When Madonna Badger’s house caught fire on Christmas Day 2011, she lost more than just her home and her possessions. Horrifically, her parents and three daughters all perished in the blaze, too – a tragedy so momentous that in its aftermath Badger considered suicide. In time, though, the grieving mother saw a sign of hope – and it came from an unlikely place.
Before the devastating inferno changed Badger’s life forever, though, she was busy raising Lily, nine, and seven-year-old twins Sarah and Grace in Stamford, Connecticut. And when she wasn’t tending to her children, she was busy running her New York-based ad agency Badger & Winters.
However, in 2011 Badger took some time out from work to enjoy the holidays with her family. Indeed, she had likely looked forward to spending that Christmas at home with her girls and her own parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson.
And, at first, the festivities sounded idyllic. That Christmas Eve, Badger’s mom had been busy in the kitchen, cooking up apple pie and sugar cookies. Meanwhile, her dad had just finished his shift as Santa Claus at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and was settling into some down time.
Badger herself, meanwhile, stayed up until 3:30 a.m, busily wrapping gifts. Her girls would all receive iPhones – presents that they ought to have excitedly opened only a matter of hours later. However, on what should have been one of the happiest days of the year, disaster then struck.
In the early hours of Christmas morning, a fire broke out at Badger’s family home, and the mother of three awoke to a smoke-filled room. Out of instinct, she escaped through her bedroom window and began climbing up some scaffolding to reach her daughters.
However, before Badger could get to her children, a firefighter came and dragged her away from her burning home. And while she and her then-boyfriend, Michael Borcino, managed to flee from the blaze, not all of the family were so lucky: the raging inferno would claim the lives of all three of Badger’s children as well as her own mom and dad.
Unsurprisingly, Badger fell into a pit of despair upon hearing the news. The bereft mother’s ordeal led her to begin to question the existence of God; in her worst moments, she even contemplated taking her own life. And as a result of her suicidal thoughts, she ended up at a mental health facility in Connecticut.
From the hospital, Badger moved to a facility in Tennessee before going to live with a friend in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was then that she slowly started to piece her life back together. Then, exactly one year after the fire, she traveled to Thailand to work unpaid at an orphanage. As a Christmas present for the children there, she donated a sack of playthings that at one time had been her daughters’.
But even though Badger was trying to deal with her situation as best she could, she still felt moments of hopelessness. “There are times that, you know, I go to the park or a restaurant and I hear some little girl call, ‘Mommy,’” she told Oprah Winfrey on Super Soul Sunday in 2014. “That makes me want to shut down.”
However, Badger’s feelings of grief came to a head on one occasion – and at a moment when she was simply doing some housework in the bathroom. All of a sudden, in fact, she started sobbing nonstop. “I started crying in a way that was so intense. What I call a level ten cry,” she explained to Winfrey. “It literally feels like blood is coming from my eyes.”
Badger added to the host, “I looked in the mirror, and I saw myself crying like this. I’d never really seen myself crying like this… I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that woman is in a lot of pain.’ It was almost like I was stepped out [of my body].”
Then, while witnessing her own heartbreak, Badger found herself experiencing something that would change her outlook on the world. Specifically, she felt her three daughters’ presence beside her. “Sarah talked to me,” she later revealed on Super Soul Sunday. The bereaved mom added, “She told me not to be afraid, that there was nothing to be afraid of and that love was the most important thing in the world.”
At first, Badger thought that maybe she had gone mad. However, she didn’t really care if that was the case. Now that she could hear her three children talking to her, she finally felt some hope for the future.
Indeed, Badger’s connection with her daughters had such an overwhelming effect on her that she called her good friend Kate Askew to tell her what had happened. “I screamed, ‘This is real,’” she told Winfrey. “‘I’m not making this up. They’re really talking to me.’”
And from that day forward, Badger continued to feel her family by her side. With her girls around her, in fact, she has managed to overcome her previous feelings of bitterness about her situation. “By being fully present in my body, that’s when I feel [my daughters] the most,” she added to Winfrey.
What’s more, in the years following the deadly fire, Badger has managed to find happiness once more; in July 2014, for instance, she married her good friend Bill Duke. She also threw herself into work at her advertising agency, embarking on a special project in tribute to her daughters.
In particular, Badger is now on a mission to end female objectification in her industry. “Now I have found my reason to be here, and it gives me a great sense of hope,” she explained at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in 2016. “The legacy I want to give Lily, Sarah and Grace is to stop the objectification of women in advertising. This is the future I am fighting for.”
And Badger credits the presence of her daughters’ spirits in her life with giving her the ability to move on. “I never stopped loving,” she also explained to Winfrey during her Super Soul Sunday appearance. “The love I have for my girls and for my parents is so strong.”
Badger continued, “That love has kept me alive. My heart never closed down; I don’t understand that idea. I don’t understand the idea of shutting down the love… Then I would be too scared that I couldn’t feel my kids.”