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Lessons in Grief

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LIKE MOST AMERICANS, VICTORIA Cummock was shocked by news of the Oklahoma City bombing last month. Working on paperwork at her Coral Gables, Fla., home, she heard a bulletin on the radio and recalls thinking, “Oh Lord, what have they done? Those poor, poor people and their families.”

For Cummock, 42, the news from Oklahoma was, in a way, chillingly familiar. Just before Christmas of 1988, she learned that her husband, John, 38, vice president of Bacardi Foods Group and father of their three young children, was one of 270 victims of a terrorist’s bomb on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. In the days following the crash, “I was in a fog,” says Cummock, who had learned her husband was onboard only after a visit from his boss. What made her experience even more painful, she says, was that she never received an official notification of her husband’s death—nor an expression of sympathy—from the White House, the State Department or Pan Am. “I had lost my husband, my best friend, the father of my children, and my country,” she says.

In the years that followed, the former model turned interior decorator would become one of the most outspoken of the Pan Am 103 family members, testifying a dozen times before Congress and playing a pivotal role in the passage of the 1990 Aviation Security Improvement Act. Last month, three days after the Oklahoma bombing, which killed 164 people, Cummock phoned the White House, offering her services to the victims and even suggesting what President Clinton might say to grieving families at a planned memorial service. “Acknowledge their loss,” she urged, recalling her own experiences. “Let them know in all of this that they are not alone.”

On April 29, at the invitation of the Red Cross, Cummock flew to Oklahoma City to provide whatever solace she could. “I wanted to make sure the families were being looked after,” she says, “and that maybe I could be a voice for them.” Working out of a church near the blast site, she spent a week counseling stunned family members and rescue workers. From firsthand experience she was able to assure one young woman, who was trembling uncontrollably, that recurring nightmares of her mother, still somewhere in the ruins, would eventually stop. For a man with a missing wife, so shaken that he seemed “dazed, glazed over,” says Cummock (who declines to name those she helped out of respect for their privacy), she simply offered to change the diapers of his 9-month-old baby and read a book to his 2½-year-old daughter.

To Cummock the scene was markedly different from Lockerbie’s aftermath. The Oklahoma City fire department scheduled twice-daily briefings, and family members were provided with a constant flow of information. Counselors were available, in addition to doctors and nurses. Says Cummock: “Some of [the bereaved] were getting sick to their stomachs…feeling like they were going to pass out. There were people there to take care of them.”

Cummock urged officials not to sidestep the truth, no matter how grim. “You could see the emotions on her face, the tears, the concern,” says Barbara Cienfuegos, disaster coordinator for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and a Red Cross volunteer. “You could see her torment for these families.” And also her toughness. “They kept calling it ‘the incident,’ the same way they had said, ‘the Pan Am accident,’ ” Cummock says. “It was a bombing. Those people in Oklahoma City didn’t ‘pass away.’ They were murdered.” Telling survivors that, says Cummock, helps them to grieve—and eventually to heal.

For her efforts, Cummock has been hailed by American Red Cross president Elizabeth Dole as “a true humanitarian who has triumphed over severe personal tragedy,” and one Oklahoma City survivor admiringly called her “the Mother Teresa of disasters.” President Clinton, whose April 23 memorial speech moved so many, called to thank her “for helping me find the words.” Now back home in Coral Gables with her children, Christopher, 13, Matthew, 10, and Ashley, 9, Cummock downplays the praise and says of her role: “For me, it was an opportunity to give something back because I’m at a stronger place.”

If so, it is only after a long and difficult recovery from her own tragedy. Cummock, whose lawsuit against Pan Am is still pending, talks to a psychotherapist four times weekly. Not a day goes by, she says, that she doesn’t think of her husband, whose ashes are buried beneath a simple granite marker in the rolling Scottish countryside, within yards of where the nose cone of Pan Am 103 fell to earth.

His most meaningful memorial, though, is something in the soul and spirit of his widow. Last month, as Cummock prepared to leave for Oklahoma City, her daughter Ashley, who had seen coverage of the blast on television, turned to her and said, “Mom, this is so sad. We’re going to pray for them. But you’ve got to go there and tell those people they’ll be all right.”


DON SIDER in Coral Gables