December 13, 2006: Perspective

Life after death

(Illustration by Hadley Hooper)

Life after death
In tragedy, one family’s loss — and good fortune

By Stuart Breisch ’74

Stuart Breisch ’74 is an emergency-room physician in Utah. Information about his tsunami-relief foundation and accounts of family members’ experiences during and after the tsunami are available at

My daughter, Kali, would have been a senior in high school this year; she had hoped to be chosen for Princeton’s Class of 2011. Her dreams were ended suddenly by a 45-foot wave that smashed into her bungalow on the beach in Thailand on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004.

Kali and her brother, typical teens, were still in their beds at 10:30 that morning. “It’s too early, Dad,” she had whispered when we came to get her to go diving at 6 a.m. Hours later, she awakened to screams from outside her room and woke her brother, Jai, in time to peer out their window and see a massive wall of water coming toward them at several hundred miles per hour. She probably saved Jai’s life by waking him, but she was crushed by the wave and did not survive.

One of the challenges we all have as parents is to make the best of our choices that affect our children’s lives. I had planned this exotic expedition to Khao Lak, a resort area north of Phuket, and convinced my three teenaged children that a scuba-diving trip would be the “trip of a lifetime.” “This may be the last chance we will have before you will all be grown and scattered all over the world,” I entreated them. They reluctantly agreed to leave their friends behind for the sake of a “family bonding experience” with their stepmother and me.

When we arrived in Bangkok, Jai told us of a series of dreams he was having about our trip. “Something terrible is going to happen there, Dad,” he said. My wife, Sally, a Jungian-trained psychologist and dream specialist, and I tried to make sense of his dreams. We considered returning home, but could not book a flight before the 26th. And so we continued along our planned itinerary despite Jai’s dreams. Is it possible for any of us to know with certainty if a dream is symbolic of an inner turmoil or an outer impending event? How do I look my son in the eyes after failing to honor his dreams? His spirit is so severely wounded that I can only hope and trust he will find his own path to healing.

Despite my loss and deep sadness, believe it or not, Dec. 26, 2004, was a miracle day for me. How else to appreciate that my family eventually left Thailand with four out of five alive? How else to describe the good fortune that placed Sally, me, and my older daughter, Shonti, on a dive boat in deep water when the tsunami passed under us as a wide, 6-foot-high swell? This was to have been a travel day for us, and ordinarily we would not have gone diving — instead, we all would have been eating breakfast at the beachfront hotel at 10:30 a.m. If we had followed our usual travel-day plan, we all would have been killed when the tsunami hit that restaurant. The fact that we survived was pure luck.

It was a miracle that Jai survived a one-mile thrashing ride inland, catapulted forward by the water and debris. Only three other hotel guests and one hotel employee survived at “ground zero” on the beach. The three-story wave indiscriminately took everyone else: children, adults, grandparents. Whole families from 29 countries were wiped off the face of the earth that day. More than 4,000 people died in Khao Lak alone; 80 percent of the local families lost at least one family member, and most mourned for more.

With Jai hospitalized with serious injuries, we spent weeks culling the piles of destruction and searched through the morgues, looking fruitlessly for Kali. In the end I was given a blackened corpse with teeth that matched the dental records of my once-beautiful 15-year-old daughter.

In rebuilding our lives, our challenge has been to transform such a horrific experience into something that uplifts, empowers, and expands us as human beings and gives meaning to our devastating loss and, paradoxically, incredible good fortune. We wanted to repay the unconditional love and kindness shown us by the Thai people, who had met all our survival needs. Hot food and clothing were given freely even on the night of Dec. 26 — donated by local Thai citizens who felt it was their duty to help. No one accepted our offers to pay. No one waited for the government to step in. When we returned home we felt it was our duty to give back to the people of Thailand who lost so much. The motto of our nonprofit grassroots corporation, the Foundation, is “Helping People Help Themselves.”

I know my Kali is smiling. Our foundation has raised almost $1 million since January 2005. We have built houses and boats, and supported small-business development for individual families who did not get other help. Our donors support more than 140 orphans, and we have a waiting list of other orphaned children in need. Our job-training program has helped many foster parents to provide for their children. We have built a new elementary school and added English-as-a-second-language programs to the local schools. Our next project is to construct a Khao Lak Community Resource Center, complete with day-care facilities for the orphans, job-training facilities, an auditorium for classes and community functions, a lending library, a medical/dental clinic, dormitories, and a swimming pool to help readapt the children gently to water and the ocean.

This work is healing my own family as it helps heal those in need in Thailand. I can’t imagine a better way to validate and bring meaning to my fateful decision to take my family to Thailand. I learned that we all are vulnerable and not in control of the events of our lives, but we can transcend the personal and collective negative consequences of these events. I may not like what happens, but I trust what happens. The tsunami broke my heart, but the resulting opening of my heart has strengthened my spirit. My work with the foundation is the most rewarding work I have experienced.

Though laden with grief for all we have lost, my heart is also filled with gratitude this Christmas.

end of article


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