I asked Rebecca Phillips to follow up on my last post by telling her own story of the day that forever changed her life.
Twelve years ago, I thought my life was over. Certainly, life as I had known it was over. What had befallen my family was worse than any tragedy I could have imagined at the time: my mother, father, sister, and close family friend, off on a cross-country trip, had been killed in a train crash.
I remember it like it was yesterday: the phone jangled us awake at 4:30 a.m., a good hour earlier than my alarm was set. Bill answered: “Hello? Oh, no! Thanks. Bye.” He said, “That was your sister. Your parents’ train has derailed.” He turned on the television to CNN, where we saw the wreckage. The night before, Train 59, the City of New Orleans, had encountered a semi-truck on the crossing near Bourbonnais, IL. The truck made it through the crossing, but the train struck the trailer, which was loaded with re-bar. The re-bar acted like ball bearings on the tracks, causing the two-engine train to leave the track, strike a siding car, and accordion into a fiery mess. At the time, nobody knew how many were injured or killed, but as soon as I saw the TV, I knew. I knew in my heart they were gone.
The worst of the worst
There are many holes in my memory of that time; I attribute that to the shock of the tragedy. Several of us flew out to Illinois to deal with the situation there. The national media pounced on the story and followed it for days. Suddenly we were on television and on the front page of newspapers. Details blur together. What I do remember is the kindness shown to my family and me over and over again, in the village of Bourbonnais and in our home town.
My remaining siblings and I spent weeks cleaning out our family home; it was hard to realize that my parents would never live there again. The youngest of seven children, I had always relished my role as the baby of the family, and I had a close relationship with my parents and siblings. Now, I felt lost. One-third of my family was gone. My parents, who had guided me through the hard times in my life, could not help me through this, the worst of the worst.
Well-meaning friends and relatives did not know how to approach me anymore. Likewise, I didn’t know what to say to them. No, I wasn’t fine. I still spent time at the cemetery, looking for some kind of comfort. I still burst into tears at any little thing. I still felt a terrible weight on my chest, like I couldn’t breathe. I still didn’t sleep well, and I ate to feed my broken heart. My grief was exhausting, both mentally and physically.
Sometimes life hands you a new normal
I’ll be first to admit I could not face this journey on my own. I am forever grateful for my husband’s loving patience and understanding. I leaned heavily on my sisters, who mothered me in their own ways. I started a journal. I prayed and wept all the time. I spent two years under a therapist’s care, and I used prescription antidepressants. Still, I had nightmares on a regular basis, I rarely went out of my house, and I wondered if I would ever be normal again. I felt I was falling apart, and I didn’t know how to stop it.
What I discovered, after I had spent some time on this path, is that sometimes, life hands you a new normal and expects you to deal with it. Sometimes, you just have to keep moving. At some point, I realized that my children needed their mother, and my husband needed his wife. I needed to be needed again. Slowly, I felt myself come back. I smiled more often. I could talk about my parents and sister without dissolving into tears. I looked less into the past and more into the present. I vowed to teach my young sons all about the family they lost. In my newfound feelings of resolve, I found hope. I was not the same, but I was going to be okay.
All along, my sisters and I had discovered blessings that had come from the tragedy. Our parents, who had recently celebrated 55 years of marriage, died as they had lived — together. Our faith assured us they were in Heaven. Our sister who died was the only one of us who would leave no spouse or children behind. Beloved friends and family who had lost touch over the years now contacted us because of our loss. People recounted inspiring stories of love and encouragement – my parents and Wendy had touched so many!
Life is good
I like to say that grief is a great and terrible teacher. Most of us live our lives as if nothing can touch us. When death comes to us in some way, we realize how foolish we were. Suddenly we are faced with despair; the lessons are hard, but they help us grow. I would not wish this on anyone, but in some ways, I am glad to have gone through it. I cherish my life and loved ones as never before, and I feel more compassionate toward others.
I believe I am stronger, but at the same time, I am also a little more fearful. I now know that those things we think will ‘never happen to me’ can, and do happen. I walked that path, and by the grace of God and the people around me, I made it through. The grief that would destroy me has instead shaped me into a better person.
My family talks about life in terms of before and after the crash. Two distinct periods separated by one horrible event. It was an ugly time, and I really thought I might never recover. But I did, and I’m here to say that despite its struggles, life is good.