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.
My Sister Became My Guardian Angel: A Family Survivor Discusses Her Healing After the Loss of Her Sister
I was determined to fight for my sister and to follow her final wishes, even if others in my family did not like or understand it.
-Tina Siniscalco, Family Survivor, Colgan Air Flight 3407
Tina Siniscalco’s sister, 44-year-old, Master Sargent Mary Julia Abraham was among the fifty people who died in the Colgan Air/ Continental Airlines Flight 3407 that crashed on landing in Buffalo, NY on February 12, 2009. Tina’s story represents an example of the additional losses that often follow the death of a family member in an airline crash. Her story also reminds us of the value that others play in a survivor’s long-term healing.
1. CVC: When 3407 crashed, and you realized that Mary had perished in the horrific accident, how did you see it from a spiritual perspective?
TS: I went into task modeas soon as I learned about the crash and Mary’s potential involvement. The spiritual perspective came later.
Mary’s roommate heard about the crash and was sure that she was on the flight, but was having trouble finding the itinerary. I decided to call the airline. It was challenging to get the information, so I went to the airport. I was stuffed into a room with other families of the passengers on the flight. I was given forms to complete. I called my other sister, and she came to wait with me. My brother went to be with our parents. We did not want my Mother to go to the airport. Eventually, I called my daughter and shared what was happening. My cousin, an active state trooper at the time, came to sit with me. Together we waited for confirmation that Mary was indeed on the flight. My adrenalin was running on high, and that is how I got through the first night.
2.CVC: Where did you get the best emotional support in the first few weeks?
TS: The other families that I met through the support group the American Red Cross set up for us in Buffalo. I also found the Care Team employees who were with us for a short time to be very kind and helpful—when they arrived the following day. But nothing can erase the painful memories of that first night and the lack of help and support from the airline.
I participated in the activities that our family survivor group began—to make changes regarding pilot training and other issues associated with commuter flights. We wanted to prevent similar accidents from happening in the future. I also saw a therapist for three years. The therapist helped me handle many of the problems I was dealing with, including the internal family conflict.
3. CVC: What actions did you take to finish the business of the accident?
TS: I filed a law suit. I was the executrix of Mary’s estate. We had already discussed this before the crash. She was single and a member of the Army Reserves. I knew from past deployments that I would be in charge of her final wishes, should anything happen to her while away on assignment. Because she had no children of her own, Mary wanted her five nieces and nephews to inherit all that she had.
4. CVC: Did you need to forgive anyone? Who?
TS: My Mother and my brother. My Mother did not understand why my sister put me in charge of her estate. My brother sided with my Mother. I was determined to fight for my sister and to follow her final wishes, even if others in my family did not like or understand it.
I cannot forgive Colgan Air. I never blamed the pilots. I always saw them as victims like my sister and the others who died that night. I hold the management at the airline responsible for the crash. They chose to put pilots in the cockpit who were inadequately trained—they died along with others who trusted the airline's leadership team.
5. CVC: What have you done to create from this experience?
TS: As I mentioned earlier, I worked with the other families to improve pilot training and effect change in issues that caused the crash and the death of Mary and the others on the flight. I wrote letters to congress and did all I could to support our family group's efforts. I also work with the Family Assistance Foundation as a way of helping other survivors.
6. CVC: Have you integrated the experience into your life? What did you leave behind, and what do you carry with you?
TS: After the settlement was finished, I retired from my job. I had fought for Mary's final wishes and did what she wanted me to do for her nieces and nephews. I got the best settlement I could for them. I now wanted to find work that was light and posed no stress on me. I have tried different jobs but I feel no pressure to look for full-time work, and rather enjoy trying various activities. I also like working with the Foundation as a Care Team member. When I respond, I donate my earnings back to the Foundation as a way to help their leadership team assist other survivors.
I carry Mary with me.
7. CVC: How do you remain connected to your loved ones who have gone before you?
TS: Mary is my Guardian Angel. She is always with me. I talk to her—I speak aloud to her.
My Mother did not understand why my sister put me in charge of her (Mary's) estate. My brother sided with my Mother.
Immediately following a mass tragedy such as an airline crash, the press is quick to report the number of deaths and hospitalizations resulting from the disaster. Tina's story reminds us of the invisible injuries and losses that families often face. There is no way to quantify the number of relationships that break down, never to be revived. In our case study research, we have interviewed many survivors who suffer emotional and psychological injuries that never heal in the wake of the trauma.
In Human Services Response™ Training (HSR™), there are two parts necessary in preparing employee responders for their role in assisting survivors. Training on "how to" carry out tasks and responsibilities is a significant part of preparation. Learning about hardships and distress families face during the initial phase of the trauma and in years that follow is part of the education of responders—the second part of their preparation.
There is nothing that a Care Team member can "do" about inner-family conflicts. However, understanding challenges and hardships faced by family members following the sudden and traumatic loss of a loved one helps build empathy on the part of the responders. Tina’s story reminds us that the long-term effects of a crash like Colgan Air Flight 3407 live well beyond the final death toll.
Mary is my Guardian Angel. She is always with me. I talk to her—I speak aloud to her.
Tina’s story about her loss of Mary also reminds us of how family survivors can and most often do experience peace in the aftermath of a tragic loss. More specifically, her recovery shows the role that others play in a survivor’s healing. Tina’s story also reminds me of The Serenity Prayer by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr…
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Note: Tina has become a Care Team member for the Family Assistance Foundation and has worked with our team on several occasions. Tina is also on the Survivor Advisory Board of the Foundation's new research and training programs at Louisiana State University. 
January 2020, the Family Assistance Education & Research Foundation (the Family Assistance Foundation) entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Louisiana State University (LSU) to create a joint institute to provide professional development certificates for Care Team and other responders, and to conduct academic research and ultimately graduate degrees in the field of international humanitarian assistance. Click here for press release.