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Resilience: "Sometimes life hands you a new normal."


I asked Rebecca Phillips to follow up on my last post by telling her own story of the day that forever changed her life.Amtrak_crash

 The crash                                                                   

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, I always thought I was the only one aloud to have a Graco FastAction Fold Click Connect stroller, 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.






  1. susan schwartz says:

    Rebecca –
    in a few short paragraphs, you have taken
    us to the depths of hell, and back to life.
    your strength is inspiring. and your story
    — especially the ‘this can’t happen to me’ aspect — bracing. i know your piece will deeply touch all who read it. thank you so much for sharing it.

  2. Rebecca Phillips says:

    Thank you for your kind words. It was a horrible time to experience, but I continue to receive blessings because of it. I’m sorry it took so long for me to respond; I was referring a friend to this post and I honestly don’t recall if I had replied before now. Better to have my bases covered. 😉

  3. […] A childhood friend of mine, Becky Phillips, lost her mother, father, sister, and close friend in a train crash in 1989. […]

  4. Rachel says:


    Reading of your resilence and strength really helped me deal with the questions in my mind about my own losses. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    Becy – your name brings reminds me of a wonderful pen friend I had way back in the 70’s when I was in India. We lost contact and many times I wonder what happened to her.

    Did you have a penpal named Rachel in India when you were in school? If yes, it would be lovely to get back in touch if not, please ignore my note. Thanks.

  5. Jamie says:

    Wow, how many years have I known you, and this is the first “real” glimpse into how amazing you are. I cherish you and Bill….thank you so much for putting it out there to share. <3

  6. […] The article is called, Resilience: “Sometimes Life Hands You a New Normal.” […]

  7. Becky says:

    Thank you, Jamie — that was sweet. We cherish you, too! I had some misgivings about it at first, but Bobbi reassured me. We all have our burdens, but as long as we realize we’re all in it together, we can make it through.
    Becky recently posted…The Grief JournalMy Profile

  8. tric says:

    Wow you have been through so much. I am glad you found a way to live through your nightmare. You are to be greatly admired. Your mom and dad would be so proud I’m sure.
    tric recently posted…Series of letters. Letter 19My Profile

    • Becky says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Tric.
      I have a tattoo of a stylized “V” on the back of my neck — my personal victory symbol. It is also the initial of my maiden name, the name my parents and sister shared. I like to think about it as proof that I walked through the fire and came out the other side.

      Life is a blessing, even at its most painful. It’s hard to see sometimes, but I truly believe it.
      Becky recently posted…Blue Christmas.My Profile

  9. […] nearing the 16-year anniversary of the train crash, which is always a time of great emotion and introspection for me. I think a lot about what life […]

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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.