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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

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

 

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CHAPTER ONE: DEAR DOCTOR EXPERT

Connecting

Sadly, there are even times when the grieving person is no longer included in festive events for fear of their adding a touch of gloom. While this is unfortunate, it is also more common than you would want to believe, and it is another reason why I was disturbed by your response to the caring friend.

How does the bereaved mother go forward with her life if she is made to feel that she cannot or should not ever again remember her deceased child's birthday? What an added burden of suffering this would be. Her daughter deserves to be remembered. All children do.

I cherished the letters, comments, and cards that were memories of Kristen. I loved the stories others shared about what she had meant to them. When pain would envelop me like a cocoon, creating a distance from others, these stories would connect me. I loved talking about her. I had feared her little footprints would be gone forever. People who felt tentative about bringing her up for fear of causing me pain couldn't have been more wrong. What a joy it was to talk about her.

Another mother, whose seven-year-old daughter died suddenly of heart failure, said,

I think it's been good for me not to keep things in. I try to share my daughter's death with as many people who want to share it, to the extent that they can. I feel like I need to still have connections with my daughter and I'd like her memory to live on as long as it can.

I discovered the value of this connectedness early on in my own grief. When we were organizing a ceremony (following a Catholic Mass) back at the ocean where Kristen died, I asked a minister friend to preside. He wanted to make it meaningful for all the family and asked us to gather together beforehand as a unit to talk about her. He felt that in this way he could get a better sense of her and us.

I dreaded that meeting. Since her drowning, I had been trying not to focus on Kristen too much. Whenever I did, I was overwhelmed by searing emotions. To lessen the pain, I would force myself to think of other things.

The afternoon before the ceremony, about 20 of us, including my nine-year-old son, Michel, gathered with the minister in my living room. The room was still with sadness. Nobody was looking forward to this. I brought out Kristen's scrapbooks and photo albums. As the pictures of Kristen went around the circle, we began to talk about our memories. Family and friends told stories and expressed feelings, and slowly, as the memories were shared, laughter began to penetrate the sadness. Everyone had an anecdote, and usually it was funny.

We laughed through our tears at the images of Krissie in her make-believe, dress-up world. We laughed when someone talked about watching her skating in her "Ice Follies" costume. Skating had been a production to Kristen. She would never just put on her skates — she would outfit herself in little skating dresses and scarves and jewels from head to toe.

And soon our laughter and warm memories brought us closer together. It was hard for us to think of Kristen and remain gloomy. We each stepped out of our pain and connected through memories. The support of friends and family was a bridge through the grief. This was the first time since Kristen's death that I felt close to everyone, as if we were all in this together. I continued to feel support from others — through an invitation for a hike, a flower for no reason, or a small gift of food, not only after her death but months down the line when most of the cards and meals had stopped. Initially I had lots of support, but the lonely months to follow were made easier by these gentle gifts of love.

Guilt

Remembering helps the healing, and talking about the deceased child can help a parent transcend the death. However, to go beyond her grief and create a new life, guilt (real or imagined) must be dealt with. Researchers in the field believe that self-inflicted guilt is very common in bereaved parents, especially in sudden-death situations.

For example, a mother whose nine-month-old daughter died of SIDS offered this observation:

She was the easiest one to take care of — easier than the other children, so we kind of took it for granted that she's sweet and quiet. She didn't demand attention, and since she was not hard to care for, those things make us feel even guiltier.

Parents experience enough guilt because of the role of "protector" placed on them by society and their "failure" to fill that role. They don't need to add "remembering" to their list of things to feel guilty about. The list is usually long enough.

Dr. Expert, imagine the added guilt that bereaved parents feel when they hear it is wrong to remember their deceased child's birthday. They already feel guilty that they couldn't protect their child from death. Now they have another burden — that remembering their child's birthday means they are not going forward with their lives. What parents could ever forget or want to forget their child's special day? In death as in life, their child is forever their child.

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