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Old man resilience: "Let's ride motorcycles."

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This was meant to be a commercial, but it’s oh-so-much-more. Check out the resilience of these old men as they decide to live life rather than avoid death.

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.




Tragedy, grief, love and joy

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A tale of tragedy, grief, love and joy told in snippets.


Facebook post, February 26, 2011Vergil and Leona Vant

On this day in 1944, my young parents were married. After Dad came home from the war, they were rarely apart. My parents held hands and danced in the kitchen. They approached life with a healthy dose of humor and common sense. After 55 years of living together, they died together.

Happy anniversary in Heaven to Ma and Pa. Always in my heart and in my dreams.

I’ll see you again…



March 1999

“Do you remember Becky Vant?” my mom asked as we chatted on the phone.

“Of course! She was one of my best friends in junior high until she went to that other high school in the district,” I teased. “I haven’t seen her in years. Why do you bring her up?”

“This is just awful,” Mom began, “Becky’s parents and her sister Wendy were all killed in a train accident in Illinois a few days ago.”

“Oh my god . . . what happened?”

“A semi-truck drove onto the tracks and the train crashed into it. No one knows all the details yet.”

“I can’t believe it! I wish I knew where Becky was so I could talk with her.”


March 2010

Becky finds me on Facebook. Now Rebecca Phillips, married and with kids of her own, we catch up on the past twenty-five years and then our messages turn to our shared experience of grief.

Becky, I write, my grief after losing Ruth was so much more difficult than I ever thought it would be. How did you ever make it through after the train accident?

Oh, Bobbi, it was so hard, Becky responded. There were days when I couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t work, couldn’t take care of my kids . . . Somehow, between my faith and the love of those around me, I’ve made it this far. But I still think about my parents and Wendy every day.


Facebook post, February 27, 2011

Becky responds after receiving 25 comments on her post

Thank you all. Every day of my life, I become more and more convinced that I am one of the luckiest people around, because I have an amazing family and a phenomenal group of friends. I love your stories and I appreciate all of your generosity and love.

Life is good.   


In loving memory of Vergil, Leona, and Wendy Vant. Your “lucky” daughter and sister continues to teach us that, even after tragedy, life is good.

"Life is good" inspires resiliency

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I want to start this off by saying I’m not being paid in any way by the company Life is good. So, I’m voluntarily saying that I really like them. I like their stuff, I like their simple, positive slogan, and I like how they inspire people. I don’t even think inspiration was their intention when they started the company, but somehow that slogan and the happy faces of their character, Jake, and his dog, Rocket, really move people to do good stuff and make it through some tough times.

They have a section on their website called Fuel: Inspiring letters that fuel us all to keep spreading good vibes. Want some extra fuel for your day? Check it out.

And remember, sometimes it’s the simple thoughts that get us through: Life is good.

There Are Gifts At Every Turn


Resilient people have a habit of finding the gifts at every turn in their lives. Whether the event they experience is positive or negative, they can find a gift in there somewhere. It’s a practice that helps them grow stronger and able to more easily bounce back from low points in their lives.

The other day I was talking to a friend on the phone about the roller coaster of her life in the past several months. To top off an incredible string of really difficult situations – including the death of her mother – she found out she was being audited by the IRS.

Finally, I gently asked, “Mary, do you think you’ll be able to find any gifts in this?”

I almost expected her to sigh and ask how I could possibly think there were gifts anywhere to be found. I mean, how could an IRS audit be a gift?

Mary did sigh. But instead of being frustrated at the idea of gifts, she said, “I’ve already found one. I’ve learned that I need help. I can’t do everything myself like I’ve always thought. I need a CPA and I need someone to help me organize. Even though this is really hard, the gift is in deciding to let go and ask for help.”

Because she was open to seeing the gift in her situation, Mary will not only survive her run of bad luck, but also come out stronger and more resilient.

What about you? What gifts are you finding in your life?

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.