Life challenges everyone. My greatest challenge was the drowning of my seven-year-old daughter, Kristen. In 1976, Krissie was swept out to sea by a rogue wave while playing with her nine-year-old brother, Michel, and other children on an Oregon beach. I never saw Kristen again. The unique hope for "Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare" is not only to describe the process of my journey through grief and the lessons learned; I also want to share an added perspective from my years as a psychologist specializing in crisis counseling and tragic loss.
The book is not aimed exclusively at those who are grieving. All of us face multiple losses in life besides death — divorce, job loss, an empty nest, to name a few.
The death of a child is perhaps the most difficult separation we face, and reconstructing a life in the wake of this loss can feel overwhelming. My personal history and the privilege of observing the experiences of others in an intimate therapeutic setting have left me in awe of the capacity of the human spirit to endure when all seems lost. The journey through grief can take many different roads, and we must each find our own way. The intensity of the experience may be different, but the pain of separation is universal. My book is about encountering and dealing with loss, and rebuilding an enriching life.
Of the roads I've taken to accept Kristen's death, I realize that an important one was an appreciation for the effect her loss has had on others, including strangers. I've watched parents turn from Krissie's death to appreciate their own children more, realizing that there are no guarantees that anyone will live forever. Children die every day, and the greatest killer of children is accidents.
The awareness of how Kristen's death was affecting others slowly gave her death meaning. I began to step out of my cocoon of anger, resentment, and self-pity, which had resulted from my belief that her death was a waste. Kristen had been a beautiful, kind, and loving child with so much to give. I could not bear to think of her dying for no reason. Gradually I learned that she did not die in vain.
With time, I began to see a meaning in Krissie's death by understanding how her loss was enriching others. Often just hearing about Krissie gave people a greater perspective on life — a respect for the small joys of each day, a sense of unconditional love growing within, a belief in human interaction with family and strangers alike. The greatest gift you can give someone is a part of yourself, and Kristen truly gave. She gave when she was alive and is still giving through her death. With time, I began to appreciate the meaning this personally had for me.
Kristen and I had seven short years together. Sometimes these seven years seem so short that I can hardly believe she was here at all. However, when I think of how much her death has changed my life, I realize she was very much here. We were an intimate part of each other, and I never dreamed she would be taken from me. I would read about children dying, but as with any tragedy, I thought it would happen to someone else. The worst fear I imagined was to have something happen to Michel or Kristen. I thought that if it did, I would literally go crazy; I could never function again.
Kristen's death made me realize that I missed not only my past with her but also my future. I remember a special afternoon during our last summer together when the two of us went to an elegant restaurant for tea. She felt so grown up with her own little teapot. We had a wonderful afternoon, and as I watched her across the table, I had visions of our one day traveling the world and sharing many more unique times like this.
Letting go of these dreams has been difficult. I have missed watching her grow up. I remember the small things, like our hike on Mt. Ashland the month before she died. Kristen, her little arms loaded with pinecones and wildflowers, looked up at me and in all seriousness asked, "Mommy, is God married to Mother Nature?" I also miss when for no reason she would throw her arms around my neck and say, "Mommy, I love you."
I even treasure those moments when Kristen, angry at me, would punish me by totally ignoring me. She would be disappointed to know that this really pleased me because it showed me how secure she was in my love for her — so secure that the greatest punishment Kristen could think of was not to have a tantrum but instead, in her smug way, to roll her eyes and stick her little nose in the air as she turned away. Her demeanor was of utter disgust, as if to say, "Mommy, you really blew it this time, and now you don't get to have me at all." I would have to turn away as well to conceal my smile.
Finding it impossible to give these moments up, I have decided I won't. No one can take them from me. I can look back on our good and bad times together, and they are all mine. I can do whatever I want with them. I can be bitter, angry, hateful, and resentful, or I can look into the meaning of the many things we shared. I have decided to choose the latter. If there was anything I learned from Kristen, it was not to be bitter, angry, hateful, and resentful but instead to love and trust.
Many times I remember wiping away Kristen's tears after a fall or a disappointment, and she would be right back out there living every moment. Behind her tears there was always a smile. After Kristen's death, I took a fall, too — a big fall and my wound was deep. Time has slowly healed my wound, and although I may always be scarred, I'm not willing to stop living.
When I emerged from that cocoon of grief, I focused on how much was given to me instead of how much was taken from me. I was honored to be Krissie's mother and will never stop missing her. At times, the loss continues to feel great and my tears still flow. However, behind my tears there is also a smile, and I see my pain as witness to the special relationship we shared. Kristen's death has changed our relationship, but it will never change our love.
This love was my reason for becoming a psychologist and for writing my book, "Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare." I had promised myself that if I ever made it beyond this grief, I would try to help others in crisis. If as a result of my loss others can benefit, then my pain has a purpose, and this is important.
We all have pain for one reason or another, certainly not only for the loss of a child. Pain is pain, and it hurts. I firmly believe that if we can reach outside ourselves to help others, our pain becomes less. Everyone benefits.
After Kristen's death, I had the opportunity to be helped by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a pioneer in the field of death and dying. She guided me through my grief and helped me to achieve my goal as a professional helping others. An added and invaluable source of strength and hope came from another bereaved mother, whose 15-year-old son had died. She had been driving with her son when the car broke down. As she stood next to him on the side of a road, he was hit and killed by a truck. I did not care if she had professional degrees. I knew that she understood my suffering. Just seeing her smile as she went about her daily life gave me hope that some day I would smile, too. I could be happy again.
One month before her death, Kristen learned how to ride a bicycle. She had many falls, many tears, and a lot of disappointments, but she also had a strong determination. She kept getting back on that bike until one day she ran into the house and proudly announced, black eye and all, "Mommy, I can ride!"
Kristen's death taught me to never give up. Michel had just lost his sister; he didn't need to lose his mother too. Determined to be the best mother I could possibly be for him, I kept picking myself up through my tears and disappointments. Eventually I learned how to ride, black eye and all, through the challenges of grief because I refused to live a bitter existence. That would be living a death, and I was determined to live a life — a life of meaning.
Kristen's death has changed me. Never could I have imagined myself saying this, but I am a better person for it. I am living a deeper, more meaningful life because I no longer take life for granted. I miss Kristen. I will always miss her, but the pain is less. I will always wish she hadn't died, but I will marvel, too: What wisdom her death has given me! A part of me died with her and another part was born. Through Kristen's death I learned the meaning of life.
(To protect their privacy, all names of clients have been changed.)