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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

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


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The Job of Grief

Growing up in Philadelphia, Katie said, she had learned early to "always put other people first" rather than stand up for herself. After college, she had moved to Berkeley and did well as a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization, but she did not consider herself assertive. Once married, she had "stepped back" to give Ricky "all the support he needed" in his climb up the corporate ladder at Equinox. She gave up her job when they moved to Kyoto but could not get a green card, so she tried to spend her time exploring shrines and temples in the Japanese countryside, which she loved. But Katie still felt at loose ends without meaningful work of her own. Then the appendicitis knocked her flat, and the "botched surgeries" jeopardized her health and her future as a mother. "The rug had been jerked out from under" her plans, but then, so what? she had thought. Waiting things through during Ricky's assignment in Kyoto could hardly be termed a burden. After they returned to the United States, she would go back to work, they would buy their own house, and she would get pregnant.

All these plans were in motion when they decided to take the quick vacation to Costa Rica. After the crash of Flight 398, she felt lost, inconsequential, as dead as Ricky. Instead of "bucking up" and "moving on," as well-meaning friends encouraged her to do, she could barely move. "Wrong" ideas kept popping up — that she had no life without Ricky, that she didn't care about "recovering" (from what? for what?), and that she couldn't say no, although she dreaded every moment, when his parents asked her to fly to Philadelphia for their own memorial service.

Reviewing her life history in the aftermath of her husband's death was perhaps the hardest thing Katie had ever done. In our talks, however, she began to see that this was the "job" of grief — to pry off the lid we all try to keep on old regrets and defenses; to try resolving problems that have plagued us since childhood; to seek new meaning in life at the same time that we're filled with despair because the person we love has been taken from us. The process is terrifying and painful, but the very nature of fighting our way out of that despair — of facing the world alone, of insisting there must be a reason to live when everything denies even that possibility — can renew us, fulfill us.

The Book and the Box

One of the ironies for family members dealing with an airplane crash like that of Flight 398 is a continuation of the tragedy in symbolic and literal packages coming at them from out of the blue. For Katie, one of these was the arrival of the Book, an album of photographs from TransNational Airlines of unidentified items retrieved from the bottom of the ocean after the plane crashed. Family members were asked to examine the photographs for their loved ones' possessions.

Not wanting to judge the merits of a single item over any other, TransNational Airlines filled the Book with photos of everything its investigators had recovered, including shoes, coats, purses, ties, belts, earrings, buttons, bracelets, chains, shaving kits, luggage, rings, lipstick cases, combs, keys, shirts, pens, notebooks, tote bags, jewelry, and the like. The look of this human effluvia ranged from water-logged to burned around the edges to half-eaten by denizens of the ocean. Every time Katie forced herself to examine the Book, she felt anger and fear smoldering in her gut as fiercely as any abdominal pain she had ever endured in Kyoto. Where was Ricky in all this wreckage? She had fallen in love with his very soul, and they expected her to identify a tattered shoelace.

Then weeks later a truck pulled up with delivery of the Box. This was the container of items recovered from the ocean that Katie had identified as Ricky's from the Book: Here were his watch, his cell phone, his camera. TransNational had developed the film inside, miraculously undamaged by water or impact, and enclosed the photos. Katie took one look at those snapshots, and the pressures of dealing with Ricky's death nearly blew her away again. Here were three-by-five pictures of Katie, her parents, and Ricky smiling and happy as they cavorted on the beach, hiked in the jungle, or bunched together around margaritas at the palm-shaded bar. Examining them was a morose and ghoulish experience for Katie, but it helped, too. The more she looked at these pictures, a deeper kind of anger, sarcasm, and fear began to surface that was oddly freeing. Katie had not been able to mourn Ricky's death because TransNational never found his body. Viewing these photos, she began to believe, might be the closest thing to saying good-bye that she would ever know.

But just as Katie seemed to be paving a new path toward self-affirmation, "the rug got yanked again." Friends and family members kept calling to see if Katie had sorted through Ricky's closet yet, hoping she would send them mementos and clothes she might not want to keep. The prospect was bleakly laughable. She could barely glance at Ricky's side of the bed — "let Lucy [the dog] do that," she joked thinly — let alone look through belongings that still contained his body shape and smell. Most of his things she would gladly send to his family in Philadelphia, but not today, she kept saying.

This was the kind of "impossible" task that could be negotiated in therapy. If tackling his side of the closet was too much, what else might be possible? Could she look at his things on top of the dresser? Could she separate out, say, the cuff links his mother had sent and put them into a mailing envelope? It helped to break down the whole unbearable aftermath of Ricky's death into workable units, and also to establish an escape route. After ten minutes of, say, separating out Ricky's Grateful Dead albums and deciding where to send them, she could leave the house to take Lucy for a long walk, meet a friend, go to a movie — anything to release the pressure, to make a new start on the day. In this way, step by step, what seemed like impossible drudgery became the kind of grief work that could liberate Katie from the prison she had been living in since the crash.

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