Wednesday Wisdom Series May 6, 2020

May 6, 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.

Finding Meaning after Death: A Survivor Looks back at the Gifts She Received from Her Best Friend 

For as many people that loved her, I was there as she took her last breath. What an honor for me to be present in those moments as her spirit moved on.

-Tracy Wholean

Passenger Survivor, Bus accident, Tortola, Dec. 6, 2015 


    On December 6, 2015, Tracy and Mike Wholean survived a bus accident while on a cruise line excursion. Of the twenty guests on the bus, a total of sixteen were injured—two of them were fatal. Tracy’s best friend Mary was one of the two passengers who died. Tracy shares her story as an example of a great friendship and the support she received from the cruise line. 

    If we are lucky, once in this lifetime, we will have a friendship like the one I had with Mary. We were so close, that sometimes I would just pull my phone out of my purse and hold it in my hand. Mike would ask me who I was calling. I would say, “Nobody. I think Mary’s going to call.” And within seconds, the Creole Stomp would signal it was her. Because we took so many trips to New Orleans together, that was her ringtone. Though I wish we would have had time to create more memories, all the moments we did have are part of who I am today and they help guide me on my journey. 

1.  CVC: When the accident occurred and you realized that Mary had died, how did you see it from a spiritual perspective? 

TW: The Buddhist philosophy on death teaches us to be mindful that death can come at any moment. That helps us maintain the awareness of how precious life is. Mary survived breast cancer and lived each day to the fullest. Just moments before the crash, she was talking, laughing and goofing around. She was living that day to the fullest. For as many people that loved her, I was there as she took her last breath. What an honor for me to be present in those moments as her spirit moved on.

    We always knew how we felt about each other so I was at peace knowing nothing was ever left unsaid. There have been no thoughts of “I wish I would have told her…”

    She always said to me that people come into our lives for a reason and stay as long as we need them. Well, I wasn’t expecting that to be the moment I didn’t need her anymore. But that goes back to being aware that death can happen at any time. And that death of the physical body is just a step in our soul’s journey.

    I learned so much from her and have grown in ways I never imagined possible. I certainly learned a lot while she was here, but her passing continues to help me grow. As she passed, it’s as though I could feel myself absorb part of her essence that has become part of who I am. 


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

TW: Of course, I was sad when it happened because that is just human nature.  I was heartbroken that I would no longer see my best friend. Yet, at the same time I was very much at peace. After the accident, we remained on the island for eight days. The Care Team was there with us the entire time and made all the difference in the world during those critical first steps of healing. I know it’s because of them that I was able to handle the situation as well as I did. During those days, we were able to reach out to friends and family back home as we needed to, using the phone in our hotel room for the international calls. I have one friend, Dave, who I spoke with every day. Having met Mary and Rich a couple months before the accident he was part of our little circle. I actually called him from the bus. After the crash, when the bus came to stop and I was gathered up on my seat waiting for emergency responders to come help us, I called him. Not yet knowing how many people had perished, looking at the literal carnage surrounding me, I wanted to reach out to him so someone from home would know something happened, just in case things got even worse. I told him we were waiting for help, that people had died, I had no idea what was going to happen next but that I would reach back out when I could. I spoke with family a little bit during that week, but it was so hard for them to even wrap their heads around what happened. They were just anxious for us to come home. My husband and I, as well as Mary’s husband Rich, all supported each other. Having all survived the same accident, and losing Mary, we all just understood. 

    Fortunately, the support never wavered. Some people were not sure what to say or how to act around me after we came home. It was clear the experience changed me. Even though they didn’t know what to say or do, they were, and still are, there for me. The bond between Dave and I has strengthened from that experience and that is an incredible gift. I still have a connection to Monica from our Care Team and the Family Assistance Foundation. I am very grateful for my entire support system.

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

TW: In that week after the crash, our days were filled with interviews between the police, Royal Caribbean’s Global Security, the bus driver’s insurance company, etc.  We addressed the majority of the business during that time. We were asked to come back to the island for the trial, but to me, it would not have made a difference. Mary was gone. We were American's in a foreign country. Sitting through the trial wasn’t going to change anything. 

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

TW: We arrived home at about 2:00 am on Dec 15, 2015. Mike and I were employed with the same company and they allowed us to take as much time as we needed before returning to work. Between doctor appointments, Mary’s memorial, surgery, Christmas, catching up with family and adjusting to being back home, we did not go back to work until the week between Christmas and New Years’. During that week we worked half days before returning full time in January.

    It was then I realized I could no longer do my job the way the company expected me to. I was in a Senior VP position and the expectations were great. Long hours and directives I could not engage with a clear conscience. 

    In September 2016, I stepped away from my career and worked at a few part-time jobs in an effort to spend more time with my family, friends and just to re-evaluate myself. I needed to reflect and clean out my headspace.

    It was because of my attachment to my job that we were in the accident in the first place. I was required to have WiFi on my phone so I could read my emails twice a day while we were on the cruise. I insisted on setting it up before we got off the ship that morning. It was the first stop and the first full day of the cruise. It was Sunday morning. I would not have to check my emails until Monday, but I wanted to get that work task out of the way before could go have fun. If I would not have spent 45 minutes in the Apple Lounge on the ship setting up my WiFi, we would not have been on that bus.

    Now, I no longer live my job. I live my life. I don’t blame myself for the accident, but I blame myself for putting work first, even for 45 minutes, while we were on vacation celebrating our 10-year wedding anniversary with our dearest friends. That Sunday was the day we were supposed to celebrate on the ship. Mary arranged for a cake to be sent to our table while we were all at dinner. We never made it back. I have learned to be in the moment. To be present. And that work will continue with or without me. How I live my moments is up to me.

    I have since started a job with a company that is in complete support of my involvement with the Foundation.

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

TW:I never felt the need to attend a support group, per se. Between the time I had with the Care Team on the island, the support from my friends and family and honestly, my own inner strength—which I am extremely grateful for) I have done very well. I am very appreciative for my connection to the Family Assistance Foundation for all they have done.  They understand what we went through and what I continue to live with and learn from every day. They are a very important and amazing support group.

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

TW:I needed to forgive myself. I KNEW something was wrong before we got on the bus, but I couldn’t disappoint my friend. There was no way she wasn’t going and I could feel, whatever lay ahead that day, I had to be there. It could have just as easily been me that died, she was five feet away from me. Just a matter of seat selection. Rich reassured me that there was nothing any of us could say to keep her from getting on the bus.  He said she died doing exactly what she wanted to do. She was happy. 

    I needed to forgive myself for putting work first that morning and for not forcing her to wait until it stopped raining before getting on a taxi bus to the beach.

    I needed to forgive myself for flying out of my seat and landing on the people on the other side of the bus, pressing them even harder against the jagged rocks and broken glass that was tearing at them.

    I also needed to forgive the driver. When I found out he could have driven around the base of the mountain to get to the beach, I was mad as a hornet. I felt like his antics driving up a steep mountain in the rain and joking about it was totally unacceptable.   

    But then I remembered something: we dragged the distance of a football field and he still had his hands on the wheel. With one last attempt, he pulled harder on the steering wheel and it was just enough to get us to the entrance of a driveway where we stopped against a wall along the side of the mountain. It was the very last place we could have stopped before going over, what we were later told, was approximately a 1,000-foot cliff.  We were only twenty feet away from the edge.

    Because he ended up saving the rest of us in the end, I could no longer blame him. He had enough on his shoulders.

5. CVC: What have you done to create as a result of the accident? 

TW: During those days on the island, having time with the Care Team to just talk – talk about the accident, talk about Mary, talk about life and just have the opportunity to do “normal things” with them, (like stroll through the souvenir shops, have lunch or grab an ice cream) to ease the gravity of the situation, I was able to find peace. They also made sure we got to our interviews, made sure we had everything we needed, arranged for our accommodations and travel back home. They took care of everything for us. All we had to worry about was starting the healing process. When the day finally came to identify Mary’s remains, Rich gave me a gift by asking me to come into the room with him. He told the coroner we were like sisters and I was allowed in. Before they zipped the bag closed, he leaned in and sang “You Are My Sunshine”. Through all of this, I realized that anger is a choice. Suffering is a choice. Learning from our experiences and using those experiences as tools for growth is a choice. I have learned to be present – to be in the moment. To know I am blessed. I was given a second chance. It’s up to me what I do with it. But what I don’t do is take it for granted.

     People say to plan for retirement, pre-plan your funeral, etc. Of course, those things are logical and tangible. But in preparing for “the end” (because we never know when it will be here) I have to make sure the people I care about always know how I feel about them. If my moment comes today, I don’t want anything to be left unsaid. 

6. CVC: Have you been able to integrate the experience into your life? 

TW: Because I am at peace, I am able to find a sense of gratitude for the accident. Everyone says Mary had a way of bringing people together. And she did. I met one of my closest friends through her. I became irrevocably bonded to another friend because of the accident. Our main Care Team member was Monica. She was a gift. I remember telling her it felt as though Mary hand picked her to come to the island for us (me in particular). She and I are friends to this day. I found a family with the Foundation because of the accident. I left my old ways behind me. I’m no longer trying to climb corporate ladders. I’m not missing out on time with family and friends because of a misplaced feeling of importance at work. I don’t let very many things bother me anymore. I’m way more relaxed. I carry peace with me now. I feel like it’s a gift Mary helped me find.


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

TW: Like most people, I have some favorite pictures around the house of the fun times we had. A few souvenirs from our trips together. Heck, I still talk to her some days. I have a half sleeve tattoo on my right arm inspired by my experience. It is a constant reminder to be mindful – to be in the moment. 

    I was on my way to the airport last September, catching a flight to Atlanta, to attend training with the Family Assistance Foundation. I wanted to call Dave to let him know I was on my way. I figured he would appreciate that since he was such a part of my experience. When I pressed the button on my steering wheel and told Siri to “call Dave”, she said, “Calling Mary Kettner,” and Mary’s contact picture popped on my console screen. I figured that was her acknowledging she was glad to see I was involved with the Foundation because they were an integral part of our care after the accident. One day, while we were on the island and I was on one of my calls with Dave, I remember asking him, “What am I going to do without my best friend?”  His response was, “Continue on the path that brought you together as friends”. I used to have to remind myself of that every day. Now, it’s just become part of who I am.

    I will never forget the feeling of dread as we boarded the bus that day. I will never forget the sound of the scraping metal, the screams from the other passengers, the glass flying, trying to figure out which way up as I tumbled around, wondering if we would be alive when it finally stopped. I will never forget crawling around the floor of the bus in the broken glass looking for my shoes and pulling them out of a pool of blood and wondering whose eyeglasses and camera were floating next to them. I will never forget the EMT who had to monitor Mary’s vitals leaning through a broken window because they could not get on the bus. I will never forget Rich telling Mary we were there and loved her and she should go be with Richie (their son who previously passed away) as she took her last breaths. I will never forget standing against the guardrail in the rain with Mike and Rich, staring at the back of the bus, knowing Mary would not be joining us. 

    I remember watching the emergency responders lay a tarp on the ground behind the bus for the bodies they would remove once we were taken to the hospital and out of the way. I will never forget, as we stood in the rain, looking up to the sky wondering who was going to help us. I will never forget, sitting in the hospital freezing because we were still just in our bathing suits and nobody offering a blanket. I will never forget the ants crawling on Rich’s IV pole as he came into our exam room. He was shuffling in his wheelchair as he dragged his IV pole along with him so we could all be together. I will never forget coming out of my exam room and Ashley (a guest relations rep from the ship) walked up to me and said “Hi Mrs. Wholean. My name is Ashley and I’m here to help you.” I will never forget the feeling of relief knowing someone was there for us. I will never forget waking up the next morning to find Monica from the care team (at the hotel they set us up in) waiting to help us as we came to the lobby. I will never forget thinking Mary sent this angel to be there with me because she couldn’t. Because of the FAF and the care team, I will never forget feeling like everything was going to be okay. I am honored to be associated with the FAF because I will never forget.

I will never forget the feeling of relief knowing someone was there for us. I will never forget waking up the next morning to find Monica from the Care Team at the hotel they set us up in, waiting to help us as we came in to the lobby.

-Tracy Wholean

    Tracy’s story is an example of the success of a truly integrated emergency response plan. Prior to Care Team programs in the cruise line industry, interactions with the emergency responders at the accident site would have been their last memories of the island and the tragic loss of Mary. However, realizing the need for connection between the survivors and the cruise line during the traumatic loss, the company’s leadership  sent a member of the ship’s guest relations’ department and Care Team members to support them.

    With Care Team member, Monica on the island, Tracy and her husband Mike along with Mary’s husband Rich, had the logistical and emotional support needed. They were able to take care of necessary details and return home, albeit without Mary— knowing they had left nothing unfinished on the island where they shared her final moments.

    At the Foundation, we recognize that no amount of support can replace the lives lost in tragic events. However, knowing that the Human Services Response™ model as practiced by Care Teams can create positive memories in the midst of human suffering, continues to support the need for the compassionate care it represents. 

Because I am at peace, I am able to find a sense of gratitude for the accident…. Our main Care Team member was Monica. She was a gift. I remember telling her it felt as though Mary hand picked her to come to the island for us—me in particular.

-Tracy Wholean

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