'My Partner Disappeared on the Malaysian Airlines MH370 Flight. This Is How I Found Love Again'

If I'm watching a TV show and there is a plane crash, I will burst into tears and have nightmares for days afterwards. It's an uncontrolled reaction, caused by trauma. Because in 2014, I lost my partner, the American passenger Philip Wood, on the MH370 Malaysian Airlines flight.

Needless to say, I haven't watched any of the documentaries about the plane that seemingly vanished, including the MH370: Mystery of the Lost Flight documentary that aired in late July.

I met Philip in China. We were both American—I was raised in Michigan, he had lived in Texas—but we had moved to Beijing for work. When we met, there was this instant spark between us. He called it a quantum connection. Within a year, we were living together.

Sarah Bajc and Philip Wood
Sarah Bajc with Philip Wood. The couple had intended to move to Malaysia when Wood boarded the Malaysian Airlines MH370 flight.

I loved him in an intense way that I'd never felt for anybody before, and our relationship gave me a whole new lease of life. I'd come out of a 22-year marriage with almost-adult children—two of my kids were already in college, the youngest was a senior in high school.

When Philip and I had been together for three years, we decided to move to Malaysia. I secured a teaching job there, and we planned on getting married the following summer. We were going off to have this new life together.

On the day Philip boarded the MH370 flight to Beijing, he was on his way back from Malaysia. He had been setting up our new house with furniture, making sure everything was ready for our move. He was coming back to Beijing to help me with the packing.

The movers arrived at our home in Beijing at 10 o'clock that morning, but we were still waiting on Philip. His flight was supposed to land at 6 o'clock, but he wasn't there. Our driver had gone to pick him up from the airport, and he had called me, saying, "What should I do? Should I wait here?" All the boards were blank, nobody was saying anything. Finally, everybody was told to leave the airport.

There was obviously something going on, but there was nothing in the news and, at the time, China still had firm control over their firewall. I was at a loss of what to do.

I called a personal friend, who worked in IT at the British school where I taught, and he gave me access to the school's private IP address that bypassed the Chinese firewall. I could see the news from Malaysia, and that's when it became apparent what was happening. That the flight had gone missing.

The search for the truth about MH370

The first few days were complete chaos. It was the most horrendous rollercoaster because there would be so-called "sightings" that they'd put on the news—of debris in the water, for instance—but they wouldn't amount to anything.

I'm a bit of a control freak. I'd been a working mom and in executive roles for most of my career, including at Microsoft. I'm a pretty logical and put-together kind of person. But I literally fell apart.

I didn't sleep for four or five days. My youngest son was still at home. He said, "Mom, you're going to die of a heart attack if you don't take care of yourself," and he convinced me to take a tranquilizer so I could get some sleep. He was amazing. I don't know how things would have worked out if he hadn't been there with me.

I started going to protests and talking to the press. I slipped into the role of being an advocate for the families of the other passengers. I threw myself into this new responsibility as a way of venting my frustration and trying to take control of the situation.

There were so many different theories floating around about our loved ones. Some said they were stranded on an island, others thought they had been captured and were being held in Afghanistan. We didn't know what had happened but we stayed hopeful that they were still alive.

But after several months had passed, it became clear that nobody was coming back. That transition from hope to acceptance was really hard.

I hadn't just lost Philip, I had also lost all of the plans that we had made together. They had disappeared overnight and I felt stranded. It was devastating. I moved to Malaysia and took the job at the new school, as I had already quit my other job and my youngest son had gone off to college in the U.S. For the first time in my life I was all by myself. I felt like a ghost during that period.

I still acted as an advocate for the families of other passengers, as we shifted our focus to finding out what had happened. I talked to the press, trying to put pressure on the government and bring new ideas to light. It was like I was running a marketing campaign.

But after two years of campaigning, as the other families slowly started to drift off and do their own thing, I realized it was time for me to start a new life.

Finding love again

I've always been intrigued by the idea of having a little bed and breakfast because I love to entertain. So I took a teaching job in Panama, with the intention of buying a beach property within a few years and opening my own resort.

Within my first month of living in Panama, my senior class went on a field trip to a mountain camp. Everybody was so impressed by the guy who ran the place, Ernesto, and he had a great connection with the kids. As soon as we met, we had this intense, immediate connection.

Sarah Bajc and Ernesto
Sarah Bajc and her husband, Ernesto. The pair met when Bajc moved to Panama six years ago.

We really hit it off. He is the entertainer, the life of the party. You can just tell when you're in a group of people, everybody loves Ernesto.

We started a relationship and he would take me hiking in the rainforest, or camping at his mountain property.

When we had been together for six months, he asked me why I had never talked to him about Philip. I had been afraid of how he might respond to an admission that I was still in love with somebody else because if he had asked me, "Do you still love Philip?" I would have told him, "Yes". It doesn't change how I felt about Ernesto, but it is possible to love two people at the same time. I told him this, and he was so accepting. He said that there was nothing wrong with that.

Ernesto also told me that he had lost his sister, who had died in a plane crash in the early '90s. The fact that we've both been through a rebuilding process is one of our points of connection. I don't even have to ask him for support; it's just automatically there because he gets it.

Within a year, we decided to get married. This step was really hard for me because I felt like I was being unfaithful to Philip. I felt guilty about moving on and being happy.

It's only in these last two years that I've stopped feeling guilty. I feel good about being happy and rebuilding a new life, and I think that's what Philip would have wanted. There's no way he would have wanted me to suffer for so long. I put that on myself.

Sarah Bajc In Panama
Sarah Bajc on the beach. Bajc believes her former partner would want her to be happy

I genuinely believe happiness is a choice, and I didn't make that choice for a long time. Now, I would say I'm one of the luckiest people I know, with the life I now have. I've got a husband who adores me and I adore him, and we have so much fun together. Plus I have the opportunity to live in the middle of a beautiful place. Ernesto and I bought a 16-acre property in the rainforest. Within a year I'm going to have a nice little resort, which is what I've dreamed of doing for years, with the man I love.

Even so, I still don't have closure because we still don't know what happened to the plane. Like all mysteries, the truth will come out sooner or later. If new evidence came to light, I would step into my role as an advocate again because I want to learn the truth. I have Ernesto's support in that. But until then, that scar tissue is still there. I've just put a good bandage over it.

Sarah Bajc has recently retired from being a teacher. She and her husband Ernesto will open their Camaroncito EcoResort & Beach in Panama next year.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Katie Russell.