This is a hard one to write. I could say I was too busy or have nothing new to offer on this subject. But truthfully, my hesitation about facing this column is that words feel inadequate, hollow, empty.
All I want to do is tell you about my cousin Mark, present you with a slide show of his big life, create a documentary, share a thousand stories. But I only have 1,000 words and this is about what it’s like to lose someone we love.
How do we bear the pain? How does it change us? How can we thrive and not just survive?
So there’ll be no bullet points, no “Top Ten Tips on How to Cope with Loss.” I’m just going to share my reactions and experiences over the year that followed the worst day of my life.
Driving home from work on March 16, 2011, my cellphone rang. My mother was sobbing: an airplane crash, my cousin Mark in the plane, he was dead.
I’ll never erase the sound of anguish in her voice as she cried those horrific words. A sick feeling emanated from the pit of my stomach, crawled up the back of my throat. I left my body. This was not happening. Sweet Mark, whom I’d known and loved like a little brother since he was born…
I don’t remember the drive home. At the house, in a daze I sat at the computer and Googled “plane crash Longbeach.” And there it was: scenes of wreckage, a plume of smoke, witness reports…then the victims were identified and there was Mark’s name and his smiling face. This bad dream was only getting worse.
Mark and five buddies were on a small plane headed to Salt Lake City for a ski trip. Immediately after takeoff, the plane banked and plunged to earth. Only one man survived.
Mark was only 44, a gifted athlete, a kind and generous man, a devoted father to his three teenage kids. He had made an indelible impact in his community. His motto was “Go Big or Go Home.” His memorial service included a bike ride, a beautiful outdoor service and a Hawaiian paddle out ceremony with hundreds of people on surf-boards wearing leis.
For weeks afterwards, my mind flashed with images, which triggered a fresh torrent of tears. Alternating between images of the crash itself, was the gut-wrenching pain I felt for those who’d be most affected by his loss on a daily basis. I’d picture Mark’s mom losing her beloved son, his kids who’d experience a gaping hole in their lives. I’d imagine Mark’s two younger brothers and the indelible bond of this threesome since losing their Dad when they were kids. I’d cry for Mark’s wife and the responsibility she’d feel to be strong for their kids. I grieved that he would be missing from our family gatherings, that my kids wouldn’t experience a life-long relationship with their uncle.
Mark was such a large presence that he seemed invincible. I always felt that our family was blessed with good fortune, but deep down I feared that one day our “luck” would run out. Mark’s death was so sudden, violent and unexpected that it shoved my previous world view off its axis. I never imagined that THIS would be the unforeseen tragedy that the Universe had in store for our family.
In those first few months I wondered what other tragedies were waiting around the corner. I started imagining horrific scenes of tragic accidents, deaths and losses happening to those I loved. Anticipating worst case scenarios, my mind was trying to ward off death.
Those first few months were an emotional roller coaster filled with flashes of pain, fear, sadness, disbelief, and then spells of denial. But each morning I’d wake up, slapped by the harsh truth that Mark was really gone.
As the denial wore off, I became more aware of a profound and deep sense of the fragility of life. Even though I felt more vulnerable, the panic subsided. While the pain and sadness were still very present, a new sense of peace was taking its place.
Eventually more life-energy returned, which I experienced as a deep connection to Mark. He had a “Go-for-it,” “No-Excuses” philosophy of life. Connecting to his drive, I found myself saying yes to new projects and no to things that didn’t feel like a valuable use of my time. I took on new challenges with renewed optimism.
I also started to experience each moment more fully. I’ve become more present with my children, aware that in the blink of an eye they’ll be leaving home. And because I know that at any moment I could be taken from them, I fill their love cups to the brim, pouring every drop of me into them. I take extra time to focus on them, listen to them, touch them. I’ve become more appreciative of all of my relationships and try to infuse more love into my interactions with others.
I have also found myself feeling greater empathy to anyone experiencing grief or loss. I now know from the inside how hard it is to navigate this world with a huge ball of pain in your heart.
I still cry a lot in my car listening to the radio. Two popular songs can trigger a flood of tears: “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry and “Live Like We’re Dying” by Kris Allen. Rather than turn the station when these songs come on, I cry without regard to the concern of people in the adjacent vehicle. The other place I weep is at my computer. I click on certain Facebook pages- Mark’s page, his kids’, his wife’s, his brothers’, his mothers.’ Their words and pictures help me feel connected to the community of people who love, miss and were impacted by Mark’s life. This alleviates some of the loneliness of the grief. My heart needs these Tear Releases. It doesn’t feel right when I go too long without crying.
Near the anniversary of Mark’s death, my family flew to Salt Lake City to ski, embarking on the trip that Mark never got to complete. I wondered if I’d have a panic attack on the plane, but instead a feeling of calm washed over me. As we flew into Salt Lake City, a bright moon rose over the Rocky mountains. “Hello, Mark.”
I felt his presence traveling up the lifts, surveying the gorgeous craggy mountains and watching daring skiers carve turns on the off-trail runs. Mark would’ve been one of those guys hiking with his skis on his back, then whooping with joy as he gracefully dominated the mountain.
I stuck to the groomed trails and wore a helmet for the first time in 45 years of skiing (no more illusions of invincibility). I warned my boys, “Be careful!” and caught my breath as I watched them ski away into the woods.