Wednesday Wisdom Series March 4, 2020

March 4, 2020

Here is your Wednesday Wisdom series from the Family Assistance Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., Reprint is available with written permission from the Foundation.

Resilience as a Learned Trait:

One Survivor's Story

My thoughts were that I was blessed to have had 28 years of happiness that others may never experience in a lifetime.

-Kathy Johnston, wife of Kevin who died in Colgan Air Flight #3407

February 12, 2020, marked the eleventh anniversary of the Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash in Buffalo, NY. At the eleven-year mark, I had the privilege to conduct an updated-interview with Kathy Johnston, whose husband, Kevin died in the crash. Kathy provided insight into her grief experience and the immense role that others played in her eleven-year journey to embracing her new life. 

1. CVC: When 3407 crashed and you realized that Kevin had perished in the horrific accident, how did you see it from a spiritual perspective?

KJ: This is the thought I had when Kevin died. I felt like "these are the cards I have been dealt and now I need to accept that." I knew I had 28 years of a wonderful marriage and had a very loving relationship with Kevin. So, my thoughts were that I was blessed to have had 28 years of happiness that others may never experience in a lifetime. This I felt was God's plan. I do feel that Kevin knew he would be taken from us. We found a folder after Kevin died with all his insurance policies and all information regarding death benefits if he were to pass. In that folder were two Post-it notes. One was a note to the girls and the other a note to me. He knew I would find these notes.

2. CVC: Where did you get the best emotional support in the first few weeks? Did it change after a few weeks/months?

KJ: My emotional support came from my family and friends. My sister, Helen and her husband Marty lived 10 minutes from me and my girls and I could not be where we are today if we had not had them. Marty was a huge support helping through all of the paperwork, protecting me from the media and just was available 24/7 for us as my sister was. She is the one I could call and just cry to and tell her what a bad day I was having. Marty would tell my girls to call him whenever they needed to and when they did, he literally dropped whatever he was doing to answer their calls. We also had some wonderful friends in our neighborhood who were there for us whenever we needed them. My church community also knew us well and they also became very supportive to us all. I was fortunate that my neighbors, church community, and family were there for me for months and years to follow.

3A. CVC: What actions did you take to finish the business of the accident?

KJ: I was determined to obtain as much information about the crash as I could. That meant getting involved with the other 3407 families and going to Washington. Going to the NTSB hearings was difficult and draining but also empowering. It gave me the determination to bond together with all of the other 3407 families and fight to make the public aware and make air travel safer.  

3B. CVC: What actions did you take to regain control over your life?

KJ: Filing a lawsuit for me I feel was part of taking some control of my life.  I was angry and I just wanted those “ bastards” to pay for what they did to my life and all the others. Returning to work was regaining some control back. I returned to work 3 weeks after the crash. I shocked many by returning when I did but it was something I needed to do. I had 3 daughters and they just lost their father. They could not lose their mom also, so I knew I had to keep “swimming” to survive and get us through this nightmare we were in. Looking back, I believe I was in survival mode.  

3C. CVC: Did you attend a support group?

KJ: I was in counseling within weeks of the crash. I spoke with Tara and Sister Martha from the Red Cross. I asked them about starting a support group for the 3407 families. So I sent an email out and our support group began. I guess getting that started was also a way to regain some control back in my life. Talking with others who had experienced the same tragedy that I had was such a help. I gained lifelong friendships from that group.

4. CVC: Did you need to forgive anyone? Who?

KJ: I still have not forgiven Colgan. They were greedy and cheap. They put an incompetent pilot and first officer on that plane. I will never forget when one of the Colgan executives testified at the NTSB hearing. He sat there and stated he would have no problem putting any of his family members on that flight. They never could admit wrong doing. 

I also lost a close friend and her husband through all of this. They were a couple we traveled with and I use to speak to her 3-4 days a week. She was over my house one day about 3 weeks after Kevin died. I was having a “weepy” day and began talking about Kevin. She tried to change the subject and I could see the discomfort on her face. I knew at that moment that she was not able to be there for me and if I could not speak about Kevin then I could not be around her. So really I had to forgive myself for letting that friendship go.

5&6. CVC: What have you done to create from the experience? Have you integrated the experience into your life? What did you leave behind and what do you carry with you?

KJ: When a tragedy as this happens as you know, we are forever changed. Loss is a part of life. So with that being said, I feel like I had to create a new me. I became a much stronger person. I had to learn to be independent. I had to learn to be alone. I had to figure out how I can take my tragedy and turn it into good for myself and others. Volunteering with the Family Assistance Foundation (FAF) has helped me along with my work in DC. I recently had a former co-worker reach out to me because another co-workers husband passed away suddenly of a heart attack. She was concerned about her and asked if I would want to talk with her. So, I did and I felt she received some comfort by talking to me. Grief sucks everything out of you and I just wanted to be able to give her some hope. That’s something I looked for after Kevin died. A sign of hope that someday I would want to live and be able to laugh again.

7. CVC: How do you remain connected to your loved ones who have gone before you? 

KJ: I stopped going to church after Kevin died. I can’t say I was mad at God. It was just very emotional for me to be there. I didn’t want people to see me crying at church so I stopped going. I still have my faith and pray often. I talk to Kevin. I am not one who is lucky enough to have many messages or signs from Kevin. I just remember 2 instances. Within the year he died, both times were in the middle of the night and I remember rolling over and facing his side of the bed and seeing what appeared to be his figure standing watching me. Another time he was standing on his side of the bed again and seemed to be straightening the bed sheets. I seldom dream and I remember I wasn’t frightened.

I had to figure out how I can take my tragedy and turn it into good for myself and others. Volunteering with the Family Assistance Foundation (FAF) has helped me along with my work in DC.

-Kathy Johnston

    In his best-selling book, Resilient, psychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D., states that as humans, only about one-third of our attributes are innate in our DNA. The other two-thirds are acquired through learning. Kathy’s story is an example of a survivor learning to live with loss, while creating a whole new life. As a mother of three, Kathy was compelled to go on with life as a single parent. As she said in her interview, her girls had lost their father and Kathy was determined that they would not lose their mother.

    Her story also reminds us of the role that others-- even strangers can play in the healing of survivors. At the Foundation, we feel privileged to have Kathy as one of our Care Team members who offers compassion and support to others from her direct experience. In addition to volunteering as a Care Team responder, Kathy also presents in training classes. Those in leadership positions who include survivors like Kathy in their training, benefit not only from her experience as a survivor, but they contribute to her healing by allowing her to express herself and train others. 

    Future survivors will answer the same seven questions so that we continue to increase our awareness of how we can help others of future tragedies. 

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