When My Parents Died, I Was Terrified To Go On Living

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
By Stevan Schwartzenberger Brown 

It was Sunday, March 25, 2012, and the beginnings of spring were starting to take life in New York.

In springlike fashion, I’d brunched with friends, shopped, and done yoga. I bought a sundress. Everything was in step. Then I got back to my apartment and saw my brother’s missed call.

I was met with wailing screams on the other end of the line. “Stevan, sit down. Promise me you are sitting down.”

You know how they say that, in that moment, you just know? He didn’t have to say the words. My parents had been killed in a small plane crash. They were returning from our vacation home in the Bahamas with their best friends.

There were no survivors.  

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The small, single-engine passenger plane had taken off from Treasure Cay around 1 p.m. Somewhere between take-off and my brother’s call at 3 p.m., their plane had gone down. There were no eyewitnesses to the crash, and it was determined that a freak wind shear had taken the plane down just as it climbed above the tree line. The airport employees noticed smoke rising about a mile down the runway and rushed to the scene. What they found is an image I’ve asked never to be repeated to me. But, it must have been horrific because the plane exploded on impact after crashing sideways in the rocky woods.

My dad was an incredibly meticulous pilot. I’d flown with him frequently, and my mom always assured me there was nothing to worry about when they flew on their own. But, I did worry. I worried every time they flew to and from the Bahamas because up, until the plane crash, my life had been relatively untouched by tragic loss. Even though I was only 26, I was smart enough to realize nobody is immune to an experience that can suddenly gut one’s existence.

Prior to the accident, I was living in New York City and working in public relations. The night of the crash I flew home to Florida and never looked back. In the immediate aftermath, I was inside a bubble protected by my boyfriend, family, and friends. Love and support were the only feelings allowed inside. It felt good. Even though the worst had happened, everyone else was stepping up to take care of me — forever and ever.

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
But, after the funeral, the bubble burst. My protectors got back to their lives. Grief, pain, and loneliness invaded my physical and mental states. More than anything I was scared. Scared someone was going to break into my house and kill me. Scared that every time my boyfriend or brother got into their cars, I’d get a call that they were dead. Scared to open the bills piling up in my mailbox. I’d been sharing a 1,500-square foot apartment and had no clue about home insurance, flood insurance, homeowners association dues, or property taxes. Scared to take care of my grandmother, who was in a nursing home with dementia. Scared to co-own a business I knew nothing about. Scared to be the adult after the "real adults" suddenly vanished. 

A month after the accident, I was in my parents’ kitchen boiling water when a deep wail barreled out of my throat. I keeled over and shut my eyes as tightly as they would close. I’d hit rock bottom. Until that moment, I’d been too scared to admit they were gone and never coming back. Finally, I got that mom wasn’t out running errands. Dad wasn’t at work. They were gone. I had lost the loves of my life and was terrified to go on without them.  

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Even though I knew I had a right to blame my negative energy on this unthinkable loss, I knew it would be better to face the grief and seek counseling. I didn’t want to be depressed forever. For my own sanity, I wanted to heal and honor my parents by living a life they would be proud of. 

It took a year and a half, but I started grabbing my fear by the horns. It didn’t matter that my long-distance boyfriend and I had just reconciled; he was keeping me sane and it felt good to be together. So, we moved into my parents’ house. I was clueless about what my Dad did for a living, but I could promote anything. I made myself director of public relations and marketing for our family’s construction business. I didn’t know how to travel with someone who had irritable bowel syndrome, but I took my grandmother to visit her first-cousin in North Carolina because it made me feel good to see her happy. 

I am someone who believes God has a plan, but I also believe that accidents happen. The accident that resulted in my parents' deaths was a nightmare that, honestly, I still live with. Had it not been for it ripping away the two people most precious to me, I might never have had the opportunity to grow. 

But, then again, I’ll never know.

Modern Loss is a place to share the unspeakably taboo, unbelievably hilarious, and unexpectedly beautiful terrain of navigating your life after a death. We serve up candid personal essays and timely resources with no judgments. Beginners welcome.

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