The Courage to Be Your Beautiful Self:
The Legacy of Darcy Belanger
My head was spinning with the news. Since the vision for Parvati.org and MAPS (the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary) came to me four and a half years ago, I have not slept much. Our all-volunteer team has been working tirelessly to ensure that the Arctic sea ice, our world’s air conditioning system, is swiftly protected to safeguard all life. More recently over these past months, we have been ramping up for the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-4) in Nairobi, Kenya. Darcy Belanger, our Director of Strategic Initiatives and my dear friend, was heading there from his home in Denver, Colorado to gain support of MAPS. All seemed to be on course and running smoothly. Meetings were set. A groundswell of pan-African MAPS ambassadors was growing and active. People were working well together.
The storm hit early last Sunday morning, barely dawn on March 10, 2019. The sound of my husband Rishi’s concerned voice woke me up from a couple of hours of sleep. He told me that a plane headed to Nairobi had crashed in Ethiopia. There were no survivors—and Darcy was missing.
I sat bolt upright on the edge of my bed. I went into my default mode and became as calm as I could, looking within for guidance. With eyes closed in prayerful meditation, I tuned into Darcy to see if I could feel him. As with all those closest to me and those who work for MAPS, I could tell without speaking with Darcy how his days were going. If Darcy were in distress now, I would know it. We have always been so connected. An unmistakable sense came to me that he was strong, luminous and joyful.
Rishi, a founding member of Parvati.org, sat beside me with his laptop, scouring social media for clues of the whereabouts of his best friend. I said to him, “Darcy is in a good place. There has been no ‘ripple in the force’.” Moments later, Rishi discovered that 18 Canadians had been aboard the plane. Still, I felt a deep inner knowing that Darcy was OK. I was confident that I would have been jolted awake in the middle of the night if he had been suffering.
Misinformation and concerned messages from colleagues began to pour into my phone. Still in pyjamas, I shifted immediately into CEO mode. I encouraged everyone who knew about the crash not to jump to conclusions. After all, we had no hard knowledge of Darcy’s location. He missed connections often on his recurring travel to move MAPS forward.
But over the space of about eight hours, I received three confirmations that Darcy had indeed been on the plane that crashed.
The first came from our new friends and Kenyan MAPS Ambassadors Omesa and Bonface, who had been waiting to welcome Darcy at the Nairobi airport. Omesa had written Darcy’s name down in a trembling hand and passed the inquiring note to the Ethiopian Airlines help desk. The agent slowly checked through his list to see if Darcy’s name was on it. Then he looked up with regret on his face. In words that Omesa told me still echo through his mind, the agent said, “He was indeed on that plane. I am so sorry.”
Soon after, Darcy’s wife Amie in Denver texted the same report, this time from United Airlines, through which Darcy had booked his trip.
Staggered and confused, I could not breathe. How come I still felt Darcy so strongly? It was as though he was in the room with me. Could it be true? Had he really been on that plane? I bowed my head and went even deeper within. For a moment, I imagined him relaxed at a cafe in an airport lounge, waiting to catch the next flight. I did not know what to make of the continued feeling that he was fine. In my mind, I understood the confirmations of his death. In my heart and soul, I was reconciling that fact with my inner knowing of his wellbeing.
As Managing Director, I knew it was for me to steer our MAPS ship through this storm. First, I had to share the devastating news with our group. I gathered our core team and Omesa and Bonface, for an emergency remote video meeting. How could I shelter the team members I love, and who loved Darcy, from inevitable pain? With my eyes welling up and emotion gripping my throat, I turned to Rishi and whispered, “What can I possibly say?” The distress on his face mirroring my own, we gazed at each other for a moment that seemed like an eternity. It was for me to steady our crew and keep us on course, though my inner and outer world felt as though a hurricane had struck.
As the statement left my lips that Darcy had indeed been on that flight and had died, I watched faces of team members crumple into shock and grief. With every passing word, his death become more real. Surges of pain pressed behind my chest as though it was going to explode. But I knew that the group was looking to me, in their anguish and disbelief, for guidance to make sense of this unimaginable turn of events.
Through tears, I kept the meeting focused on gratitude for Darcy. He had shown so much courage and compassion through his dedication to MAPS over the years. We held a couple of minutes of silence and visualized angels holding him.
I returned to the unchanging feeling I had of Darcy being OK, which gave me stability and strength. I needed to share this with the group. My inner knowing had never led us astray, so why would it now?
I told my teammates what I knew in every cell of my being: Darcy felt calm, guided and protected. His exit from life was shattering. Yet it felt inexplicably balanced within the whole. I did not understand why I sensed this. The feeling simply persisted.
In the chaos of the storm, our group united in grief and love. Each one of us resolved to move MAPS forward with the same courage Darcy had. Founding member and general counsel Vandana in Vancouver immediately volunteered to shift her clock to Kenya time and make herself available virtually for all of Darcy’s scheduled meetings, which ran through the night for her. I asked Omesa if he would be willing to carry on in Darcy’s absence at UNEA-4, which he graciously stepped forward to do. I made sure our social media was silent until further notice and that no one commented publicly about Darcy before his family was ready. Like lightning in the dark, insights flashed into my mind for our next steps. I assigned tasks to my colleagues and, as much as we were able in those initial hours, we mobilized for MAPS, as Darcy would have wanted us to.
That evening, the final confirmation came. Darcy’s family had been visited by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with the formal notification of his death on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. But the storm of grief and chaos at his passing had only just begun.