09/18/2013 05:30 EDT | Updated 11/18/2013 05:12 EST

Talking About My Mother and Sisters' Deaths Helped Me More Than Silence

Growing up in the 60's in the suburbs of Montreal, life felt safe and secure. And then on July 5, 1970, Air Canada flight 621 crashed, killing all 109 people on board. My mother and two younger sisters were on that flight. I was 13 years old.

The loss was beyond devastating. My father fell into a deep depression, numb to life; I was essentially left to fend for myself.

On the cusp of my teens, I had to make sense of life, death, loss and the unfairness of it all.

Forced to carry on with the impact and effects of such profound loss, I had no one to talk to. In the 70's, no "grief counsellors" or "therapists" arrived at my school or at my home, as happens today. I didn't get any help to understand, express and process my grief. Instead, my dad and I just had to manage, and do what we thought was best.

Not knowing how to handle the subject of death and grief, people around us thought it best to never talk about it. The myth was that 'if we don't talk about it, we can live beyond it.' They wanted to protect us, spare us from more pain, and prevent the stirring of feelings.

Family pictures were put away, all of my mother's and sisters' personal items were cleared out of our house and we were expected to move on with our lives and reconstruct our world as if nothing had happened.

We didn't talk about the plane crash, or about my mother and sisters, because we didn't know how. We were overwhelmed, frightened, haunted with terror . . . and alone. Very alone. No one should ever feel alone in grief.

I intuitively understood, even as a thirteen year old, that we all have choices, and we make choices. It seemed obvious to me that the more choices we make, the more alive we feel; the more alive we feel, the healthier our choices.

And so I made choices.

I made some very different choices from my father about how to deal with this tragedy -- the sudden death of my mother and sisters. No matter how hard it was, I was not willing to succumb to despair. I was not going to give up. Giving up was NEVER an option for me.

I made a conscious choice to find the strength to overcome the grief and to overpower the sadness.

I wanted what everyone wants: to feel joy and happiness, to laugh and have fun. So I chose to LIVE.

It was a conscious decision. And it wasn't easy -- I am never going to say that it was easy. But the other option -- to be in a sad and miserable state -- would have been harder.

Determined to chart a new course for my life, I discovered that what really helped, even temporarily, was to do whatever I could to keep busy, distracted and focused on helping others.

I clung to a hectic schedule, as if it was my life jacket. I was busy with school work and fund-raising projects and I spent as much time as possible volunteering on the children's floor at a hospital. I would spend time playing with children who had cancer or other horrible illnesses, making them smile or laugh, distracting them from their pain, because knowing that I was helping them, made me feel better.

I intuitively understood that the best way to cheer myself up, was to try to cheer someone else up. And, the best part about helping others was that it took the focus off my problems. It was like taking a badly needed break from my own pain and grief.

And... I was amazed by the incredible power of giving back.

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