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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

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


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Pondering Fate

Directed. Now there was an uncompromising word. I felt that it wasn't important whether she was right or wrong about Ricky's death — how would she ever know? What was important was whether this interpretation served her emotional needs in a healthy way. After all, if fate was the answer — if Ricky's death had been directed — then Katie's guilt could disappear. Her decision to let Ricky return to San Francisco that day would have nothing to do with his death on Flight 398. Had she tried to keep him with her, this same fate would have persisted, and something else would have killed him. No wonder the Erma Bombeck column had popped back in mind, not as an isolated incident but as a piece of the larger mosaic, as a sign that Ricky had been meant to die.

I cannot overstate the comfort this brought to Katie. The ceiling cave-in did not mean she should have stopped Ricky from flying home without her; it meant a crash was going to occur, and she could do nothing about it. The fact that she "felt at peace" when the flowers and the Mediterranean blue color filled the bedroom — Katie still insisted this was not a dream — meant that Ricky wanted her to know that all was well for both of them: The intimacy and the love of life that Katie shared with Ricky could never be lost in death.

Granted, the mind under siege searches for relief, and Katie, some experts might say, had simply found the "signs" that made her feel better. Were they false comfort? Did Katie in effect make them up? According to traditional psychology, she had: Neither client nor therapist should "waste" a lot of time on paranormal influences. These were fairy-tale daydreams that would only sideline Katie's emotional growth.

On the other end of the spectrum, spiritual leaders from the East, such as the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh, both of whom believed in reincarnation, had begun to influence Western psychology, and American doctors ranging from Andrew Weil and Bernie Siegel to Rachel Naomi Remen were encouraging patients to question the traditional approach of Western medicine. A New Age explosion of experts from medical intuitive Caroline Myss to the much-channeled philosopher named Seth, popular authors and seekers like Louise Hay, and of course Elisabeth Kübler-Ross herself were saying that metaphysical signs existed everywhere and demonstrated that some force in the universe certainly does "direct" mortal life.

Because of my experience with Kristen and with Elisabeth, I was more than intrigued by Katie's belief that something from the "other side" was present in her life in a way that was healthy to pursue. Either way, her love for Ricky had stood for something in Katie's life that was now reasserting itself, causing her to examine and ponder death as an influence on life more actively than she ever had before.

The Not Knowing

Once again, outside pressures intervened. Katie's phone began ringing off the hook as lawyers and surviving family members urged her to join a class action against TransNational Airlines. Everyone had to commit to it, they said, or the suit wouldn't have power. Every day, more discoveries were made by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators about what "really happened" to Flight 398. A two-foot-long jackscrew that kept the plane horizontally stable had been recovered on the ocean floor. It was encased by a ribbon of metal threads, indicating that the nut holding the screw had been badly worn down and insufficiently lubricated before the crash — a sign of poor maintenance. When the jackscrew let go during the flight, the plane had jammed into "a full nose-down position." Legally, this discovery was thought to give the class action new muscle, and survivors like Katie were expected to keep up.

But this stark language, with its image of the plane stalling in the air and diving straight down, sent Katie into her own tailspin. Of all the horrors she had to confront in the aftermath of the crash, what we came to call "The Not Knowing" was the most unbearable: not knowing what the passengers were told during the flight, not knowing when the pilots sensed something wrong, not knowing how the first shuddering motions of the plane must have felt, not knowing the terror that surely overcame Ricky when the jackscrew flew off. Each new discovery revealed that the plane must have been jitterbugging crazily in the sky before plunging so fast that Ricky probably felt the Earth coming up to meet him rather than the other way around.

My approach to counseling was to work in partnership with Katie rather than to distance myself and treat her like a "patient." While we never talked about my own tragedy with Kristen, I was keenly aware that we shared two specific aspects of grief: no body to mourn and not knowing what had happened to our loved ones in their last moments. Instead of distracting me from my work with Katie, these excruciating memories of Kristen helped me to understand how savage her emotions could get right now, how horribly deep that pit of grief I knew so well. If facing life without Ricky was the worst fear Katie had ever known, doing this grief work would help her back to life. Yet with every step she took, a new report about Flight 398 tore open her still-fragile resilience.

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