Coping with sudden loss after airplane crashes

Story highlights

  • Heidi Snow lost her fiance when TWA Flight 800 exploded in 1996
  • Snow started ACCESS to help others who have lost loved ones in plane crashes
  • Snow wants to make sure "no one ever has to go through their loss alone"

(CNN)Heidi Snow and Michel Breistroff were planning a future together. Breistroff, a Harvard graduate, was a professional hockey player with a promising career. Snow worked for a hedge fund in New York City.

On July 17, 1996, their lives changed forever. Breistroff boarded TWA Flight 800 bound for his native France on his way to Germany to play professional hockey.
    "He called me, and he told me he was getting on the plane. And he asked me to marry him on the phone before he got on the plane," Snow told CNN the next day.
    Twelve minutes after takeoff from JFK Airport, the plane exploded in midair off the coast of Long Island. Two hundred thirty passengers were on board. No one survived.
    "After we said our final 'I love yous' ... about two hours later, my mom called," Snow recalled recently. "She said, 'Please tell me that Michel didn't go to Paris tonight.'"
    Snow immediately turned on the TV.
    "I just remember fire and really dark water. And at that point, my life stood still," she said. "He was strong, he was young, and he definitely swam to shore. And I held on to that hope. And then the next morning it became a recovery mission."
    About five weeks later, Snow's greatest fear was confirmed when Breistroff's remains were recovered from the bottom of the ocean.
    "One of the hardest things for me was just going home," she said. "Everybody is resuming life as normal but I had a huge hole in my heart, and I had a future planned with somebody and that was gone."
    Snow looked for a support group in New York City but couldn't find one. She spoke with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and he suggested she attend a meeting with families from Pan Am Flight 103, which had exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, eight years earlier.
    "When I walked in the room, it was the first time I didn't have to apologize for my tears. They didn't have to say a word. They got it," she said.
    Snow met a woman who lost her fiancé on the Pan Am flight. "She would meet with me and talk with me," Snow said. "She is really how I got through it."
    From there, Snow began pairing up mothers to mothers, siblings to siblings, spouses to spouses -- Pan Am families with TWA families. A few months later, ACCESS was born.
    ACCESS, short for AirCraft Casualty Emotional Support Services, is a nonprofit bereavement support program for people who have lost loved ones in aviation disasters.
    "We have 250 grief mentors from air disasters dating back to 1958 -- private, military and commercial air disasters," Snow said. "This gives people an opportunity to share what they went through with somebody else and also provide hope for them."
    Most of the trained grief mentors have called in for help in the past, Snow said. Rachel Courtney is one of them.
    Courtney lost her father, James Courtney, along with his legal assistant in a private plane crash in 1998.
    "For a period of three weeks, we were searching for him in the woods," Courtney said. "The first night I was home, we were all in a small airport...I thought he's probably cold and in the woods and that nobody's helping him. And I was completely panicked."
    A year later, Courtney was still grappling with the loss.
    "I realized that the world was moving on but in a lot of respects, I wasn't," she said. "Heidi ended up pairing me up with another woman who was a mentor, who had lost her father in an aircraft disaster."
    Courtney's experience inspired her to help others.
    "To me, it was 'I got through this,'" she said. "I wanted to be there to help other people see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel."
    When planes go down, like AirAsia Flight 8501, which left 162 people dead in December, Snow and her team of grief mentors stand by ready to help.
    "Every time we have the opportunity to speak about ACCESS on the news...We get calls for help from people who have lost loved ones who didn't know we were there," she said.
    Snow appeared on several CNN shows after the AirAsia crash.
    "Every time these incidents occur we are walking with them, we remember, we are grieving with them," Snow told Michaela Pereira on CNN's "New Day."
    In addition to providing one-on-one support, the organization shares information with airlines and organizations to help them offer more effective emotional support after these types of losses.
    Snow also wrote the book "Surviving Sudden Loss: Stories from those who have lived it" as another tool families could use to deal with their grief.
    "This is a lifelong journey. ... I feel so blessed that I've been given the opportunity to be with these incredible people who come forward and volunteer their time," Snow said.
    "They really look at life differently because they start to realize how precious it is and how life can change in an instant."