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Rebuilding a life after everyone is gone

By Ann Hoevel, CNN
updated 1:54 PM EST, Fri November 15, 2013
Madonna Badger was a successful mother and ad executive when a house fire killed her three children and her parents.
Madonna Badger was a successful mother and ad executive when a house fire killed her three children and her parents.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Madonna Badger's parents and three children were killed in a house fire two years ago
  • The Christmas tragedy left Badger mentally and emotionally unmoored
  • Badger moved in with a friend to recuperate and gradually found her way back
  • She shares in a personal essay for Vogue magazine the steps she took to rebuild her life

(CNN) -- It's been two years since Madonna Badger lost her three children and both of her parents in a Christmas Eve house fire. This fall she was finally able to bury her daughters' ashes. It's the kind of tragic loss that strikes people speechless.

Badger writes about the horror and healing she experienced in the December issue of Vogue magazine, on newsstands November 19.

Almost every morning, she says, she thinks about that night, a Christmas Eve filled with singing, decorating with her girls, feasting on her mother's homemade sugar cookies and wrapping presents late into the evening. She wakes up wondering what she could have done differently.

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The family had seemingly done everything right. A picture-perfect winter holiday had been warmed by a roaring fire in Badger's Victorian house in Stamford, Connecticut, which was undergoing a massive renovation at the time. They swept up the fire's ashes at the end of the night, made sure they were cold, put them in a bin in the mudroom and everyone was in bed by 3:30 am.

That's when Badger's life changed in unimaginable ways. She woke up choking on smoke. She opened her bedroom window and climbed the scaffolding outside to her daughter Gracie's bedroom window. She tried to get to her daughters, but the fire was too intense. She remembers being taken off the scaffolding by firefighters and taken to a hospital.

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On Christmas Day, a doctor told her that her children were dead and her parents, too.

Badger was moved to a psychiatric ward soon after her friends arrived at her bedside. When she was released some days later, she was thrown headlong into her children's funeral. She managed to eulogize her girls, 9-year-old Lily and twins Sarah and Grace, who were 7.

"My girls are in my heart," Badger told fellow mourners in Manhattan's St. Thomas Church. "They are right here. This is where they live now."

The funeral service focused her, Badger says, but two days later, she was suicidal.

She was hospitalized again and sought trauma therapy that brought no relief. So she called a college roommate who lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, and begged for help. Her old roommate, Kate Askew, soon came to take Badger home with her. There was one stipulation: Badger had to promise she would not try to kill herself.

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After nearly a year of therapy and recuperation in Little Rock, Badger decided to return to her life in New York.

December 2013 Vogue
December 2013 Vogue
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By then it was once again the holiday season. Badger decided to join a friend on a journey to Thailand, to volunteer at an orphanage. It was one way to escape the pain of Christmas. She brought the girls in this far away place some toys of her daughters' that had survived the fire. Their thanks had a profound effect.

"When I looked into the girls' faces, I saw my children. It broke me open in a way I still can't fully explain," Badger writes in Vogue. "But if these little girls were living their lives with joy and happiness, I realized — and if they could give their love to me after all they had been through — how could I possibly feel sorry for myself? What they showed me was that what had happened to them had just happened. It wasn't 'done' to them, just as none of this had been 'done' to me. I wasn't being punished; I had not been singled out."

To read Badger's full account, pick up the December issue of Vogue magazine or download the digital copy now for iPad, Kindle Fire, Nook Color and Nook Tablet at Vogue.com.

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