, cuts through all the phoniness, the materialism and the superficial aspects of modern life. It allows us to acknowledge negative emotions we can't help but feel and give ourselves a break: Life is too short, we learn, for continued misery. We find our priorities immediately rearranged, with love at the top — and love, as Elisabeth and all the philosophers say, really is the key to identity and purpose in life.

Q: What was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross really like?

A: She was just as funny and authoritarian as her speeches showed, and just as driven. She would meet with a dying patient in the wee hours or a grief-stricken person on a street corner or go way out in the boondocks to hold an all-day workshop. She believed passionately in her work despite a great deal of resistance from the medical community. She hated what she called "phoney-baloney" institutional power and even fined us if we called her "Doctor." She loved her patients with enormous emotion yet considered herself an objective scientist. But try to tell Elisabeth that she couldn't do things her way — for example, care for AIDS babies or research paranormal phenomena — and she would unleash a temper that was terrifying to see.

Q: Did you participate in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's paranormal experiments?

A: Yes, I contributed to her research on channeling, mediums, clairvoyance and out-of-body experiences at Shanti Nilaya. Elisabeth was very funny about this aspect of her work and very serious at the same time. She half-jokingly referred to her "spooks" — spirit guides from the other world — but she also believed paranormal research was the next new frontier in medicine.

Q: And did you become a believer?

A: In many ways, I came to Elisabeth as a believer. Something had changed in my daughter before she died — she talked about death all the time, was terrified of fire, felt compelled to visit cemetaries and at times was more clingy and tearful when she used to be independent and happy. After she died, I wondered if Krissie somehow knew her death was coming.

Q: And you asked Elisabeth about this?

A: I did, and Elisabeth thought it was possible to investigate Krissie's subconscious mind by analyizing her most recent drawings. She called in a Jungian psychologist who specialized in the art of terminally ill children. He and Elisabeth looked at the drawings and found symbols and signs that did show Kristen knew her death was coming, and that she was trying to tell me she knew.

Q: Do you think Kristen was clairvoyant?

A: I believe, as Elisabeth often said, that everybody knows subconsciously when they're going to die, but that children have a special "inner knowing" that they express often in agitated behavior and drawings.

Q: Did you, too, have a sense that Kristen was going to die?

A: Not consciously, but Elisabeth and the Jungian specialist also looked at paintings I had made many years before Kristen's death — one when I was pregnant with Kristen — and concluded that I had an "inner knowing" that mirrored my daughter's. This psychic connection is not uncommon among mothers and their children.

Q: After 30 years, do you still think Kristen's drawings show that she knew her death was coming?

A: Interestingly, two present-day psychologists at the C.G. Jung Institute examined the same drawings and did not find signs that Kristen knew. I was surprised at this but not distraught — in 1976, I needed evidence that Kristen had not died in vain. Today after all I've been through, I know all art, even children's, is open to interpretation. But by 2006 I was intrigued by this news because it had no effect on me — it showed that I had used Elisabeth's interpretation as a toehold to recover from the worst grief I could ever imagine. Today I feel quite a bit stronger.

Q: Did you hear similar reports from your clients about paranormal experiences?

A: I was surprised how often! Predictive dreams, premonitions, uncanny coincidences, bodies floating on the ceiling, odd noises like "Dad snapping his fingers," as one client said when I asked about it — all these came up in therapy, many, many times. Most of my clients knew nothing about my experience with Kristen, so they had no idea whether I'd scoff or be receptive.

Q: The incidents weren't just wishful thinking?

A: The knowledge that emerged from otherworldly connections was too accurate to dismiss.

Q: You've said that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross saved your life, both personally and professionally. What do you mean by that?

A: Well, first, I was one of thousands of bereaved patients whom Elisabeth helped bring back from the brink of mental collapse. She introduced me to a new concept at the time — "grief therapy" — and believed I had a knack for working with other bereaved parents. She knew I had vowed to carry out Kristen's legacy — even though I wasn't sure what that legacy was at the time — and encouraged me to go back to college and earn my Ph.D. in psychology. Thanks in large part to Elisabeth, I developed a career working with grief-stricken patients.

Q: Did you follow in Elisabeth's footsteps?

A: I think I surprised Elisabeth at first by working in the business world, an arena that Elisabeth rarely visited. I discovered that grief in the workplace was a hugely neglected problem that not only made bereavement more painful, it affected productivity, quality control and of course, profits. Once corporate heads understood the importance of grief therapy, I was able to bring the idea of short-term bereavement counseling for grief-stricken employees to such companies as United Airlines, Nordstrom's, Levi Strauss, Bank of America, PG&E, America West Airlines, Chevron, First Interstate Bank and Pacific Bell.

Q: Did your work in the business world help with your private practice?

A: Very much so. I was working with fired executives as well as grief-stricken workers, and they were all what we call "high-functioning" patients — they continued going to jobs, raising families, remaining active in their communities and still needed to carve out time to grieve the passing of loved ones.

Q: Why did you specialize in tragic loss?

A: For one thing, I knew what it felt like to hit bottom, to lose everything, to feel you'll never come back to normal life, and to not want to. And after working with Elisabeth and getting my Ph.D., I thought that maybe I could help those who were really struggling. Anything less would have felt wrong.

Q: Is it true that men grieve differently than women?

A: Yes, dramatically so. Society's pressures on men to remain stoic continues right on into grief, the very time it's so important to express very deep pain. Men will stuff their feelings down, and when they're considered the head of families that remain, you find that wives and children will be doubly upset if they see Dad crying or losing control.

Q: When you look back on your hundreds of clients, most of them bereaved parents who had just lost a child, what was the hardest part?

A: Getting each person started. You can imagine the paralysis that sets in when a daughter or son dies suddenly — you can't get out of bed or find a reason to get dressed, let alone see a therapist. And these were people who berated themselves with guilt a lot of the time. So there was great joy for me in seeing these clients start to accept their new life, bit by bit, and return to the living. Sometimes just brushing their teeth was a triumph.

Q: What exactly do you mean by "tragic loss"?

A: At first most of my clients were bereaved parents who had lost a child to, say, stabbing, cancer, drug addiction, injury, AIDS, suicide, rape, SIDS, kidnapping, drunk-driving, shooting, heart failure, and so forth. Soon the concept of near-death experiences opened up: Clients were themselves survivors of kidnap and assault, or victims of an office shoot-up, or airline attendants nearly dragged out of a plane when a cargo door blew out — examples like that.

Q: You also mention that "tragic loss" can be a public experience that affects us all — what do you mean by that?

A: I mean that as violence has increased in the United States, our response to it has become more personal and more crippling. It's hard not to feel unsafe, powerless and vulnerable when a Polly Klass is kidnapped right out of her bedroom, or when a Timothy McVeigh blows apart a federal building in Oklahoma City with a homemade bomb. I won't even mention continued school shootings or, of course, the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Q: You mean that when we read about, say, 9/11 or Columbine in the news, we react as though the tragedy happened to us?

A: Oh, yes, we can't help it. We mourn the people who are killed, of course, but the reality that sets in when, say, a truck driver walks into an Amish school and kills many children teaches us how safe we aren't. We find ourselves mourning the life we used to have before this kind of violence erupted — that feeling of safety during a normal day that's been stolen.

Q: But what can we do about it?

A: We can learn from our own experience with grief: We can recognize the isolation that makes life so lonely, so wary, so guarded when we feel violated and vulnerable. But even when we're stripped of priorities, one or two things are going to matter to us — say, the future of our children, the love in a relationship — and these things make life important. Just seeing how Americans react during a crisis makes life worth living.

Q: How do Americans react during a crisis?

A: Well, you've seen it: Let's say a power failure occurs, or a fire, or earthquake or freeway accident: The first thing Americans do is to drop everything and help each other. Often you find that the smallest thing makes a world of difference — a helping hand, a hug, a handkerchief, a drink of water — because it means that already, the positive side of grief is taking over. The isolation we feel is giving way to human connection, and that can mean everything.

Q: How can a small gesture change everything?

A: I remember a colleague telling me about a client who announced on the first day of therapy that he was "giving life another chance." The day before, he had been driving to the Golden Gate Bridge with every intention to commit suicide. He stopped at a red light, and a woman crossing in front of his car happened to smile at him. He saw her through the windshield. It was the smallest gesture, but it meant everything to him, and he turned the car around.

Q: How does that relate to 9/11?

A: With every anniversary of 9/11, Americans talk about dreading the day and puling the covers over their heads. We're still in mourning. We haven't found a way to move on. Well, I wish you could have accompanied my husband and me when we visited the World Trade Center recently and found drawings by children of the victims. You'd see an arrow from the sky to the basement with the caption, "My daddy died here." You'd see rainbows, fire trucks, angels. The message was: Honesty about the event. Hope for the future. These kids deserve a new America, and we can all contribute to it.

Q: That's the larger message of Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare?

A: In a personal way, yes. I believe my daughter - and every loved one who has died — left a legacy for me, for the living. It's within the power of all of us to make a better world for the children who will follow. We are, after all, Americans with our own legacy of Yankee ingenuity, that pioneer spirit in support of our neighbors. It's in us like a gene, and it's something we can implement right now: Just remembering that the smallest gesture can make a world of difference really can change your life.