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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

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


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One night, we were talking about why a career in psychology meant so much to me. Bob already knew of my promise after Kristen died — that one day I would help other people, particularly bereaved parents, if I could make it through my own trauma. I told him that despite the fact that it was going to take a long time for me to earn my doctorate, becoming a psychologist was already worth the effort because it would give my pain meaning; it would mean that Krissie hadn't died in vain. Bob looked at me thoughtfully when he heard this. He said that although he had met Kristen only briefly, watching the effect that her death had on me had changed his life as well. Decisions he had made before, like carving out a niche for himself in the international business world, meant nothing to him now. "As you can see," he said with a smile, "I've graduated to digging ditches." After two years of hard labor — much longer than the six months he had originally planned — Bob quit the landscaping job, but unfortunately he was still at a loss for what to do.

Then one day, after collecting ideas from his closest friends, Bob sat down with me and asked what I could see him doing. "Helping people with their investments," I said without hesitation. Bob was a whiz at financial matters and a patient and kind teacher, so what could be a better combination, I thought. He subscribed to a couple of investment newsletters (ironic, since we had no money), but my comment caught him completely off guard. He knew nothing about the field, but after calling a financial planner he knew in Cleveland, he said gamely that the work sounded "interesting." I could tell by the relief on his face that Bob was inspired by the idea, and that night, for the first time, we both went to sleep feeling something larger connecting us both to a future of helping people.

A few weeks later, Bob answered a newspaper ad that led to a commission-only job at a large financial planning company. It was not an easy road (talk about cold-calling), but his career took hold, and eventually Bob and a colleague founded a firm in San Francisco that grew quickly and continued to flourish after his retirement 25 years later in 2008.

Along the way, Bob discovered a creative streak that for the first time in his life inspired him to write poetry. Witnessing Kristen's presence in my life ignited that spark most often on important days, such as Mother's Day, Kristen's birthday, or the anniversary of her death.

He was particularly intrigued when I told him one day that I had decided to confront the weight of my negative feelings about the ocean. Ever since Kristen's drowning, he knew, I could not stand on a beach and look at the waves without feeling a heavy sorrow fill my body all over again. So I decided to take a rock that would symbolize the many painful emotions and release it in the middle of Tomales Bay, where Bob and I have our cottage.

On the appointed morning, Bob and I got into our kayak and began paddling toward Hog Island, a lovely and very special place for us because it's directly in view of our front window. As we paddled near the island, I felt a sudden rush to get the rock out of the kayak, so I said a silent prayer and dropped it into the water. Bob stopped paddling.

"What happened?" he asked.

"Well, I couldn't get rid of the rock and all it symbolized fast enough," I said.

He was crestfallen. "I thought we were going to have a ceremony," he said, pulling a piece of paper from his jacket pocket. Oh no, I thought, he's surprised me with a poem.

"Bob," I said, "It's too late — the rock is gone."

The setting at that moment was so peaceful, with the sunlight floating on the hills and reflected on the water, that it would have been a perfect moment for a poem. So Bob went ahead and opened up the paper, but as soon as he began to read the poem — which really was as lovely as our surroundings — we both started to giggle and couldn't stop. It was one of those occasions when the mood was so somber and hilarity so improper that ever since then, we haven't been able to refer to "Kristen's Rock Ceremony" without laughing.

Kristen's Legacy

My practice as a grief and trauma specialist continued for 24 years, and every client taught me, as Krissie had years before, that when life takes an abrupt left turn, grief can scrape us raw. After that happens, our vessel may be emptied out, but at least we have an opportunity to make new choices and set a new direction.

For me, many years would pass before I was even aware that Kristen's death, which had taken so much away, might one day add meaning to my life, if I let it. And when I look at Bob and realize that he believes his life has been enriched by a little girl he barely met — a spirit he has known only through me — I do. I let it.

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