My act of courage: A cemetery, a water tower, and overcoming grief

It was early summer, just before the fireflies come out. I grabbed my fresh-out-of-college daughter, hopped in the car, and headed to Minneapolis for a seminar on grief. If we were like everyone else, we would drive around the city, visit the mega-mall and other sights, and three days later, drive home. But we weren’t like everyone else. The seminar was only a front. As a longtime counselor and fatherless daughter, I already knew plenty about grief. My own waves of grief had quieted years before, but I had just one more step to take to make things right, and Minneapolis was the only place I could take it.

I may not be a daredevil – no black diamond ski trails for me, no scuba diving, no mountain climbing – in the physical world at least. My bravery comes out elsewhere, usually under duress. I endured my three-year-old’s heart surgery and recovery. I sat with a client who wielded a steak knife. I gave knee-knocking day-long seminars to counselors (okay, that was voluntary, but I thought I had something to say). But this one was different, a long time coming and fraught.

My father died in a plane crash approaching Minneapolis, and I had spent my whole life avoiding contemplating his last minutes. I skipped movies that included crashes. If I stumbled onto one, I’d excuse myself. I watched NASA disasters with thoughts of the astronauts’ families first in mind, and then turned it off.  I was excellent at avoidance, but felt a weakling for it.

One winter morning, I woke up ready. Grief works like that, arriving in waves, sometimes decades after you’d expect, bringing courage with it. First, I unearthed the newspapers that my mother had saved. As I untied the twine that had kept them bound since shortly after his death, I lifted them from the heavy brown paper wrapping, and read. Outside, the afternoon gloom turned to dark.

After clearing that hurdle, I was unstoppable. I researched the crash, compiled newspaper accounts, downloaded photos, questioned a local reporter who had done a retrospective on the crash. I received documents from the coroner’s office, and consulted the historical society. I grilled a pilot friend to interpret the indecipherable FAA report I received.

Days later, as the snow piled up outside, I sat on the floor with photos and headlines and reports spread before me and finally faced the moment that had hijacked my intended life. I felt brave.

As soon as I’d gone that far, it became clear that I needed to go further. I still didn’t know how many minutes he’d lived with the knowledge that they would crash. I didn’t know what he would have seen last. Or how much ground the slow-motion disaster covered. For that, which I suddenly desperately needed to know, I’d have to go to Minneapolis.

First, we visited the military cemetery where, in a rogue March snowstorm, the plane clipped a freakishly tall flagpole while attempting a landing. Then, the art deco water tower where the wing fell off, and finally, the site of the house that was destroyed by the fallen plane and resulting fire. The story of that visit is for another day, but here’s the surprise: retracing his final steps and imagining his final moments now was comforting, not distressing. And I wasn’t a weakling after all.

My daughter and I took a walk through the leafy neighborhood into a park filled with runners, walkers, and kids on scooters. Life was abundant there after a long winter. By the time we left, it was almost time for the fireflies to come out. Courage trumped avoidance, once and for all.


If you’d like to know more of what I’ve learned about grief, visit my grief website

To keep track of your own thoughts, check out my grief journal, available here on


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