When you have experienced what Nancy Saltzman has in her life, you can do one of two things: Curl up in a ball and give up on life, or share what you have learned with others. Saltzman chose the second path.
“We can all make a difference in other peoples’ lives, if we are willing to reach out,” she says.
One could say that much in her childhood and early academic career prepared her for leadership. But it was her non-career experiences that have expanded her influence far beyond the classroom to those who were hurting deeply. Saltzman’s journey has made her an expert not only in academia, but in anxiety, trauma and personal loss. To those who have suffered greatly, she says: “You can recover. You can survive the really bad things that have happened to you.”
Her childhood was uneventful, at least compared to what would come later. She was raised in Indiana; her mother and father were both psychologists of the B.F. Skinner behavioral school. Skinner himself was a friend of the family. “There were some pretty high expectations in that house,” she says. “All four children have advanced degrees today.”
Fast-forward to 1990. Saltzman is married and the mother of two young boys, teaching in Colorado Springs. At age 38, she is diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer recurred in 1992. Then, as she was in recovery in 1995, true tragedy struck. Her husband and sons were killed in a small plane crash outside of Pueblo. As she is recovering from that, her father dies in 2000. In 2005, her sister dies unexpectedly in her sleep. Her mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She dies a slow, gut-wrenching death in 2008.
Saltzman, who has her doctorate in education, said there were plenty of times in those two decades that she felt knocked for a loop. But she learned from each episode. “When I had breast cancer, I thought there was nothing more devastating that could happen. Then I lost my family in that plane crash. People would say, ‘There’s nothing worse than losing a child.’ But I must tell you, losing a husband and a sister in their prime, and a mother to Alzheimer’s, hurt just about as much.”
Support networks are crucial to recovery from “bad things,” as Saltzman calls them. She was principal at Broadmoor Elementary when the plane crash took her husband, Joel, and sons Seth, 11, and Adam, 12. Seth was a student at the school; Adam and Joel were known to everyone there.
“The response from those people was incredible,” she says. “There were more than 2,000 people at the memorial service. I had the support of the entire community. It was very powerful.”
Strangers began to reach out to her. “How long will I feel this bad?” one parent who had lost a child wanted to know. “I said, ‘It will last about three or four months. You can get through it.’ And he did.”
That was when Saltzman began to realize the power of sharing her most painful experiences. She’d already done quite a bit of public speaking, on issues ranging from education to adolescence to breast cancer. Now, she added the toughest, but perhaps most potent, topic: trauma from loss of loved ones.
“I tell people, ‘You can’t just give up. You will survive. And something good may come along.’”
For Saltzman, something did: Her partner Greg. Now, when she speaks to survivor groups, she can share a new happiness that came along because she did not give up on life.
By Dan Cook