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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

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


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Maria and Katy

Elisabeth once told me about the case of Maria, a mother who was so despondent after the rape and murder of her preteen daughter, Katy, that for the longest time, she could barely move. One morning she sat at the kitchen table, not knowing how a cup of coffee had been placed in her hand, or how she was going to make it through the day, when suddenly, through the window, she saw Katy standing in the garden with her arms outstretched, smiling at her. Maria dropped her coffee mug and burst into tears. She had no difficulty believing this was the real Katy, returned from the dead — that was never in question, Elisabeth said. What surprised her was Katy's message: "Look at me, Mom," the girl seemed to say. "I'm okay! See how good I look? You don't have to worry any longer." Instantly a feeling of well-being flooded Maria's heart. Katy faded away, and Maria found herself cleaning up the spilled coffee. She thought about taking a shower, maybe even going to the store, for the first time in months.

"Do you think Katy really came back from the dead?" I asked.

"Absolutely," said Elisabeth, "and you know it doesn't matter what I think. When Maria saw her daughter, she found a reason to live."

(I heard this story a year after Kristen's death, when I was learning grief work at Elisabeth's center. "How I've wanted Krissie to come back to me," I exclaimed. "Why won't she? I've prayed so hard for it." Elisabeth grasped my hands. "Because, Carol, for some reason it may not be good for you if she did," she said. "Remember, you don't always get what you want, but you will get what you need." How many times I had heard her say that to others. She meant that life is a school — we can't learn our lessons until we're ready.)

To doubters who may still reject such incidents as so much wishful thinking on the part of the bereaved, I should add that many clients shared their visions and premonitions with others before the death of their loved one occurred.

Ruby and Peggy

Ruby, for example, dreamed one night that her daughter Peggy, an avid scuba diver, was going to die on a routine dive the next day. Ruby pleaded with Peggy to postpone the dive because the dream had been so vivid, but Peggy would not be deterred. Ruby told the other divers about it, and everyone tried to reassure her. They explained how sophisticated and safe the technology of diving had become, how thoroughly each diver checked all the valves and tanks and tubes before each dive, and how they'd make sure that Peggy would call her mom the instant she got back in the boat. Ruby waited by the telephone all morning. She wasn't particularly surprised when the head diver called to say that her daughter had been killed in a freak underwater accident.

It would be an understatement to say that Ruby was guilt-ridden. She was inconsolable. She should have tied Peggy up, kept her home, inspected the dive equipment herself — anything to protect her daughter from harm. I couldn't blame her. I would have done the same thing. A thousand times I berated myself about that day at the beach with Kristen. I should have held her in my lap forever. I should have gone with them. I should have died alongside her (of course, here I always stopped, grateful that Michel survived).

But the fact that Ruby and I discussed over and over was that a dream is only a dream. Most of the time its message is metaphorical. Ruby's dream, for example, could have meant that Ruby worried about Peggy "drowning" in debt or "getting in deeper" than she should with a man who didn't love her. Ruby at first scoffed at this notion. Her daughter had died, for heaven's sake, and who could argue: In some vast plan that we mortals can't understand, Peggy's time had come. She hadn't been ready to hear her mother's warning. She had only been ready to decide for herself how to live in the next moment, and the next, and the next, until life ended for her, as it would for Ruby one day, and for me, and for all of us. To take this thought to its logical extension, in a very detached, cosmic way, it wasn't Ruby's business to decide how Peggy should spend any moment of her adult life, even if it was the last. Granted, such thoughts are no consolation so soon after a tragic loss, but they do remind us that the decisions we thought so crucial at the time were never really in our hands.

What did make sense to Ruby was the absolute specialness of her dream. She had to admit that if the routine dive was going to be Peggy's time to die, somehow the universe had given her mother advance notice, and in the desperate activity that followed — it doesn't matter who said what — Ruby and Peggy found a depth of love for each other that they had never expressed before. That, at least, had a timeless quality that Ruby knew was as valuable to her as the life she had given birth to years before.

In the end, Ruby's dream began the process of relieving her guilt and understanding that her daughter's death was not a random, capricious event. Somehow, it was Peggy's time to die. I understood only too well how such unexplained experiences could open a path to resolving grief.

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