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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

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


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There were the "Golden Wonder" up-and-comers who had staked their hopes on climbing the corporate ladder until struck down by illness — heart attack, ulcer, stroke — in their 40s and found themselves suddenly afraid to leave the house.

There were also PTSD clients like Dorothy, an airline attendant who had been serving dinner on a transatlantic flight when the plane's cargo door blew out, dragging five rows of passengers with it. Dorothy felt her body "sort of inhaled" toward the breach, but at the last moment she was on the floor, hanging onto the legs of a seat while strapped-in passengers nearby grabbed hold to prevent her body from being sucked out. After the pilots equalized the air pressure and made an emergency landing, the world congratulated Dorothy for surviving one of the worst disasters in aviation. By this time, however, Dorothy, a 20-year airline veteran who had loved air travel since childhood, couldn't imagine setting foot inside a plane again.

Couples were referred to me as well, and very often I found that the loss of a child was only the first step of their tragedy. Norah and Jake, whose baby died of sudden infant death syndrome, had to postpone their grief until the police stopped interrogating them on suspicion of killing their own child. Such interrogation is a routine procedure for the police after a SIDS death.

Bill and Arlene made their first appointment six years after the police had given up on finding the kidnapper of their son Danny. By this time, word of mouth about my specialty had spread, and Bill and Arlene hoped I could help them to break a cycle of behavior that had almost become an addiction. "We cannot go out on the street," Arlene said, "without searching the faces of every little boy who might be his age in the hope of finding Danny." How could they say good-bye, Bill asked, until they stopped looking?

Left Turn Thinking

Very soon, I noticed a pattern emerge in the way my clients responded to trauma, loss, and death. I thought of it as "Left Turn Thinking" because a client would say something like this: "Things were going along fine until my wife died. It was as if life took an abrupt left turn. Everything has changed so much that I might as well be dead, too."

The more unforeseen the tragedy, the more painful the experience, as was true with Janey and Fred, a newlywed couple who flew to Fiji for their honeymoon. One night they made a bet about the fastest route from a favorite restaurant to their cottage. After dinner, Janey took the path by the river, and Fred chose the mountain trail. They should have arrived back within minutes of each other, but Janey, who "won," waited for ten minutes before peeking out the door, and a half hour before asking people if they had seen Fred coming up the trail. Hours later, the Fiji police scoured the mountain looking for signs of an accident or a skirmish but found nothing. It was as if Fred had been wiped off the face of the Earth. Janey stayed on until detectives told her there was no hope. After she returned to San Francisco, her attempts to go to work, let alone find her way back to "normal," failed completely. Life for Janey had not only made a left turn, she told me — it had dumped her on the side of the road.

A similar fate seemed to await Marilyn, a stockbroker who was sitting in her office at the top of a skyscraper when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake erupted. Out of nowhere, the floor lurched so violently that before she knew it, Marilyn was spinning in her chair across the hardwood floors, heading dangerously toward the floor-to-ceiling windows. An aftershock, nearly as strong as the initial earthquake, whiplashed the chair toward another set of windows, with Marilyn still hanging on. This time she braced herself — the chair was going to crash through the glass and fall 33 floors to the hard Montgomery Street pavement below. But then, just as suddenly, the earthquake stopped, the floor leveled out, and the chair rolled to a stop.

The whole thing lasted 15 seconds, life had just taken an extreme left turn. She had panic attacks, battles with agoraphobia, and outbreaks of temper with herself and the brokerage. Her memory of the event was a blur, but she did remember one thought that rang loudly in her mind as the chair careened toward the windows: All this time I've controlled the small things in my life, but now when I'm about to face the biggest thing — death — I have no control whatsoever.

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