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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

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


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A young doctor I know who has a passion for surfing told me he once almost drowned. He had been surfing on a large wave in Hawaii when he lost his balance and was pulled under by the wave. When finally released, he tried to swim to the surface but struck his head on something. Again he tried and again he bumped against something. He then realized, to his horror, that he was in a coral cave. A surfer's worst nightmare. He felt his lungs were about to explode from the lack of oxygen when he spotted a dim light. Hoping it was the entrance to the cave, he swam for it with all his might, knowing he only had this one chance or he would drown. Fortunately, it was the entrance, and he lived to tell his tale.

When he told me about his experience, Michel, I thought of the first few years after Kristen's death. I was caught in a cave of grief with little chance for survival. You were, too. The wave that changed Kristen's life forever changed ours as well. Everything changed. Things looked different, smelled different, and tasted different. Even breathing was an effort. Many times I felt I would drown in my grief. At the worst times, you were that dim light, the light I would focus on to surface again.

But do you realize what a lifeline you were? You were my reason to go forward when I saw no reason to want to do it for myself. You needed me now more than ever. Having just lost your sister, you didn't need to lose your mother too. In order to help you, I needed to help myself first. I needed to get back to a normal life, whatever that might be. You deserved more than a world of sadness.

While I struggled so hard with the present and often got stuck in the past, for the most part you seemed to keep going ahead — being with friends, riding bikes, and playing games. After school, your outside world, by all appearances, did not seem to change at all. You were also a good student, and your grades remained high.

Michel, I decided to follow your example and focus on the future. I went back to my college and enrolled in classes. I soon decided, though, not to pursue a career in broadcasting. Producing television shows was now the last thing on my mind. Instead, I enrolled in art and psychology classes. As an artist, I knew the value of the creative in healing. It had been such a help in my divorce from your dad. Choosing most of my art classes as studio work proved to be a positive step. Where grief was ineffable, painting became a means of expression. I would hole up in the studio, paint and cry, and paint and cry some more. Painting was a safe way to confront the pain and put back some of the pieces of my shattered life. I knew that unless I allowed myself to look at what I was feeling, I would never heal.

Aware of my situation, my instructor left me to work independently. Doing studio work gave me a chance for solitude and a way to replenish myself and be a good mom to you again.

I was asked once what you did when you saw me crying. It made me wonder if you ever did. I cried a lot under the covers at night. I think I was trying to protect you from my tears so that we could have a normal life. Yet our life remained far from normal. When your dad moved into our area six months later, I thought it was best for you to live with him and his wife, Suzie. I knew I hadn't really dealt with my grief and needed to confront it once and for all. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross had invited me to live and work at her center and attend workshops. The thought of facing my pain was scary, but it was necessary. I had to trust that I would get through it. I had avoided some of the hardest issues to remain a steady force for you.

My interest in psychology came from wanting to understand more about my grief. I had promised myself at my darkest hour that if I ever made it through this pain, and I certainly had my doubts, I wanted to help others in crisis. As you know, psychology became very important to me.

Michel, I didn't feel I had the freedom to let myself completely feel my pain, because I worried where it would take me. If I allowed myself to feel all of it, would I fall into the black hole forever and never get out? Since your dad lived four hours from us, he couldn't help you on a daily basis.

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