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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

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


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Taking Them Seriously

I knew that these experiences were not unusual. Science tended to write them off as imagined or invented — "a product of survivor's guilt" — because they couldn't be proved objectively. Scoffers would say that people put their loved ones on the ceiling because they're influenced by books and movies from childhood that show the soul separating from the body and sometimes, like Casper, hanging around for a while.

But I took these clients' stories seriously. Jung long ago wrote that intuitive knowledge creates a subjective reality through the concept he called synchronicity. Predictive dreams and premonitions are real and meaningful to the people "who experience them" because, as Elisabeth liked to say (long before it became fashionable), "there are no accidents" — meaningful coincidences happen all the time. It's only when we notice them that we remark on their seemingly "uncanny" connections.

In that context, grief helps the psychotherapy process: It rips the lid off of long-hidden emotions, which are often so painful that the conscious mind stuffs them out of sight. If it takes a paranormal event to trigger that, as I myself found after Kristen's death, so much the better for psychotherapy — sometimes we have to be pragmatic about "process."

The problem is that people like me (and many bereaved parents) are still reeling from our child's death no matter how many years have passed. We cling to the possibility that contact after death is possible, that messages are being sent from the other side, that everything is a sign. In our need to see or feel or talk to or hear our loved ones, we're also vulnerable to charlatans who portray themselves as clairvoyant. And because a cottage industry has grown up to feed this deep and endless hunger, the whole idea of paranormal events has been stigmatized.

This is what Elisabeth was fighting against at Shanti Nilaya. She used to joke that her research in the paranormal attracted "tofu-eating meditators" who assured her that they could channel the dead and travel to higher planes of consciousness. It wasn't that Elisabeth avoided such ideas — of course, she embraced them — but rather that many New Age entrepreneurs were simply not her type.

The point I thought was always worth making about Elisabeth was that on the one hand, she had personal beliefs about spirit guides and channelers, and on the other hand, she was a doctor who had been placed on Earth to heal the sick and to help the sick heal themselves. In therapy sessions and workshops with the grief-stricken, her focus never varied. She knew that bottled-up emotions can stay trapped in the psyche for decades, so she was perhaps the most pragmatic of all of us. She wasn't concerned about what it took to open the patient's vast storehouse of emotions, whether it was a memory, image, song, food, or strange event, as long as the client could begin to work through the pent-up feelings inside. Of course, Elisabeth was a believer, and because of her influence, so was I. When the key to that emotional storehouse in a client's psyche turned out to be an unexplainable, illogical, unscientific, and uncanny coincidence, we listened harder.

So it was in this atmosphere of imagination versus reality and paranormal versus normal that clients told me about "out of this world" events involving loved ones who had recently died. Rather than judge what was "real" or not, I listened for consistency in the way they expressed their view of the world. Any event that seemed "weird" or "strange" — or stood out as meaningful to them — could be the first step out of a world of unbearable pain. That first step could take them to an awareness, and soon after an acceptance, of their new life to come.

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