Bolstered by the pride and folly of youth, she conducted her life without the input or aid of others. Until the day a life-altering tragedy made her realize that sometimes the person who can’t ask for help is the one who needs it most.

By Shannon Leone Fowler
Updated November 03, 2009
Ocean Study III
Credit: Blaise Hayward

I have always been an independent person. If you ask my parents or any of my old boyfriends, they will tell you I’m too independent. When I was little, I wanted to be a tightrope walker. I would practice on the back of our couch, insisting my parents not hover nearby with nervous, outstretched hands. I preferred falling on my own to succeeding with someone else’s help.

In between high school graduation and the completion of my doctorate in biology, I visited 52 countries, mostly solo. I was the sort of traveler who never asks for directions, choosing instead to struggle with maps and signs until I found my way. My independence was a mix of pride, daring, stubbornness, luck, and innocence. It worked only because I had never been truly lost.

Then one day on the island of Koh Phangan, in Thailand, everything changed. I was swimming in the ocean with Sean, my fiancé, when he was stung by a box jellyfish. He died within three minutes. He was 25 years old.

I never felt so terrifyingly alone. Yet when onlookers and travelers on the beach that day asked if I wanted company, stubborn pride, force of habit, and overwhelming grief prevented me from accepting. I no longer knew how to relate to other people, as if I suddenly spoke a language no one in the world understood. And I didn’t see how anything anyone could do would possibly help. I even declined repeated offers from my parents, who desperately wanted to join me. But two young Israeli women, despite my protests, refused to leave.

When Sean’s body was taken from the beach to the hospital by truck, these women followed on foot. They were with me the moment Sean was officially declared dead. When the receptionist immediately requested payment, the women demanded I be allowed time alone with his body. When the hospital staff gave me a document written in Thai and told me to sign, I automatically picked up a pen, but the women held my hand and insisted the document be translated first. The cause of death had been listed as drunk drowning. I learned later from a scientist who specialized in box jellyfish that deaths from jellyfish are sometimes covered up to avoid hurting the tourism industry.

These women went with me to the temple where Sean’s body, wrapped in sheets, was taken. A large group of locals gathered around the truck, opening the sheets and pointing excitedly at the welts on his legs. The Israeli women yelled at them to show respect and stood guard over Sean as we waited three hours for someone to find a key. The women were 21 years old at the time and complete strangers to me. They had been with me through some of the most intimate and terrible moments of my life, and at that point I still didn’t even know their names.

We got back to our cabanas around 3 a.m., and I had to be at the police station at 8 a.m. Again, the Israeli women insisted on accompanying me. They would stand outside if I wanted, but they were coming. My initial reaction was relief that I wouldn’t have to face the police alone. Still, I decided that if I didn’t see them in the morning, I wouldn’t wake them. When I walked into the hotel lobby in the morning, they were already there waiting for me.

They sat with me in a small room under buzzing fluorescent lights for over an hour and a half. A policeman finally arrived, but he didn’t know how to use the computer, so we waited another hour for a manual typewriter. Because of his excruciatingly slow typing and the language barrier, it took eight hours to give my statement. I sobbed the first time I told him what had happened, but by the end of the day, I had repeated it so many times, I was numb. He was accusing and angry and questioned everything I said. He insisted on four male witnesses to Sean’s death, which I could not produce. After a long argument with the Israeli women, he accepted their signatures instead.

It took a week for Sean’s body to be released to Bangkok. I learned from locals on the island, including the manager of my hotel, that the Thai prince was visiting the island and the police couldn’t spare an officer to finish the paperwork. During that time, reality began to sink in. I felt like a 28-year-old widow. I had been preparing for a wedding, mortgages, pregnancies, but in an instant those plans vanished. The Israeli women stayed by my side the entire week, insisting I eat, buying me bottles of water, and anxiously asking me to think over what I would say each time I phoned Sean’s parents in Australia. These women could have walked away from a tragedy that wasn’t their own. Instead, without even telling me, they changed their plane tickets rather than leave me behind.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I now believe I would not have survived the ordeal without these remarkable women, who are still a part of my life. I would have become catatonic with grief, would have signed documents I didn’t understand, and might even have been blamed for Sean’s death. Two strangers taught me that sometimes the person who needs help the most is the last person to ask for it.

Since then, I have done things I never could have imagined. I cry unabashedly in public (all the time). I joined a young widows’ support group. I have been to grief counselors. Before Thailand, I believed counseling was for certain people. After Thailand, I realized counseling was for certain situations. These days I’m stubborn about offering help instead of refusing it and less willing to walk away when my offers are declined. I may still be struggling with asking, but I’ve learned to accept. It’s better than falling.