Monday Mourning: The Sudden Death of a Loved One

Today I have Mark Berry on the blog. Mark is an airline captain with 30 years in cockpits. His debut novel was survivor’s guilt story: Pushing Leaves Towards the Sun. He followed that up with a memoir about TWA Flight 800 while earning an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University. 13,760Feet—My Personal Hole in the Sky chronicles the loss of his fiancée Susanne on one of our nation’s worst airline disasters. Mark is a contributing editor for Airways magazine where more than two dozen of his aviation articles have been published. He’s also a former managing editor for Mason's Road literary journal. His essays and short stories have appeared in over a dozen publications. His second novel Street Justice is expected to be released later this year.

DW: Who was the person that died?

MB:  In 1996 my fiancée Susanne boarded TWA flight 800 at JFK Int’l in New York. While climbing through 13,760 Feet on it’s way to Paris, France, her red and white Boeing 747 blew up and then rained down in 876 pieces. All 230 passengers and crew either died during the explosion, or fell three miles to their final fate.

DW: How old were you at the time?
MB: Susanne had just turned 31, and I was a few months behind her. She wasn’t bothered about turning 30 the year before. It was 30-Something that haunted her; probably because of the TV show by that name that was popular back then. At 31 she suddenly felt she was getting old.

DW: Did you and Susanne talk about death?
MB: Ironically, Susanne and I had just gone on a long bike ride the weekend before, and she showed me where her step-father was buried—the family plot where neither of us could imagine she’d soon end up. That Wednesday night, when she died on TWA Flight 800, I was working on my will with computer software because we were engaged, and I had what the program called a “life event” on the horizon. We were also nine days from closing on a house together and all the major subjects were part of our daily conversations. We talked about making children, when, and how many—if she’d continue to work, etc. We compared how she’d lost her stepfather to a long, protracted illness, versus the way I’d lost my mom to a sudden asthma attack. Was it harder to watch the deterioration and suffering, or harder not being able to say goodbye? We hadn’t reached a firm conclusion. We thought we could face the challenges of losing more loved ones in the years to come, as long as we had each other. Losing her was the one crisis I couldn’t imagine and wasn’t prepared for.

DW: Tell me about your experience when your mother died. Was she young too?
MB: Losing Mom was tough. She was 52 and I was 23. I’d just become a major airline pilot and checked out as a Boeing 727 first officer. Basically I flew my first jet, and suddenly Mom died. It soured me toward success for a long time. I felt like reaching the top of the mountain just meant I was going to get pushed off the other side. She had allergies and carried an EpiPen, but I never imagined she’d succumb to an asthma attack. My Dad was home with her. He cooked her pumpkin pancakes and her throat closed up. I co-wrote a song with musician Adam Hill titled Anaphylactic Shock Reaction about the unsuccessful race to save my mom based on my dad’s description:

It was just a Saturday morning

But her heart was racing

And she was having trouble breathing

Dad raced full speed with his horn blowing

His mad dash

Running lights

And driving down

The wrong side of the street

Her flare-shaped emergency EpiPen

Didn’t buy her any extra time

And at the emergency-room entrance

A nurse asked, “Shall I call for a code?”

Head nurse said “Yes!”

They all did their best

Even cracked her chest

But by now you know the rest

Anaphylactic shock reaction

That’s what the doctors said

After their desperate attempt at revival

And they pronounced my mother dead

I knew of her allergies

To flowers, pollen, and honey bees

With Mom gone, angry feelings

With Mom gone, total loss

With Mom gone, angry feelings

Angry feelings and total loss

Anaphylactic shock reaction

That’s what the doctors said

After their desperate attempt at revival

And they pronounced my mother dead

DW: Was losing your mother your first experience with losing someone close?
MB: Actually I lost a little brother Daniel when I was only three years old, and he was just three months old—to Sudden Infant Death. I was too young to fully understand his passing away at the time, but it’s my first actual memory.

My parents really had to put a lot of strength and love into rebuilding our family after losing Daniel. I’m proud of them. Shortly after I lost Susanne, well-meaning friends tried consoling me that losing a child is worse than losing a soul mate. I cringe whenever I even attempt to imagine a deeper loss than what Susanne’s death put me through, and I know my parents had to bear it.

Life and death lessons were delivered early for me. My folks grieved after Daniel died, but they had the strength to try again. While they were delivering at the hospital, and praying that their new son a year later wouldn’t suffer the same inexplicable fate, I was blissfully caught in my own childhood moment of undersea adventure with neighborhood friends. When my parents returned to pick me up while carrying my new bundled-up baby brother Timothy, I was wearing my underwear over my head like Jacques Cousteau. I wondered why did my parents make another brother for me? Was this one going to stick around awhile? Why couldn’t Daniel learn how to breathe? With my cotton diving helmet, I can breathe under the sea!

In the years of struggling after losing Susanne, songwriting became therapy for me, and those early childhood experiences with Daniel’s death and Tim’s birth were all part of my attempt to cope with grief. I co-wrote Tighty-Whitie Deep Sea Divers with a father-and-son musician team Christopher and Malakai Madden.

I remember my first brother in a white christening gown

It’s the first memory I had, but then he wasn’t around

The baby sitter told me he’s gone home to the sky

I didn’t understand it and I didn’t know why

A year has gone and I’m at my friends to play

And we’re on an ocean expedition today

We’ll swim right down to the bottom of the sea

All hands on deck come diving now with me


We’re deep-sea divers

We’re deep-sea divers

I don’t know where my dad is but he took my mother

And they left me here to play while they made me a new brother

We’re deep-sea divers

These aren’t just tighty-whities that I’m wearing on my head

I was peaking out a leg-hole and jumping on the bed

Our cotton diving helmets let us breath under the sea

Jump off the bed into the shaggy green sea


Then my mom walked in the room with a blanket in her arms

We were bouncing on the bed and sounding the ship’s alarms

Here’s the treasure that you’re diving for, my dad said to me

Welcome your new baby brother. We named him Timothy

We’re deep-sea divers

Tighty-Whitie Deep-Sea Divers

We’re diving to the bottom of the shag rug so green

And the bathtub is a bubble bath machine

We named the bed Calypso, it’s a Yellow Submarine

We’re a deep-sea divers

DW: Were people supportive of your grief when TWA Flight 800 claimed Susanne, or did they shy away when you were grieving?
MB: I took a couple of weeks off from flying after Susanne died, but every time I tried to go back to work my fellow pilots and flight attendants looked at me as if I had the plague. That’s what I call it when co-workers projected their own grief on me. Our airline was worldwide, but still small enough that everyone knew someone on that flight. Two full 747 crews were onboard, plus family members traveling on passes, and 38 employees or their relatives perished at once, in addition to Susanne, who didn’t even make that official count because we weren’t yet married. The ultimate irony is that she was traveling full-fare in first class on my airline. So when I tried to go back to flying, and my fellow crew members realized that I’d lost my fiancé, they imagined a magnified version of their pain and turned away from me.

I became angry because I hadn’t done anything, but suddenly I felt like a pariah. It wasn’t long before a Captain threw me off his trip. While I was performing my preflight duties, a flight attendant gave me a hug in the cockpit. Suddenly I was told to grab my bags and get off the aircraft. “I can’t have you upsetting my crew,” was the Captain’s reasoning. I’d lost Susanne, the house we were trying to buy, and then I worried that my career was crashing too. I felt like I had absolutely nothing left. Fortunately the calls started pouring in. It seemed every other Boeing 727 Captain in the New York domicile called my Chief Pilot to tell him they wanted the honor of flying with me on my first trip back when I was ready.

DW: Is there anything you wish you'd done differently with Susanne?
MB: We were going to make vows for a lifetime. I didn’t realize just how short that could be. I wish I’d asked for something longer, and more concrete, like a century together.

On the serious side, proposing to her is the most important thing I’ve ever done. I sleep every night knowing that I showed her just how much I really loved her in the time we had together. She left me a message on our answering machine just before her flight took off. After a reminder about housing inspections and describing the shrimp she was eating in the first-class lounge, her last words were, “I love you.” So she also let me know her feelings right to the very end.

DW: Was she buried or cremated?
MB: Susanne was cremated. That was her family’s choice, but it would have been mine as well. I wasn’t allowed to see her after her body was reclaimed from 140 feet of salt water, and a trip across the Suffolk County Coroner’s slab. I have a friend who examined the bodies as part of the accident investigation, and he told me if I saw her it would haunt me the rest of my life. He still feels affected by the experience, and he’s a forensic professional.

DW: Did you learn anything about the grieving process that you'd like to share?
MB: I tried everything to work through my survivor’s guilt and grief. I tried anesthetizing my feelings with heavy drinking—never before a flight and strictly on my days off (always honoring the 12 hours bottle-to-throttle rule that my airline required). I used alcohol like emotional ibuprofen—self-prescribed. I tried running away by traveling all the way around the world—alone, but I brought my heavy emotional baggage with me. I tried casual sex—alone, and with random partners. Nothing seemed to work. I tried extreme exercise and trekked the Himalayas of Nepal. I pedaled across The Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Finally a psychologist friend offered me some great words of wisdom. She told me, “Emotions we bury, we bury alive.” So, ten years after Susanne died I tried creative writing. Maybe there is no best way to exorcise grief, and maybe we all need to travel down several of these roads on our way to smiling again.

I wish I could tell grief sufferers there’ll be a definite time when they’ll feel better. Ten years after my fiancée Susanne died on my airline I was still empty inside. I was functional and successful, but not happy. That’s when an intervention from my Dad and best friend Warren challenged me to try creative writing to get hold of my overwhelming feelings. I wrote a survivor’s guilt and grief novel Pushing Leaves Towards the Sun
In it the protagonists are trying everything from heavy drinking, body painting, and living only for the moment, to turning their emotions into original songs. I wrote the lyrics for a dozen tunes and found musicians on the Internet to create the music and perform these collaborations that are woven into my first book. Only after my early readers, my family, my professors (as I started formally studying the art of writing), and a grad school director told me I needed to write my real story, did I finally start putting my life as a surviving family member and pilot for the affected airline into a memoir. 13,760 Feet—My Personal Hole in the Sky is my second book, and it’s a deep look into the unspoken world of the commercial aviation community after a devastating accident.

DW: Were any songs played at the memorial that were important to Susanne?
MB: I don’t know who picked it, but Eric Clapton’s “Tear’s In Heaven” played at her memorial. To this day that song reminds me of her, and of losing her. Other songs remind me of happier days together, like Hootie and the Blowfish’s “I Only Wanna Be With You” (Susanne’s favorite song). I bought her tickets to see them at Madison Square Garden for her birthday. She died before the concert happened. Instead I went with my best friend Warren and cried throughout their performance.

Songs are important to me not only for how they make me feel, but also for sharing how I feel with others. The very first song I co-wrote (with musician Kim Smith) that became the catalyst for my first novel Pushing Leaves Towards the Sun, was “From a Long Way Away.” I think people who are grieving can relate to it because it’s how I tried to put on a happy face when inside I felt awful. Do you know that you can fake a smile by putting your tongue on the roof of your mouth?

From a long way away

Everything still looks OK

I still go to work

Well, almost everyday

I put my tongue on the roof of my mouth

It keeps me from saying what I have to say


I sail the seas

With no wind at all

I count the years

With chalk on the wall

I get around but have no place to be

And you can’t see anything wrong

Just by looking at me

From a long way away

Everything still looks OK

But the sun keeps setting

In the middle of the day

I put my tongue on the roof of my mouth

It makes me look like I’m smiling

Day after day

Day after day

(repeat chorus)

From a long way away

Everything still looks OK

But I feel the darkness in the middle of the day

I put my tongue on the roof of my mouth

And I silently pray

We’ll get together again someday

Someday, someday, someday

Thank you, Mark, for contributing your story to the blog! If you would like to share your experience, ontact me at thedeathwriter at gmail dot com