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In the middle of the night, wide awake in the dark, Jessica Schaffhausen wrestles with the nightmare of her reality.

She forces away the chilling memories of how her three daughters died, of her ex-husband the murderer. Think of the good, she tells herself. Remember all the joy the girls brought to the world.

When morning finally comes, it’s those memories that get her out of bed.

It used to be unthinkable that she ever could live without her daughters: A couple of years ago, her youngest, Cecilia, asked innocently, “What would you do if I died?”

Jessica promised her that she wouldn’t, not for a long, long time. “How would I survive that?” Jessica told her.

But now she must. Every day, every morning, every minute.

“I owe it to them to just keep going,” she says. “They would not want me to give up.”

As soon as the jury verdict was read last week, Jessica felt relief. Twelve men and women had agreed that Aaron Schaffhausen was legally sane when he cut the girls’ throats that day in July, tucked them into their beds, and then called Jessica telling her — torturing her — about what he had done.

The jury’s decision means he will go to prison, and that makes her feel safer, she says, knowing he won’t be able to hurt her or anyone else she loves.

She tries not to think of him, focusing instead on remembering her spunky, imperfect daughters.

In her first interviews since the July 10 killings, Jessica said she hopes the rest of the world can do that now, too.

She can hear Amara, the bespectacled budding scientist, announcing already in kindergarten that she “preferred nonfiction” books. At age 11, Amara watched MIT lectures online, engrossed herself in an algebra book and perfected the chemistry in meringue to top her homemade lemon pies. She proudly presented report cards filled with A’s, seeking her mother’s praise.

Jessica can see Sophie, artist brush in her 8-year-old hand, always messy with ink, paint or chalk, concentrating so intently on the paper in front of her. Sophie didn’t need her mother’s approval — she didn’t care about anyone’s approval. Jessica loved that about her, though it made parenting her a challenge. Sophie was the most photogenic of the girls, but Sophie didn’t care about that kind of thing, either. She had a lot of friends with special needs.

She can feel the warmth of little Cecilia, who loved holding kittens and crawling into her mom’s and sisters’ beds at night, uncomfortable sleeping alone. Cecilia was a peacekeeper at day care. She listened to the Current radio station while riding with her mom in the car, critiquing the music from the back seat. She crawled and walked early, determined to keep up with her sisters.

“I always said Amara was pure logic and Sophie was pure emotion, and Cecilia used whatever tool was most effective,” Jessica said with a wistful grin.

Mom and three daughters were just starting to have real fun together. The kids had grown older, and Jessica, 33, did more with them and less for them.

They all read books, sometimes together, sometimes on their own but discussing them afterward. They rode bikes to the library and to the park. They played board games. They watched movies.

“I think about them pretty much all the time,” she said.

Now she takes strength from the girls’ friends, who seem able to remember the good things about her daughters without getting bogged down in the tragedy.

“There’s this constant pain that you just kind of learn to live with,” she said.

Staying in motion

The last 9 ½ months have been a long road. Jessica doesn’t remember a lot about those first few weeks after her daughters were killed. The first 24 hours, she took everything minute by minute. Then it became hour by hour.

“I’d wake up every morning, and I’d have to remember my new reality … my children are dead. I’m not a mom anymore,” she said. “I mean my whole life was, everything I’d done revolved around being a mom and taking care of the kids.”

She recalls a whirlwind of family, friends and the community coming to comfort her and pay tribute to the girls.

She remembers the gentle kindness of police and prosecutors and victim advocates.

Jessica forces her mind away from racing into a vicious cycle of “should haves” and “what ifs” — all the tiny differences in herself and others that might have changed things if she could turn back the clock.

She tried to do everything right, to make their marriage work, to get Aaron help for his depression, to include him in the girls’ lives after the divorce.

She has learned in therapy that she can’t get mired in second-guessing.

“When somebody is that determined to hurt you, they’re going to find a way to do it,” she said.

So Jessica is approaching her days the way she did as a busy mom, by staying in motion.

She’s back working at her nonprofit social work job, helping people transition out of nursing homes after traumatic events, helping them figure out how to live their new lives. Her social-worker colleagues are in tune to trauma and have been kind. Her years of working with people in crisis have helped her cope, she said.

She took up running with friends, as she had planned to do with Amara to condition the girl for soccer. She dives into cooking, chopping and dicing vegetables to make three gallons of gumbo at a time.

She compulsively plays Words With Friends. Sometimes, she watches zombie movies, desensitizing herself to the idea of gore.

Family visits her often.

She is dating a man whom she started seeing just weeks before her daughters died. He never met them. He has two daughters part time, ages 5 and 8, and they bring her comfort, she said.

Being around kids helps sometimes. Just hearing him say that she’s strong and will get through it is helpful, she said.

She has never set foot again in the house where her girls died; her family hired people to box up their belongings.

When she needs it, she gives herself the time and space “to just lose it,” she says. She finds private places to sob. “I don’t like a lot of attention,” she said.

But she is grateful for the quiet embrace of the community, grateful sometimes that people in River Falls know her story. At the grocery store, strangers understand if they see her crying in the aisles. A cashier once encouraged Jessica, “You’re doing really good today” when she arrived at the checkout stand tear-free.

Church members brought her meals. Friends raised money in the girls’ honor. Acquaintances and strangers sent her mementos and books. Restaurants fed her entire family through the trial.

She has learned that accepting the help of others can be a gift to them, too. It’s one of the things that makes the world a better place, she said.

“I’m really only able to be here because so many people have been so incredibly supportive and kind,” she said. “I know this really evil thing has happened, but all I’ve seen outside of that one act is a lot of good from people.”

Finding deeper meaning

Now, with the trial finished, Jessica is turning her energy toward finding ways to memorialize her daughters.

She’s been talking with a nonprofit group about using donations to put up handicap-accessible playground equipment at a local park, with three sections in honor of each of the girls.

Another group is talking about trying to put stained-glass windows in the library where they spent so many hours.

Long-term, she’s still searching for deeper meaning in it all.

“You just have to feel like there’s a point, there’s a purpose, there’s a reason why I survived that day,” she said.

She doesn’t know what that is yet. Maybe she’ll set up an inexpensive public place specifically for estranged parents to see their children, or maybe she’ll become a grief counselor.

She’ll move forward, knowing that’s what her girls would want. Spiritually, she is sure she will see them again someday, and she feels that she owes it to them to keep going.

“They made me who I am,” she said. “Even the short amount of time I had them has made life worth living.”

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102