50 Years After a Plane Crash, Family Members Left Behind Find Solace in One Another

From a Times Insider column by Emmett Lindner headlined “50 Years After a Plane Crash, Their Grief Still Resonates”:

In February 2021, Ellen Barry, a Boston-based reporter who covers mental health for The New York Times, came across an article in Seven Days, a Vermont weekly newspaper, that piqued her interest. The piece focused on Michelle Brennen, who was 10 years old when her father died in a plane crash that had occurred nearly 50 years earlier. On a foggy day in 1973, Delta Flight 723 collided into a sea wall that separated Boston Harbor from Logan International Airport, killing all 89 people on board. Ms. Brennen, the article reported, was searching for family members of those who had died; she wanted to bring them together for a memorial.

The human, tangible qualities of the story resonated with Ms. Barry. So soon after she finished reading the article, she sent Ms. Brennen an email. She followed that up with a trip to Vermont, where the two drank coffee and talked for about two hours. Her article, on Ms. Brennen’s mission and the long course of grief after tragedy, was published in The Times last week.

Here, Ms. Barry shared how she approached people to discuss loss and the role memory played in her reporting.

How did you think about structuring the article?

When I first came across the story, Michelle was just starting to look for families. I thought, Wouldn’t it be good to tag along as she goes on this quest? She tracked down all of these people with whom she has one thing in common: All of their lives were shaped by the loss of someone on that plane.

The structure of the article was the structure of her search. I wanted to bring the reader to the end of the search, when Michelle was able to bring people together for a gathering in Boston this summer. But of course I didn’t know whether anything meaningful would take place when they got together. That felt like a risk.

You’re dealing with accounts of events that happened decades ago. How do you assess the veracity of a memory?

For the purposes of this story, I was looking at memories of subjective experience, the experience of loss and how it affected families. You really have nothing to work with except for the memories of the people that you’re writing about. I fall back on trusting their memories and the emotions that are connected to them.

That feels embodied by a man who said he didn’t cry when he lost his mother as a child.

That particular line is something the editors and I discussed a lot, because all of us found it hard to wrap our heads around. I went back to him several times to talk about it, and really only after considerable discussion did we include that line. There’s an emotional truth about the story that he was telling us; it would, I think, remain true even if he did cry at some point.

The way he was raised, he believed that expressing deep emotion about his mother’s death was going to be a burden on the people around him. It’s hard to explain how consistent and pervasive that thought was for those interviewed. There were so many similarities, perhaps because the families were mostly New Englanders. They would talk about the environment they grew up in and the way they dealt with emotion. It underlined how much our culture has changed.

In 2021, Ms. Brennen discovered a box her mother kept with documents related to the crash, which helped prompt her desire to track down other family members of victims. The box was such an organic metaphor for stashing away — and revisiting — painful memories.

In some ways I was questioning whether Michelle was going to be able to provide a feeling of resolution, which was what she wanted to bring to people. It seemed to me that there would be a lot of people for whom revisiting this would be too painful. Was she going to be able to make this a positive experience? That was my question from the beginning.

There is still tension around that; I quoted some people who were very unsettled. But in the end, I think the people who showed up in Boston walked away with something of value, the sense of being part of some collective and of not being alone in this loss.

Was approaching the families difficult?

All you can ever do is ask. This is very painful material. You’re not going to persuade them to speak about it unless they have a reason to. Quite a few people didn’t want to talk about it. Michelle, for her part, really never wavered in the thought that connecting all these people would be good for most of them, if not all of them.

No one can say what’s the right way to cope with a terrible loss. But I suppose this project, what Michelle did, was about connection and the idea that it could make them all feel less alone.

Did their stories change or add anything to the way you think about mental health?

There are big questions right now about how to help people get past terrible experiences and whether various kinds of medical treatment are necessary.

A lot of people are getting new diagnoses regarding their trauma, and engaging in the various kinds of treatments, like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, or E.M.D.R., that help them better cope with the memory. That’s something that seems very alive in our culture.

Prolonged grief syndrome, a diagnosis that was recently added to the manual psychiatrists use to treat patients, proposes that there is a pathological level of grief that should be and can be treated by professionals. It’s kind of a new conversation because we’ve tended to look at grief as a necessary, or unavoidable, kind of suffering.

Emmett Lindner has covered international protests, worked on live briefings and asked the tough questions about frozen reindeer meat for The Times.

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