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.
Tessa's Story: A Fallen Peace Corps Volunteer
"You have to keep breaking the heart until it opens."
During troubled times like these, with the Coronavirus taking lives, literally, and drastically altering life as we once knew it, I find it grounding to learn from survivors. I find it consoling, encouraging, and inspirational to learn how others integrate traumatic losses into their lives and find the energy to move forward, living, and loving those left behind.
This month's survivor story is about the death of Tessa, told by her father Kevin, a Foundation team member who lives in New Mexico. While death from a shark attack is different from most of the tragedies that the Foundation's case study research involves, Kevin's story is similar to that of other families. In the aftermath of his daughter’s death, Kevin and his family had the same needs of other family survivors, i.e., information, practical support such as transportation, logistical assistance, and connection—to their loved one and others who were with their family member before and after her death. Kevin's story also reminds us of the power that families have in moving organizations forward to meet future survivors' needs—based on previous survivors’ stories where needs went unmet. And for the family members’ long-term healing, the need to see their loved one(s) honored by name, and to be assured that they will never be forgotten.
"Some people, sweet and attractive, and strong and healthy, happen to die young. They are masters in disguise teaching us about impermanence."
~ The Dalai Lama
(this quote appears on tessafoundation.org in honor of Tessa)
Tessa Marie Horan reached her dream of becoming a Peace Corps volunteer in 2005-2006 after undergoing a rigorous three-month training program as a candidate in the Kingdom of Tonga. The Kingdom of Tonga is a group of 36 islands, 1500 miles north of New Zealand in the South Pacific. Tessa was trained in early childhood education and earned a degree in that field. Tessa wanted to make a difference with her life.
Tessa died in 2006, one month shy of her 25th birthday while working in the village of Tu’anuka on the island of Va’vau. She was the first and only volunteer in that village. Tessa was sworn in as an official volunteer one month before the assignment began. The last day of her life started with teaching her students at the local elementary school. After teaching, she played soccer and swam at a nearby beach with other teachers and local young people. A small distance from the shore, Tessa was attacked by a giant shark. She lost her leg in the attack. A friend, Tatafu, swam Tessa to shore and found a car that took them to the clinic. But the massive loss of blood was too much, and Tessa died en route.
Kevin, Tessa's father, was awakened by a phone call in the early morning hours. While he recognized the Washington DC area code, he could not imagine who would be calling. Before he could answer, the phone stopped ringing. Within moments, Tessa’s younger sister, Jazie, called from Tessa’s mother’s (Kevin’s ex-wife) home and told him that Tessa had died. Kevin dressed and went immediately to be with Tessa’s siblings and her mother.
1. CVC: When you learned that Tessa died from the the attack by the shark, how did you see it from a spiritual perspective?
Kevin: Within a few days, two things happened that helped me. I was driving in my car, and a Bob Marley song began playing over the radio, 'Three Little Birds.' It was Tessa's favorite song, among other Bob Marley tunes that she loved. This song was significant to me. I felt like it came from Tessa. And then I had a dream where Tessa came to me. I heard her say clearly, "I'm okay, Dad." And I knew from then on that she was with me and always would be. I still draw strength from the memory of the song playing soon after I received news of her death and the dream where I heard her voice speaking to me.
2. CVC: Where did you get the best emotional support in the first few weeks?
Kevin: Family and friends were my most significant source of support. Tongan officials embalmed Tessa before she left the country. A Peace Corps representative escorted her remains home. After she arrived at the local funeral home, we viewed her, and I felt that she looked good. Seeing the large gathering at the funeral was very important to me. It helped to know that so many people cared about Tessa and our family.
We knew that Tessa embraced the Eastern philosophy and had begun to practice the Buddhist traditions. Even though she had been embalmed, in keeping with her chosen rituals, we had her remains cremated after the funeral. One thing that helped us as a family during our initial grief pertained to the Buddhist post-death readings. Even though we were not Buddhists, in honor of Tessa’s beliefs, we came together daily for the 49-day reading of Buddhist texts and Bardo prayers. Reading the prayers was very bonding for us as a family. It gave us a lot of peace.
I also received a great deal of support from a group that I was a member of for years before Tessa’s death. I am still a member of the group. These are people who understand me and are always there for me. As a group, we are there for each other through all of each other’s challenges. I was born and raised as a Catholic, and I received a lot of support from my roots.
3A. CVC: What actions did you take to finish the business of the accident?
Kevin: Initially, I asked the Peace Corps leadership if I could travel to Tonga and bring Tessa home. They told me that by the time I could get to the island, her remains would already be home for the funeral. It was ten days before she arrived home—so this was not true. I regretted that I did not try harder to go to Tonga and bring her back. The Tongan community organized a tribute for Tessa in Tonga's capital and honored according to their traditions. It was an event I will always regret not being able to attend. The Peace Corps dropped the ball for me on that one. Tessa’s Peace Corps colleagues provided us with pictures after the fact. Tessa was the first volunteer to die while in service to their country. (see tessafoundation.org to read more about the service on the island).
In those days, there were no formal programs organized by the Peace Corps to commemorate volunteers who died in service. The leader of the Peace Corps never called us. Fortunately, this changed several years later. I am grateful to Donna and Chelsea Mack for their compassionate work. Their son Jeremy died as a volunteer also. Their Foundation led to founding the Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers Memorial Project. Around 2009, the former Deputy Director of the Peace Corps, Carrie Hessler Rondelet, also became involved in organizing these efforts, which eventually led to President Obama’s recognition of the fallen volunteers. She became Director of the Peace Corps in 2014.
Later, the Peace Corps invited our family to a ceremony in Washington, DC, that lasted an entire weekend. At the ceremony, the organizers revealed a plaque that displayed the names of 273 fallen Peace Corps volunteers. Since its beginning in 1967, this is the number of volunteers who have died in service or during training. It was an honor to see Tessa’s name and dates of service among the other fallen volunteers.
3B. CVC: What actions did you take to regain control over your life?
Kevin: I have always been devoted to my children. After Tessa’s death, time with them became more critical than ever. I focused my attention on my family.
Attending the events in Washington, D.C., was very important to me. Visiting the memorial and meeting other families helped me move forward in my healing. We marched as a group from the Peace Corps offices to Arlington Cemetery. I knew that Tessa and all of the others were finally being honored in the manner they deserved.
3C. CVC: Did you receive any counseling?
Kevin: I sought counseling from different sources. I took advantage of a local university that trains mental health professionals. I was able to receive excellent counseling at a reduced price. I also attended other programs designed to facilitate grief.
4. CVC: Did you need to forgive anyone? Who?
Kevin: Yes, I had to forgive myself. Becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer was my dream as a young man. I was accepted into the program. I always wanted to go to the South Pacific but was assigned to Nepal. I chose not to take the assignment. Tessa and I were quite close. I will always believe that her decision to apply for the job and the location was because of me. As she was growing up, she heard me talk about this dream I had of being a Peace Corps volunteer that never came to be.
5. CVC: What have you done to create from this experience?
Kevin: As I said earlier, I put my energy into my children. I have one other daughter and two sons. And now I have four grandsons, three of which I am very close to here in Santa Fe. I use my spare time to help them and be with them as much as possible. I have taught them to swim and will teach them to ski and other sports. I find this very gratifying. They teach me about unconditional love. I am blessed.
6. CVC: Have you integrated the experience into your life? What did you leave behind, and what do you carry with you?
Kevin: Yes, I believe that I have. I learned a lot from Tessa that I use in my relationships with my other children. Before Tessa died, I tried to tell her what to do with her life. And she would remind me that it was her life and not mine. Now, when one of my children tells me about their plans, I listen and try to support them.
Tessa was an independent woman. She always had her own vision of what she wanted to do with her life. After she died, I was glad that she lived her short life the way she wanted to.
7. CVC: How do you remain connected to Tessa?
Kevin: Certain music and different experiences bring tears to my eyes, and I think of Tessa. I believe this is how she connects with me and lets me know that she is always with me. We have also started a foundation to honor Tessa's memory that keeps her spirit alive. Many events have taken place in her name. We had a ski race at the Santa Fe ski area that helped raise donations for various charities needing funding, and we have held multiple other events to help others.
In those days, there were no formal programs organized by the Peace Corps to commemorate volunteers who died in service. The leader of the corps never called us.
-Kevin Horan, Tessa’s father
Many of the mistakes leaders and officials made in Kevin’s story, unintentional as they were, were hurtful and typical of the times. Crucial issues, like proper and timely notification, not being able to go to the site and meet others who were there with Tessa when she died, and delays in honoring her in her own country sooner are all too familiar. The list goes on. And yet, of great significance, is the fact that these stories were learned from and used to pave the way for better treatment of families of fallen Peace Corps volunteers today.
I am grateful to Donna and Chelsea Mack for their compassionate work. Their son Jeremy died as a volunteer also. Their Foundation led to founding the Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers Memorial Project.
Today, Kevin and his family honor Tessa in many ways. You can learn more about Tessa and how her spirit lives on through the work of the Tessa Foundation (tessafoundation.org) which is directed by her mother, Kristena Prater. It is also essential to know that through the efforts of the Donna and Chelsea Mack, the connection among families is made possible through the Fallen Peace Corps Volunteer Memorial Project (website and Facebook page).
Some of the best lessons we ever learn, we learn from our mistakes and failures. –The error of the past is the wisdom and success of the future.
-Tryon Edwards, American Theologian
At the Family Assistance Education and Research Foundation, we focus on learning ways to empower survivors of all types of tragedies. We learn from stories such as Kevin's so that we can better support and assist future survivors. At the Foundation, we believe that survivors are always our very best teachers.