‘My mom was Rita. My sisters were Carla and Wendy.’ I wasn’t on the plane. My father got the phone call.’ Woman and and husband overcome grief together, ‘We chose to live’

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“Thank goodness I didn’t listen to my stepmother. I was 17 years old, and I had just met a guy who was also 17, recently orphaned, and left to care for his 21 year-old brother with special needs. They had no parents, no money, and they were living in the basement of their aunt’s house.  Sonia, my stepmother, told me, ‘You should not continue going out with Barry because he will never make anything of himself. He will always be stuck with looking after his brother.’

Since my stepmother had proven to be totally different than my mom, who had died when I was 13, I ignored her advice and went with what my heart told me to do. Barry was a kind, smart, and sincere person, who made me feel safe and happy.

We recently celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary. We lovingly looked after his brother, Mitchell, until 10 years ago, when Mitchell died suddenly. We have three amazing children and two grandchildren. We have both enjoyed successful and meaningful careers. Our life together has been filled with love and blessings.  When people meet us, they assume we’ve always had a great life – an easy life.  But you never know what people have had to deal with in their lives. Our separate stories are filled with tragedy and loss.

When I was 13 years old, in 1970, my whole world fell apart. My mother and two little sisters were killed in an Air Canada plane crash. All 109 people on board were killed that day. The cause was pilot error.

On Sunday, July 5th, 1970, life as I had known it was all gone. We were no longer a family. My dad and I were forced to carry on for days, months, and even years, with the impact and effects of such profound loss which never went away.  Our house went from a busy, bustling house, full of company all the time, to an empty, silent house that seemed to echo. My mother’s name was Rita. She was 39. My sister’s names were Carla and Wendy. They were 11 and 8.

I wasn’t on the plane because I was already in California. I had gone a week earlier with my maternal grandparents. We went to help my aunt prepare for a family celebration. My mother, my grandmother, and all my aunts had been busy planning the trip for months. Disneyland, Knots Berry Farm, picnics at the beach, and of course, a wonderful family celebration. My father was scheduled to fly to California the week after my mother and sisters. From the moment my father got that horrible phone call – yes, a phone call – telling him about the plane crash, he was beyond devastated. Today, almost 50 years later, I still think about my parents and sisters every day.

That type of tragedy obviously has a lifetime impact. And although my father was not on the plane, his life ended that day as well. My dad, Saul, went from being a jolly man who loved to tell jokes and could whistle a whole song perfectly, barely stopping for air, to a man who was quiet, withdrawn, and understandably traumatized.

We didn’t talk about the plane crash, or about my mother and sisters, because we didn’t know how. We were overwhelmed, frightened, haunted with terror… and alone. Very alone. Other than our immediate, inner circle, we had no idea who knew about the plane crash, or who else was also impacted in any way. In fact, we didn’t even meet the family members of the other victims until almost 40 years later.  Back then, we felt pressured to somehow deal with this devastation on our own. We felt extremely bullied and totally dismissed by Air Canada – and Air Canada got away with it. That behavior would never be tolerated nowadays. Never.

People in our inner circle didn’t know how to handle the subject of death and grief, and they thought it was best to never talk about it. They wanted to protect us, to spare us from more pain, to prevent the stirring of feelings. And they needed to protect themselves from being uncomfortable. The myth back then was that if we don’t talk about it, we can live beyond it. It felt as if everybody had taken a vow of silence. Back in the 70’s, there wasn’t even any professional help available to us. And so, I had no one to talk to. I wanted so badly to talk about my mother and sisters, to hear stories about them, to keep their memory alive. But, that just wasn’t the way it was back then.

So, pictures of them were put away; all of their personal items were cleared out of our house; and we were expected to move forward with our lives, as if nothing had happened. We felt as if we had quickly become yesterday’s news.
And really, I lost my dad that tragic day too. He never recovered. In my eyes, he was a completely different man. He had withdrawn into his own new world – feeling hopeless, helpless, and consumed by despair – where he would barely talk to me about anything.

My jolly dad had become sad, weak, and scared. He no longer giggled or whistled tunes. He never recovered from his heartbreak. He went through the motions of ‘life’ in that he went to work, ate, and tried to sleep. But really, he simply went on to exist. At night, I would hear him crying in his bedroom. Weeping loudly with such despair, he sounded like a wounded animal. He was suffering terribly, but I didn’t go in. I couldn’t. I didn’t know what to say, or what to do. I covered my head with my pillow, so I wouldn’t have to hear him sobbing.

From the day of the plane crash, and for his remaining years, my father walked around in a trance-like state.  In my eyes, he had given up on life. And then, in 1999, he was diagnosed with cancer. He succumbed to it immediately and died within a few months, and I lost him again.

When I think back to how my father and I each dealt with our sorrow, I realize we were two people living through the same tragedy. Yet, doing the best we could, we each made different choices about how to deal with it.  For me, no matter how hard it was – and it was hard – I was not going to give up on life. Giving up was never a choice for me. I chose a direction and walked, trying to find my way, doing what I had to do in order to survive, in order to find a new normal. But my father, quite to the contrary, just seemed to walk slowly in circles, aimlessly struggling. It was heart-wrenching to watch.

Obviously, and thank goodness, things have changed tremendously since then. Tragedies are dealt with much more openly, and there’s an outpouring of support and love from around the globe for the families of the victims. When I think about it, I can’t get over the fact there weren’t even any grief counselors or therapists brought in, as they would do nowadays.  So really, my dad and I were on an island of grief, all alone. We just had to manage and do what we thought was best.

Clarity comes with age and experience. Looking back at the past almost 50 years, I have learned so much about loss, tragedy, and grief. I now know and understand my life jacket for survival was staying busy and distracted. Ironically, I look back now and realize I thought, for all those years, I had beaten the grief and left it in the dust, as I plotted ahead with life.

While they say death is final, I know it isn’t. It has been almost 50 years since the death of my mother and little sisters, and while I have a wonderful life filled with many blessings, I have never moved on from grieving that gigantic loss. Loss doesn’t happen and then unhappen. Loss reared its head throughout my life – my teenage years, my marriage, the birth of my children, milestones, celebrations, challenges… every page. Every chapter of my life from age 13 on, was missing my mother and sisters. Death ends a life, but it doesn’t end a relationship.

I continue to treasure the memories I have of my mother and sisters. Growing up, our family didn’t have much money, but our home and our lives always felt rich and abundant. As a family, we lived a purposeful life where we reached out to help others. We were always involved in charity events and volunteer work. For the first 13 years of my life, I was taught important values and life lessons about compassion, love, helping others, and living a life that matters. That’s why I didn’t listen to the advice of my stepmother. That’s why I continued to date Barry.

I met Barry when we were both 17, just a few months after finishing high school. When he was 7 months old, his mother died of a heart attack. She was 32 years old. Then, as a teenager, when Barry was washing the car with his father, his father collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was 55. Orphaned at 17, Barry was left alone to care for Mitchell, his older brother with special needs.

When Barry and I met, we shared so many of the same dreams, and neither one of us took life for granted. We knew how precious life really is. Even though none of our parents had gone to school beyond high school, we were both determined to go to college, and we both wanted to have meaningful careers where we could make a difference in the lives of others. We juggled our schedules of full-time college and part-time jobs. I waited tables and washed hair at a hair salon. Barry worked part-time as a spot welder on the assembly line at General Motors, and he also pumped gas at a full-service gas station. We did what we had to do, and we didn’t whine or complain about it.

Barry has come a long way from spot welding and pumping gas. He has been a CEO of three pharmaceutical companies, and has been a volunteer board member of a Childhood Cancer organization for many years. He also volunteers every year at a summer camp for children who are grieving. I have a Master’s degree in social work. I have been a hospital social worker, summer camp director, college professor, inspirational speaker, and am currently in private practice doing grief therapy.

Barry and I have grown up together, leaning on each other, and continuously building our life based on common values and dreams. We spend a lot of time talking about how grateful we are for our life together, for the life we created. We are committed to sharing what we think are the strategies we’ve used, and continue to use, to lead lives we feel are meaningful and fulfilling.

So yes, because of who we are today, people are surprised when they hear our stories about what we were faced with as young teens. When people ask how we made it through so much tragedy, we always say, ‘You deal with what you have to deal with. What choice did we have?’ But looking back, I realize we did have choices. No matter what we are faced with, we always have choices. And we make choices.

Even when people are faced with very similar situations, they don’t choose to deal with things the same way. When faced with difficulties and challenges, you can choose to give up, give in, or give it all you’ve got. I’m so grateful, as a young teenager, I chose to give it my all. I chose not to turn to drugs or alcohol. I chose to be hopeful and determined. I chose to work hard in school. And I chose to do whatever I could to keep busy and distracted, so life felt worthwhile and meaningful.

Life is precious, and it is also unpredictable. We usually take life for granted until something happens that shakes up our life or our world. And when that happens, we have to remember our power lies in how we respond to what we are faced with – whether it’s a personal crisis or tragedy, a business challenge, or just the stresses and challenges of everyday life. Everyone should remember, you never know what people are dealing with, or what they’ve had to deal with through their lives.

I often think back to the 9-11 tragedy, and I’m sure many people vividly remember being glued to the terrifying and shocking news reports on TV. That horrific tragedy changed the world, and changed the lives for many, many people. Back then, and now today, we all want to know how the families of the victims are doing. We want to know, somehow, they’re okay. Did they choose life over sadness, bitterness, or feeling defeated? Did they choose to bounce back after being knocked down? We hope and pray, somehow, they picked themselves up and lived again. Obviously they’ve never forgotten their loved ones, and while they miss them terribly, we hope they went on to live their lives and find joy again.

Whenever we hear terrible stories of tragedy, our hearts ache for the victims and for the family members. We feel sick when we think about their anguish over the unspeakable loss they’re faced with and their life-long sentence of grief. Well, here I am, almost 50 years after being hit with a terrible tragedy, to tell you some people are able to survive, and even thrive after tragedy.

Barry and I often talk about the fact we feel we are wiser because of our experiences, and because of what we’ve had to deal with through our lives. We are proud to say our tragic childhoods did not define us; they refined us. We turned our wounds into wisdom. We are survivors, not victims. Yes, we are proof people can survive, and thrive after tragedy. We truly believe we always have choices, and we make choices. Having turned our wounds into wisdom, we look back at some of the things we did, and continue to do, in order to be happy, successful, and lead a meaningful life. We have come up with eight happiness inducing strategies or choices for people who want to choose to be happy and fulfilled.

1. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH POSITIVE, OPTIMISTIC, HAPPY PEOPLE. People can inspire you, or they can drain you – so choose them wisely.
3. HELP OTHERS. Everyone can CHOOSE to live a meaningful life. Everyone can CHOOSE to have a positive impact on others – to embrace and help people in need.
4. EXPRESS GRATITUDE. Genuine, heartfelt gratitude and appreciation goes such a long way.
5. LOOK AHEAD; DON’T LOOK BACK. Don’t let past pain or aggravation rob you of present happiness.
7. SPEND TIME WITH ANIMALS. Animals intuitively understand how to be sincere, loyal, faithful, forgiving, grateful, loving, giving, and patient.
8. CHOOSE POSITIVE THOUGHTS. You can’t live a positive life with a negative mind.

It wasn’t that Barry and I were better equipped, and it wasn’t that we were stronger than others. It was that we made choices. We wanted what every human being wants. We wanted to be happy. We wanted to laugh and have fun. We wanted to find something to make the panic and anxiety stop, in much the same way we take a pain pill to get rid of pain. We believe the more choices we make, the more alive we feel. The more alive we feel, the healthier our choices.

Our choices were to find the strength to overcome the grief, to overpower the sadness, and to do whatever we could to keep busy, distracted, and focused on helping others. It was a conscious decision. And it wasn’t easy. We would never say it was easy. But the other option of walking around in a sad, miserable state is much harder. You feel weighed down and tired, and it is actually much harder on your body and your mind. We spent a lot of time talking about our hopes and dreams. We did our best to focus on being positive, persistent, and patient. We imagined and dreamed about having happiness and joy in our lives, and we never let go of that belief.

Yes, we chose to live.”

Courtesy of Lynda Fishman

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Lynda Fishman. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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