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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

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


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Ginger and Chuck

After Chuck's death, his wife, Ginger, found a journal he had been keeping without her knowledge. She said that Chuck had been attending a software conference in New York when the taxi taking him across town collided with a truck, killing Chuck instantly. Ginger felt so emotionally flattened that "it was like the truck killed me, too." What really stunned her, however, was the realization that Chuck's journal entries over the last two months had been devoted to thoughts of death and dying. When a notice arrived in the mail that Chuck had taken out a life insurance policy naming Ginger as the beneficiary — also without telling her — she was convinced that he knew death was coming. "These aren't coincidences," she said about the journal and the insurance policy. "They're messages. Chuck is okay, wherever he is, and wants to take care of me."

Barbara and Dad

I didn't think I would ever be privy to the presence of a departed person until I noticed an odd clicking sound during my first session with a young client named Barbara. Sometimes drilling noises came through the walls from the dentist's office next door, so I was used to odd sounds, but this was different. It was sharper and more like a snapping of some kind, and it came from the ceiling.

Barbara noticed my puzzled expression as I looked up at the acoustic tiles.

"That's just Dad," she said. "He gets impatient sometimes."

Barbara's father had passed away a few months before. As soon as she mentioned him, I realized that the noise did sound more human than mechanical.

"It's like someone is snapping his fingers up there," I said.

"Yeah, he wants me to get going and tell you about Jess, the man I'm in love with. Dad never cared for him. He thinks that Jess is really overbearing and I should stand up for myself. If Jess can't take that from me, Dad always says, I should just leave him."

"What do you think?"

"Well, that's why I'm here. I don't think Jess respects me, either. Of course he loves me, but he's kind of possessive, and he can be cruel sometimes." Barbara's eyes welled up with tears. "I don't mean physically — he's never hit me — I mean he doesn't listen, and he yells, or he just goes out with his friends ... "

By this time, the finger-snapping stopped, and I had the feeling that Dad was satisfied — Barbara had turned to the purpose of her visit. We never heard the finger-snapping again, but for years afterward, I was struck by Barbara's easy acceptance of her father's presence. She was so matter-of-fact about his concern over Jess that she interpreted the finger-snapping — rightly, I thought — as a gesture of love. In a way, Barbara's dad had become my ally in that first session by helping Barbara dig beneath Jess's abuse to get to the real problem, her own feelings of self-worth. There she could make some real changes, and (with Dad's help) she did.

Dennis and Peter

The idea of dead people on the ceiling returned when I met with Dennis, 55, who was referred to me through the Employee Assistance Plan of his construction company. Grief-stricken though he was after his son died, Dennis didn't think I could help him. He was a "linear-thinking engineer," he said, and psychotherapy seemed like a waste of time to him. To demonstrate, Dennis told me "a story you won't believe — heck, it happened to me and I don't believe it."

Dennis said that one night he woke up from a sound sleep with the feeling that someone else was in the room. He glanced at the clock and saw that it was 3 a.m. Then he looked up and realized that his son Peter was floating on the ceiling, watching him. This was not a dream, Dennis insisted, and he had not been drinking. Peter faded away, but the incident so disturbed Dennis that he tossed and turned until 6 a.m., when the doorbell rang. Two grave-looking highway patrol officers stood on the front steps. They told him that Peter had been killed in a car accident on a freeway about 800 miles away at approximately 3 a.m.

"I admit, seeing my son on the ceiling at the moment he died in a freeway accident so far away makes no sense," Dennis said. "But then, since his death, nothing does. I do know that when I saw Peter up there, it wasn't like he was saying good-bye — it was more like he was watching over me. He was my son, and I loved him and felt grateful to him. That's the feeling that stays with me, like a message."

As more clients talked about incidents like this, I noticed that Dennis's observation seemed to apply to many of them. Wariness gave way to curiosity, and strangeness melted into a flood of good feeling, even though the dearest person they loved had just died.

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