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., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is available with written permission from the Foundation.
A Personal Reflection: A Mother's Friend Shares Her Grief
March 3, 2020 marked the twenty-ninth anniversary of the crash of United Airlines Flight 585. This was only the fourth time in the history of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) where they published a final report with an undetermined probable cause. All aboard the flight died on impact, including Flight Attendant Anita Lucero who was in her first year of flying. Donna Lucero, Anita’s mother, has shared her grief with us very openly over the years. She appears in my video A Different Journey, published in 2000, and in Handbook for Human Services Response.
When Donna received the Foundation’s sympathy card for the recent anniversary, she responded by sharing a letter that one of her best friends sent her on the 29th anniversary. With permission of both Cherry, the writer, and Donna, we are sharing this letter as we think it is such a perfect example of the impact that this enormous loss had on many others. Cherry’s description of her grief experience, as well as the impact it had on her own life, provides an excellent example of the “ripple” effect discussed in the Foundation’s training, i.e., Human Services Response™.
A few hours later I stood at the window of their house in North Denver as a sedan pulled up and two United employees in their dark blue uniforms walked up to knock on the door.
-Cherry, friend of Donna Lucero, Mother of Flight Attendant, Anita
Today I share a very personal reflection as I honor one of my dearest friends, Donna Lorene Lucero. Twenty-nine years ago today, Sunday, March 3, 1991, we sat in Donna's kitchen as she and her first husband, Art, learned from a phone call that their beautiful and beloved daughter, Anita, 22 years old, died that morning in the United Airlines flight 585 plane crash in Colorado Springs. Anita, who had found her passion as a flight attendant, was one of five crew members and twenty passengers on board when the plane suddenly rolled uncontrollably on approach to the Colorado Springs airport and crashed into Widefield Park. We were celebrating Mass at the moment that it happened.
Three decades ago there was no Internet, so the news was not as instantaneous as it is today. The shock and disbelief are still palpable today. Some moments from that day stand out in painful memory. In the hours that followed, my task was to inform friends and family members of the tragedy before the national news began to report.
Anita had a date that evening with a young man none of us had met. Somehow, we found his phone number in Anita's address book. Even though I explained my connection to Anita and the family, he didn't believe me. He thought it was some kind of cruel joke. I tried to be as calm and kind as possible when I reached family members around the country, but the shock was extreme.
But in the midst of the painful memories, there is also beauty and hope.
A few hours later I stood at the window of their house in North Denver as a sedan pulled up and two United employees in their dark blue uniforms walked up to knock on the door. The official informants. It felt surreal as if it were a movie where the officers came to the door with a telegram. I sobbed. But in the midst of the painful memories, there is also beauty and hope. The outpouring of support from the community, strangers, parish, neighborhood, family and friends was amazing and has continued throughout the years.
I feel shame and embarrassment thinking back to some of the things I did and said early on that were well-meaning, but NOT helpful.
I have learned so much from Donna in these nearly three decades. She fought hard for the investigation into the crash (and subsequent similar crashes) to make a difference. It did. The rudder system was redesigned eventually saving many lives. Since I was with Donna from the very moment, she heard the news, I promised myself that day to accompany and support Donna in every way that I could in processing her grief. I learned so much about grief in the intervening years. I have a library of grief literature which I have shared with many others through the years.
I feel shame and embarrassment thinking back to some of the things I did and said early on that were well-meaning, but NOT helpful. I have learned from that. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just BE THERE. Not to say anything, just listen. I thank Donna for all the ways she has modeled for me resilience, strength, hope, courage, faith, making a difference, volunteering, friendship, moving on, overcoming fear (It took me YEARS to fly with confidence again), living each day with purpose and meaning, never taking those you love for granted.
I think sometimes I actually felt a type of “survivor’s guilt” because I got to watch my own beautiful daughters grow up, marry, have children, etc. while Donna was denied that privilege.
On the day of Anita’s funeral, I was singing in the choir next to the altar when Art and Donna accompanied the casket down the aisle to the front of the packed church. My heart literally broke to realize that they would never walk Anita down the aisle as a bride in the church where she had grown up. Several years later, my own daughter was married in that church. I remember having a conversation with Donna trying to express how sensitive I felt to what feelings she might have watching Christine come down the aisle (the girls were very close in age). I told her I would understand if she and Art felt they couldn’t attend, but she was adamant about wanting to be there to support Christine. I think sometimes I actually felt a type of “survivor’s guilt” (strange and illogical as that may seem) because I got to watch my own beautiful daughters grow up, marry, have children, etc. while Donna was denied that privilege.
I remember rushing to the kitchen and trying to find a secluded corner where I could sob. I just couldn’t reconcile the idea that any amount of money could represent the value of Anita’s life.
Another very painful moment was during the week before the funeral. I was at the house constantly trying to help in whatever way I could. The house was filled with friends, neighbors, family, etc. One day a couple of United representatives came to meet with Art and Donna. They went into their home study and closed the door. As I was passing down the hall, I overhead voices talking about “insurance settlement”. I remember rushing to the kitchen and trying to find a secluded corner where I could sob. I just couldn’t reconcile the idea that any amount of money could represent the value of Anita’s life.
Thank you, Donna, for all the lessons you have taught me and for helping me to be a better person. Every Christmas a small wooden angel hangs on my tree with Anita's name on it. Her beautiful smile still shines. Anita, you are not forgotten.
Cherry’s heartfelt reflection reminds us of the term “vicarious trauma”, a term which refers to the experience of a secondary survivor—someone close to the deceased and or family of the deceased. The details that Cherry recalls nearly thirty years later are an indication of how Anita’s death and Donna’s grief imprinted on her memory. Those in leadership positions where a traumatic event has occurred, like the crash of United Flight 585 are wise to recognize that employees for that corporation may have a similar experience of vicarious trauma.
Making sure that employees have support and validation in the aftermath of the trauma is essential to providing an environment where everyone has the best opportunity for healing. From Cherry’s story, it is clear that she was able to go on with her life, raising her own daughter, while never forgetting Anita. Because Donna has shared openly about her grief as well as her recovery, we know that she has also been able to integrate the trauma and continue a healthy life involved with others.
As Cherry pointed out, the outpouring of support from the community, strangers, parish, neighborhood, family and friends was amazing and has continued throughout the years. Where corporate leaders follow this model of showing support for all survivors of any trauma in the workplace, like the horrific crash of United Flight 585, this contributes greatly to the long-term recovery of all.