Plane crash survivor, blogger and New York Times best-selling author Stephanie Nielson encouraged thousands of RootsTech attendees to document their lives during her Feb. 8 keynote address.
“Document your families,” she said. “Document your life. You may not have been through a plane crash, but you do have a story. Everyone has a story, and it needs to be told.”
Nielson started blogging in 2005 as a way to keep in touch with family in Utah while she and her husband, along with their children, lived in New Jersey. She kept at it as they later moved to Arizona. In 2008, her blogging — and her life — was interrupted.
“On Saturday, Aug. 16, my life fell apart,” Nielson said. “My husband and I were in this airplane that crashed, and when it crashed, it exploded. And because of this violent impact, we were all knocked unconscious. So, being unconscious and in a fiery airplane, I was burned over 80 percent of my body. I was put into a medically induced coma for three and a half months.”
Nielson said that from the time she could remember, all she wanted to be was a mother. She awoke from her coma that November and then went through “months of grueling, skin-ripping physical therapy.”
“Each day, when I was in this excruciating, horrible pain, doctors and nurses would change my bandages, sometimes twice a week, and I still couldn’t move on my own,” Nielson said. “Each day I was so discouraged. Each day I became a little more depressed, and my dream of being that mother I’ve always wanted to be my entire life was disappearing.”
Before the crash, Nielson was a busy mother — teaching yoga at a local studio, cooking, cleaning, hugging and changing diapers, she said.
“Now I was the child,” Nielson said. “And I was in need, and someone was holding me when I cried, and changing my diapers. And it was equally humiliating as it was disappointing and frustrating.”
Nielson described seeing her children for the first time after the crash, five and a half months later, as an equally horrible and inspiring experience. She said her daughter Jane took one look at her and wouldn’t look at her again she was so frightened.
“After the visit I pretty much cried that entire day and night and weeks and days that followed,” Nielson said. “I decided that I never wanted to be a mother again. But as the days went on, I thought a lot about our meeting. I think that meeting was both horrible as it was inspiring. I wanted my job back.”
Nielson said she was determined to be present, active and in charge of her family again despite her doctors' warnings that she would have a limited lifestyle.
“My faith blossomed, and I knew everything would be just fine,” she said. “I had all my toes, I had all my fingers, I had ears, I had a nose, I could smell, I could hear, I could see my children, and, best of all, I still [had] those children. I had my husband, who stood by me, strong and immovable, defending me and encouraging me. My children could remember my mother heart and could see it as I was relearning to be that mother again.”
Nielson relearned how to tie her shoes with her son, who was learning how to tie his for the first time, she said.
“One day I wore jeans, one day I wore mascara, and my girls were ecstatic. And then, I began to blog,” Nielson said.
She knew her story needed to be shared.
“One day as I lay in my bed after the accident, I saw my computer, which sat on my desk nearby,” Nielson said. “And I knew I had just lived through a horrible, terrible ordeal. But I also knew that I was a miracle, and that story needed to be shared. I knew it needed to be shared, and I remember promising God that if he would bless me and heal me, I would share my story.”
Nielson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, expressed her gratitude to God through blogging and wrote about the love she felt from him, her husband and her children every day, she said.
“Through blogging, I was showing my children that I was coming back,” Nielson said. “But not just that I was coming back, but that I wanted to come back. I wanted to be mom again. I love them so much, and no pain could stop me from doing my job.”
Nielson said her children used to often ask her when she would look like their old mother again. She would reply saying that it would happen soon, even though she knew it never would.
“My children don’t even ask that anymore. In fact, I don’t think they even see my scars anymore,” Nielson said.
Nielson hopes her blog will help future family members.
“I am grateful I have dedicated time each day through thick and thin and joy and pain to write down my life,” Nielson said. “Someday these blog entries will maybe help a great-granddaughter who is maybe struggling with her own self-esteem. Maybe, through my blogs, my grandsons will see that their grandmother never gave up, especially and most importantly, when it was hard. Maybe someone down the line in my family will do a report on me in school. Maybe they’ll name a city after me. I don’t even know — you never know. But, in all honesty, my hope is that my generations will never doubt that hard times do come, suffering happens to everyone — it’s how we deal with it and how we finish that matters.”
She suggested audience members find the best way to document their lives, whether it is through journaling, scrapbooking, blogging or whatever they preferred — and to never stop.
“You are here today because you love your family, because you want a connection with your descendants,” Nielson said. “I encourage you to find stories with your loved ones that can help you develop an attitude of gratitude for the ones who came before you. We are all survivors of something.”
Nielson said during an interview with the Deseret News that she drew on her ancestors' strength after her accident as she has looked at her family history.
“It’s really helped me push forward,” she said. “And so I’m building this new family history for my generations, that they can look back and say, well if grandma did that, then I can get through my thing.”
She said her children are learning how to blog and have their own blogs.
Nielson’s advice to those wanting to use blogging to preserve family history is to decide who their audience is and to be consistent.
“If you’re writing to future generations or if you’re opening it up for the world to see how you blog and how your family life is, I think finding that niche of who you’re writing to will really help your writing. It’ll be easier to understand. It’ll be smoother if you know who you’re writing to. Otherwise, you’re kind of just muddling through,” Nielson said. “And consistency. Document your life every single day. You’ll look back [and] you’ll have volumes.”
Nielson’s memoir is titled “Heaven is Here” and was released in April 2012, the same day her fifth child, Charlotte, was born.
Sonja Carlson is a graduate of Brigham Young University-Idaho in Communication with an emphasis in Journalism and intern for the Church News. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @sonycarlson