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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

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


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I sat down on the floor beside you. You were fixing the dollhouse for Krissie, you said, because it was "messed up," and Krissie wouldn't have liked it like that. Knowing that under normal circumstances this would be the last place I would find you was heartbreaking. Michel, my sensitive, caring little child, in your pain you thought of Krissie and what she would like. I could barely choke out, "That's really thoughtful of you, Sweetie. Krissie would love to have you do this for her," before leaving the room to hide my tears. How could I have ever questioned whether you were grieving? Your pain was so deep — so real. I agonized over how to help.

As sad as those times were, witnessing your nightmares of Kristen was even worse. Without a body to mourn in those first ten days, there was no ending, no closure. We both experienced terrible nightmares, where Kristen always needed us. She would either be floating in the ocean or walking on the road trying to find us. You would cry out, "Mommy! Mommy!" and I'd run to your room. You'd be sitting up in bed convinced that what you had just dreamed was real. You would plead with me, "Mommy, she's trying to find us and she can't. She's on the road. We have to go back to Bandon and get her."

How many times I held you and gently told you that it was only a dream. We would talk for a while about how Krissie was no longer in the ocean or on the road trying to find us. I would tell you she was dead and in heaven watching us. I think I was telling myself as much as you.

Michel, I know you wondered that if Kristen could die so suddenly, then maybe you could as well. Some people had told you that God must have wanted Kristen. This was not the comfort they had intended. You worried that God might want you too.

I watched you try to find reasons for Kristen's death. You had many questions, but the answers didn't come easily. In my adult world, I was wrestling with similar questions myself.

I believe, Sweetie, that Krissie's death became your threshold into manhood. Death landed on your doorstep at a tender age and demanded man-sized answers. You became a quieter, more serious boy. The innocence of your childhood was left behind. Your sister, your buddy, the one person you shared the most with, was gone forever.

I tried to be sensitive to those times when your grief might be mixed with feelings of jealousy toward her. I first became aware of this when we returned home one evening from dinner at our friends' house. You asked, "Mommy, why do all our friends have pictures of Krissie and not me?"

I knew you felt guilty saying this. I said it wasn't that she was any more special. "It's just that we don't have her anymore, but we do have you. We're lucky because we get to see you, but we can't see her. I think if you had died and not Kristen, she'd wonder the same thing." Thank goodness you asked me that question. Guilt and jealousy are a hapless combination that can bring more pain if not shared. You had enough of that already. This made me sensitive about becoming too preoccupied with Kristen. You needed to feel special, too. We all do.

Since that time, Michel, I have gained a greater understanding of how powerful guilt can be for surviving siblings. As parents, it is our role to support, nurture, and protect. This is not the role of siblings, yet it gets twisted into your grief as well. As a result, it is common for brothers and sisters to feel that they failed in some way.

I remember you said once that you could have tried to save her. You could have tried to hold her hand or something. Siblings often believe there must have been something they could have done to prevent the death. But you would have surely been swept away as well. There is no way you could have held your own against the power of that wave, a wave so powerful that the Coast Guard said she could have been pulled out for five miles.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for siblings to believe they caused the death by wishing ill thoughts on their sister or brother during a disagreement or fight. You and Kristen had your fights and name-calling, but this was normal behavior, and it has unfortunate repercussions if the sibling dies.

Survival guilt is also common. Not only do parents believe they shouldn't outlive their children, but brothers and sisters often feel guilty for being alive and enjoying life. They may believe as well that they need to be the perfect child to make up for the loss. This is a real complication of grief, and I hope you never feel that. You don't need to make up for anything, nor can you. I want you to enjoy life to the fullest. The greatest gift you could give me is to be your own person. Today, I believe you are.

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