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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

How My Daughter's Death Taught Me
The Meaning of Life

 

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CHAPTER EIGHT: KRISTEN'S LEGACY

For many years, I rented a small office on the 24th floor of a medical building where the windows offered a slim but breathtaking view of San Francisco Bay. Sitting at my desk between sessions with clients, I would find myself mesmerized by giant cargo ships nosing past the skyscrapers in front of me. Multicolored freight containers piled high on their decks reminded me of so many Christmas boxes waiting to be opened, but the ships' battered hulls showed just how arduous the journey had been.

Psychotherapists slip easily into metaphor, so I wasn't surprised that my heart went out to these huge ocean carriers. They reminded me that my clients, who had also survived an exhausting journey, were now weighed down by multiple emotional burdens. Just as the ships' crews were impatient to deliver their cargo and get back out to sea, so were my clients anxious to, as they said, "take away this pain" and "get back to normal." All they wanted was a safe place to unload.

Modern society pressures us all to "get over" life's tough challenges and "move on." But often what we need is the reverse — to slow down, to consider what happened to us and, rather than simply recover, to start over. I guessed that few of my colleagues felt as personally attracted to 20-ton freighters as I did, but then my practice differed from that of most psychologists dealing in "talk therapy." Like them, I worked with people facing personal crisis, but I specialized in the treatment of grief and catastrophic loss.

On what were called "in-service" days, for example, I was the "grief speaker," or "Dr. Grief," as human resources directors sometimes called me. On these days, I would talk with groups of bereaved employees who might still be in shock at the sudden death of a colleague a few days before. Or I would counsel concerned workers who wanted to extend friendship and condolence to an employee coming back from bereavement leave. Sometimes I sat down with whole departments of people who were being downsized and were already overwhelmed by anticipatory grief. On one occasion, I spoke with traumatized employees who were reeling from an office shooting that had left many of their colleagues injured or dead.

It was because Elisabeth had pioneered the concept of "grief therapy" everywhere but in the business world that I had wanted to take this on. Not only had Elisabeth encouraged me to attend graduate school, first for a master's degree and then for a Ph.D., so that I could become a psychologist in my own right; she had also taken my promise after Kristen's death as seriously as I had — that one day I would help people, especially bereaved parents, who felt so overcome by grief that they couldn't function. By the time I began to establish my practice, the range of grief issues I encountered extended from losing a loved one to losing a job or a house or a marriage. Very soon, I realized that grief was hardly nonexistent in the business world — it was simply invisible.

The big question was how to convince corporations that grief should be given that visibility, and to show them that an untried and freshly credentialed psychologist like me was the one to do the job. I decided to keep my approach simple and direct. In the phone book's Yellow Pages (no Internet then), I found the phone numbers of major corporations that were headquartered in San Francisco. Feeling a bit like an insurance salesman, my pitch memorized and my answers to questions at the ready, I started cold-calling various companies. The first part was easy because live human operators answered the phone in those days and would connect me to "human resources" (HR) or the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Then, however high up the hierarchy my phone call took me, I'd open with something like this: "Hello, this is Carol Kearns calling. You don't know me, but I'm a psychologist specializing in grief and loss issues, and I would like to speak with you about employees working at __________ who may be grieving."

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