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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

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


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Most of the people I had seen as a therapist were "high functioning" — on the outside, they appeared capable and calm, but on the inside their emotions were roiling, out of control. Joe was the opposite. His outbursts of rage were clearly visible on the outside, while bit by bit, he was beginning to glimpse the worthwhile person inside.

Joe had experienced such little recognition growing up that he appreciated the slightest gesture of caring as an adult. For instance, if he had a particularly strenuous time in session, I would sometimes call him a few days later to see how he was doing. This took little effort on my part, as I usually left a message on his voicemail. But even this was so remarkable that he could not stop thanking me for it. Every voicemail meant to Joe that someone really cared, and had gone on record to say so.

Meanwhile, though, something was nagging at me about Joe. Sometimes he did blow up in anger, or he did glower at me furiously throughout a session, but that wasn't it — in fact, I was glad when Joe could get those emotions on the table. The problem was something about me. About two decades had passed since Kristen's death, so I didn't think it was bitterness over my daughter being taken from me. I've always said that a parent never gets over the death of a child, but I thought after so many years of work with Elisabeth, and as a psychologist in my own right, that I had cleared the emotional decks, so to speak.

Then one day I was having lunch in a restaurant when I spotted a father and his children at another table. The kids were excited about being out with Dad, it was clear, but he didn't reciprocate — in fact, he was reading a newspaper without showing any interest in them. I found myself getting furious. What was the matter with that father, neglecting his kids in that way? It occurred to me that this wasn't the first time I reacted in this way. Moms were not exempt from my scrutiny, either. If I saw a woman yelling at her children in a grocery story or pulling her children's hands to make the kids keep up as they walked across a parking lot, I would want to rush over and say, "Stop treating your children like that! Get it together!" Similarly, at this restaurant, it was all I could do not to go over to the table, rip the newspaper from the father's hands and shout, "Pay attention to your children! They need you!"

When I thought about how often this kind of scenario had occurred — perhaps once or twice a month for nearly 20 years? — it struck me that the last sentence I would leave them with was the most revealing. It might be: "You are lucky to have your children." or "You may not have them tomorrow." This came from that place in my heart that missed Kristen, that remembered every second of her time on Earth, and that ached for one last moment when I could see her and hold her.

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