Grief can destroy you-- or focus you.
-Dean Kootz, American Novelist
This month's Wednesday Wisdom involves the story of Mindy Mayer, who lost five family members in an excursion accident she survived. Mindy is well known to Foundation Care Team members. She shared her story for training about her physical survival during the crash and the emotional survival she faced in the aftermath of the accident. She lost her husband, son (business partner), a daughter-in-law, and three-year-old twin grandchildren.
Mindy openly expressed her gratitude to Holland America Cruise Line's executive team, which empowered their Care Team to assist her family in the aftermath of the crash, when she was confined to the hospital bed, unable to walk or care for herself. Mindy, most recently, became a member of the Foundation's Survivor Board. She will work with the Foundation in establishing the new Family Assistance Education & Research Institute (FAERI), which will sponsor research, education, and training in international humanitarian assistance under the auspices of Louisiana State University (LSU) based in Baton Rouge, LA.
Details of the Accident
In August of 2007, Mindy, her husband David, her son Eric, his wife, and their three-year-old twins, along with her daughter, Randi, and her husband and two children, went on an Alaskan cruise. While in port, Randi and her family went on an excursion to Ketchikan. Mindy and David accompanied her son and his family on a flight-seeing trip. Shortly after takeoff, the flight crashed into trees, catching fire upon impact.
Mindy remembers the details of the accident and recounted them on video for Care Team Training. When the flight crashed, flames erupted instantaneously. Mindy remembers seeing Eric standing in front of her holding her granddaughter, and uttering his very last words. "Mom, mom, look what I have done to my family!" Eric had booked the flight.
Wanting to help any way that she could, Mindy told Eric to hand her Allison. Thinking she would carry Allison to safety, she would return to the aircraft and help rescue others. Mindy had no idea that re-entry would be impossible. She was at least 12 feet above the ground, as the plane had crashed into treetops. When Mindy fell to the ground, she was knocked unconscious for a few moments. She would later learn of her severe injuries and the threat that she might never walk again.
Unable to walk or return to the burning aircraft, Mindy dragged Allison away from the fire and waited for rescue. She never saw or heard from any of the other family members again. She could only surmise that her son Eric had died trying to rescue his wife and young son from the fire.
Mindy remained in the hospital for nearly three weeks before being transferred to a rehabilitation facility. As Allison received treatment in a nearby burn center, Mindy dedicated herself to regaining her mobility and health in general. She was determined to take care of her granddaughter, now that her parents had died. During the sixth week, when the rehab center released Mindy, she learned that Allison had died of staph infection that day. Looking back, Mindy would say that while some thought she saved Allison's life at the crash site, it was Allison who saved her life. Mindy often wondered if she would have fought as hard to regain her health, had she known that she would not raise Allison.
Mindy later learned from her daughter Randi, who had taken her family on a different excursion, that the Holland American Care Team had taken care of her, her children, and her husband while Mindy lay in the hospital. It gave Mindy great peace to know that her remaining family received generous support and compassion while lying in the hospital, powerless to help anyone.
Mindy was asked the same questions as other survivors whose stories appear in our Wednesday Wisdom series:
1. CVC: When you learned that all of your family members on the flight had died, how did you see it from a spiritual perspective?
MM: I wondered why God would allow me to live when my family members died. Why would God take my three-year-old grandchildren and let me live? I could not understand why God would let this happen.
2A. CVC: Where did you get the best emotional support in the first few weeks?
MM: I was in the hospital and heavily medicated. Medical staff took care of me.
It was a great relief when I later learned all the cruise line did for my daughter and her family while I was injured. Holland America took great care of their practical needs and allowed my daughter to focus on Allison and me—and communicate with our larger family as they received the news of the enormous losses.
2B. CVC: What about later?
MM: After three weeks, the hospital released me to a rehab center. All I could think about was getting healthy so that I could take care of Allison. When I learned that Allison had died, I knew I would need a great deal of help dealing with all of the grief.
3A. CVC: What actions did you take to finish the business of the accident?
MM: I sought assistance from spiritual leaders, psychologists, and others. I asked rabbis, grief counselors, and everyone who would listen, "why"? I did not understand why I was allowed to live when all my family on the flight had died. Then one day, a rabbi told me to stop asking "why" and start asking "what." He told me to start asking what I could do with what had happened to me.
3B. CVC: What actions did you take to regain control over your life?
MM: The rabbi’s words helped me see that I could do something positive with my grief. I began to concentrate on memorializing each of my family members who died. My healing started when I realized that I could use this tragedy to help others. And I have never stopped helping others since that realization began.
3C. CVC: Did you receive any counseling?
MM: Yes, I was trying to understand how to grieve each of the individuals. The way you love your spouse is different from how you love your son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. The intensity of the grief for each was complicated by dealing with the emotions in the various relationships.
I saw one local psychologist for the first year. At about that time, he recommended that I attend an encounter retreat in Arizona, where I unplugged from any outside connection for about 6 days. During that time, I concentrated on grieving my husband's death. This retreat worked for me.
When I returned home, I continued seeing my original psychologist. But what helped me the most and was the least expensive of any help I sought involved a program organized by hospice at a local hospital. The program is called Grief Release, based out of Portland, Oregon. Along with traditional grievers, the attendees were working through different types of losses, including divorce.
I saw that I needed to unburden myself with my grief. The Grief Release approach of embracing losses, and then going on with life, was helpful to me. Going on with life for me includes creating ways to honor my late husband, son, daughter-in-law, and twin grandchildren.
4. CVC: Did you need to forgive anyone? Who?
MM: I still go back and forth about how I feel about the pilot flying the aircraft. He came to the funerals but did not make an effort to speak to me. Even today, I wish he would reach out and say he was sorry about my losses and my injuries. I still have pain today in my back, and I always will. It does not stop me from living my life. But knowing he is sorry would mean a lot to me.
5. CVC: What have you done to create from this experience?
MM: I used the money donated by friends and family and people from all over the country to create a legacy in each of my loved ones' names. I used the $120,000.00 donated to my family and me to help other families with ill or injured children while honoring those I lost in the crash. Over months, I worked with a team to redecorate the Ronald McDonald House on the campus of Legacy Emanuel Hospital and Health Center in Portland—each family member is represented in the décor.
I also founded a scholarship in my son's name at Vassar College, where he graduated. Additionally, I dedicated a Japanese garden to Vassar in his name, as Eric had spent time in Japan after graduation. And each year, an award is given in Eric's name to an outstanding tennis player. Recipients of the award write to me each year about what it means to receive the award. There are many more ways I give time and money in their names.
6A. CVC: Have you integrated the experience into your life?
MM: I finally realized that since I was the only one who lived, I must make the most of my life. My family members had no choice about their future. But I survived and I have choices. I know I can choose what I can do to help others, every day.
6B. CVC: What did you leave behind, and what do you carry with you?
MM: I have 750 employees in the McDonald restaurants that I own. Before the accident, I expected perfection from them. After the accident, I became more compassionate toward them. I now buy candy to give out when I go into work as a way to show I care about them and how they feel.
7. CVC: How do you remain connected?
MM: No one wants to think others will forget heir loved ones. To make sure my family members are never forgotten, I donate to charities and other non-profit organizations in their names. I own a winery in Idaho, Kerry Hill. I am currently planning a charitable event at the winery to raise money for the Ronald McDonald Charities. As the years go by, I will continue to look for ways to keep their memories alive by helping others in their names.