Norman Ollestad: Escaping the Chains of Grief

When I read about 14-year-old Bahia Bakari, the sole survivor of a Yemeni jetliner crash off the coast of the Comoros, I wondered: How will she handle the loss of her mother? And how will she deal with the realization that everyone else aboard—153 people—died? Bakari is just three years older than I was when the plane carrying my father, his girlfriend, and the pilot of our fourseater Cessna crashed into a mountain in a blizzard. The pilot and my father were killed on impact; I helped my dad's girlfriend claw down the icy mountainside, but she fell to her death on the descent. Thirty-seven hundred vertical feet later, I made it to safety—alone.

If Bahia is like I was, she will spend these next months (years, really) trying to make sense of why she alone survived. She may believe it was all in God's hands. She may believe that she had actually been preparing for that day her whole life: even at age 11, I understood that the adventurous life I had lived with my father—who induced me to overcome my fears by teaching me to surf fierce waves in Mexico and ski deep powder in Austria—had ingrained in me the skills and mental toughness needed to survive.

Nothing will appear as it was. After my accident, I wanted to insulate myself from the world, which seemed more chaotic and abrasive than I remembered. I was unable to tolerate any negativity. Everything—people arguing or suffering, even an old woman using a cane—felt overwhelmingly gloomy. I spent most of my waking hours trying to force sweet thoughts into my head. I slept with the lights on.

A year after the crash, I rediscovered surfing. The instant I stepped off land and into the ocean, I felt the chains of grief loosen. I sailed, as if on a wing, across the earth, tapping back into that old, beautiful world that my father had showed me, the one he loved so much. The unease I felt as the sole survivor began to fade away as I recognized that I was inheriting his legacy. The healing process had commenced.

We all grieve differently, but maybe Bahia, too, will allow herself to be guided by some principle that her mother passed along to her. It's a shot at solace.