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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 SEVEN: DEAR ELISABETH

I remember when I first told you that I wanted to help other bereaved parents. I had gone to the Children's Hospital at Stanford University to volunteer as a support for parents whose children had died or were dying. A social worker there told me it wouldn't work. She said they never used bereaved parents in this capacity because the experience would be too close and painful. Volunteers like me ran the risk of being "retraumatized" by working with the grief-stricken, and we might even make things worse.

I was shocked. The opposite had been true for me, not only at your workshop but whenever I met other bereaved parents. I didn't care what their degree was. I knew that they knew what I was feeling, and that was important. It was the common experience of the death of a child that created a lifeline of hope.

I'm sure the hospital's management had their reasons for this policy, but I believe that they, like most people, had no clue about how to really help a bereaved parent. I do know there are few bonds as strong as the bond of one bereaved parent with another. Another parent can offer a powerful form of hope at a time when little else can. He or she knows only too well the horror of losing a child. This is the reason for the success of bereaved-parent organizations such as The Compassionate Friends, Parents of Murdered Children, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) Network, Help After Neonatal Death (HAND), and the Bay Area's Support After Neonatal Death (SAND).

Elisabeth, you knew the power of this bond when others didn't. You told me not to be discouraged by the Stanford rejection because they were wrong. I could be a great help to others, but I had to first do my own grief work. It was then that you invited me to work with you at your new facility for death and dying, the Shanti Nilaya Center in Escondido, California, near San Diego. It wouldn't open for several months, you said, so I was able to spend the summer on a road trip with Michel, which was invaluable.

I knew as soon as I arrived that Shanti Nilaya was the fulfillment of your lifelong dream. The Sanskrit term for "ultimate home of peace" could not better describe the sense of well-being and harmony I felt driving in the sun-baked hills of Escondido to get there. The center itself was nestled at the end of a long, winding road on the top of a secluded hill. Several modest white buildings surrounded a ranch-style main house with a red tile roof, where guests and staff would gather for the workshops and meals. There were about six of us, all in our thirties, who worked at the center in any way needed. I was the only bereaved parent.

Between the main house and the outbuildings, a large patio opened onto a swimming pool, and the grounds were so beautiful that a person could walk forever, adrift in thought. Your workshops were moderate in size, attended by 25 to 30 people. Everyone noticed that whenever you returned to Shanti Nilaya from your hectic international schedule, you were happy, relaxed, and at peace. You were a gifted teacher. After helping hundreds if not thousands of people through your lectures, workshops, and personal counseling on the road, you were always available to us when you returned. Who would have thought a diet of Swiss chocolate, coffee, and cigarettes could provide such energy?

Because Shanti Nilaya was new, we all set to work with high energy, learning what was needed as we went along. I helped in any way I could, from cleaning floors to planting tulip bulbs in the garden and assisting you in your workshops. Occasionally you pulled me into your workshops to do more of my own grief work. You seemed to know when I needed it, and although I was resistant to again face the pain, I was keenly aware that this was important if I was to work with others. You also encouraged me and other workshop participants to keep a journal. This was a way to constantly work on feelings, the good as well as the painful. Writing about emotions as they came up would often provide insights that might otherwise have been missed and would contribute to the healing process.

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