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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

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


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Interestingly, instead of feeling depressed by this, Marilyn brightened every time the thought came up. The fact was, she had never liked her job. Having worked so hard over the years, Marilyn believed she had become a "control freak," and she didn't like herself very much. The longer she thought about it, the more she didn't want to go back to the office at all. She stopped asking, Why me? and began to hear something different: Maybe only you needed this near-death experience. Life had taken a left turn, she decided, but maybe for the better.

The Original Vessel

Marilyn's ability to see the positive in her situation echoed a pattern I began to see in other clients that I called "The Original Vessel" in honor of a single father named Howard, whose only daughter, Lori, had been raped and murdered. For years after it happened, Howard lost interest in everything he once valued. He felt "completely gutted" inside and could hardly muster the energy to do more than "go through the motions." When I asked if anything gave him pleasure or even a moment of joy, he looked out the window and said,

"It's like those cargo ships down there. Once they dock and unload, they're down to the original vessel — you know, the core structure, empty and waiting. Well, that's me now. I used to take on things I thought gave me joy — my house, my car, my boat — but now they mean nothing. With Lori gone, I don't care about loading up again. Or let me say this: You can bet if anything remotely interesting comes along, I won't just acquire it and throw it in the hold like I used to. I want to decide what has meaning for me and what doesn't."

This idea of the essential vessel — the "core self," the "essential you," the "person you really are" — is the one part of us that remains after tragedy empties us out. But if there is any benefit to grief (and for years I would have sworn there was none), it lies in the possibility of building a new and even fulfilling life from the ruins. We learn that when we're young, we may not give much thought to the decisions we make, because if we've made a mistake, we live with it and go on. But later, something happens — a death, a loss, a tragedy — that leads us to "unpack" or reexamine our choices and see if we're on the journey we've always wanted. Elisabeth used to say it was unfortunate that human beings don't learn when they're happy. Most of the time it takes a huge, life-altering event to teach us life's hard lessons. But once we discover what truly matters, life can start anew.

I used to think that only a life-altering event could trigger such a radical reassessment of life's choices, so I was taken by surprise early in our marriage when my husband, Bob, realized he had to go through some deep reassessment of his own.

I first met Bob about four years before our marriage when Krissie was three years old. He was teaching high school in Pebble Beach, just south of San Francisco, with my brother-in-law at the time. I would frequently go down with the kids to visit my sister and spend the weekend, so I knew him then as an acquaintance.

Several years passed, during which my sister and her husband had a son and asked Bob and me to be godparents. By that time, Bob was based in Africa as the regional manager for a small multinational company, so he couldn't attend the baptism. I didn't see him until after Krissie's death, and as we got reacquainted, Bob told me that the constant travel in his job had become oppressive to him. The more we saw each other, the harder it was for Bob to be away, so just after we were married, he joined a larger multinational that didn't require so much travel. His experience was not good. The company had layers of management that were stifling to him. In his prior job, he had been alone in Africa reporting directly to the president — a much more entrepreneurial and freeing experience.

I supported him when he quit and, in an attempt to clear his head, decided to take a job outdoors as a laborer for a large landscaping company. He would essentially be digging ditches until he figured out what to do with his life. I went back to work at my old job as an X-ray technician to partially make up for the drastic drop in income. In the meantime, I continued graduate school at night. What we remember from that period is Bob falling asleep from exhaustion at the dinner table and me relearning how to take X-rays in an office rather than a hospital because I could not stand the sight of blood.

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