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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

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


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Since most HR and EAP directors were therapists themselves and familiar with programs that helped workers deal with, say, drug or gambling addiction, they warmly received this new idea of grief therapy in the workplace. Any emotional crisis, they knew, could turn into a bottom-line problem for the company, and grief was the hardest to deal with. They had never heard the term "grief therapy," so I explained that the goal of my work was not just to make repairs on the psyche but also to help employees regain that sense of purpose (often called "a good attitude") that could make work productive and fulfilling. (I would save my now-well-documented notion that work can be a refuge for bereaved employees until later.)

Many companies started me out on a trial basis, and, much sooner than I would have predicted, I became the go-to "Dr. Grief" consultant at such corporations as United Airlines, Chevron, Nordstrom, First Interstate Bank, Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Levi Strauss, State Compensation Insurance Fund, Pacific Bell, Bank of America, Bechtel, America West Airlines, and First Nationwide Bank. I did this "in-service" training — meeting with groups, speaking at lunches — in the companies' offices, conference rooms, and cafeterias a few days a week.

On the other days, I remained in my 24th-floor office to meet with clients who at first were referred to me for individual counseling by EAP and HR directors. While grief-stricken workers knew that three days of bereavement leave were not enough, the idea of grief therapy was new to them. I was careful to explain that their insurance would pay me directly for a certain number of sessions, and that my relationship with them was entirely confidential. I was their therapist and theirs exclusively.

(At times, I would inform an employee who was referred to me for job performance problems that the sessions were not confidential. My role was to make evaluations to both the client and the company that would best resolve the work issue and successfully return the employee to the workplace.)

I never doubted that people in the business world would take to grief therapy as quickly or gratefully as did Elisabeth's workshop participants at Shanti Nilaya. What surprised me was the diversity of clients and the variety of cases that extended from death and dying to near-death experiences, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and catastrophic loss.

On a typical day, for example, I might meet with someone like Constance, whose baby daughter had been shot and killed by a stray bullet during a robbery outside her home. Or I might see Maggie, a bank teller who never knew if her husband had killed himself by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge or faked his death with a suicide note left on the railing before he disappeared.

Later I would talk to Ken, a homeowner who had escaped an out-of-control forest fire in the Oakland hills by running to the right at a smoke-filled corner near his house. Ken's wife, who had been racing alongside him until they reached that corner, was lost in a wall of smoke when she apparently made the fatal decision to turn left.

The disasters sorted themselves out in syndromes and categories. There were the "Empty Castle" clients who rarely saw their executive spouses and roamed around 20-room mansions in San Francisco's elegant Pacific Heights district trying to talk themselves out of suicide. Often, alcohol and prescription drugs were abused as a way to dim the pain of loneliness.

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