Waves of Grief: Tech. Sgt. Alexandria Erwin

  • Published
  • By Maj. Ashley Walker
  • 913th Airlift Group

Life often blindsides you with tragedy.  For Air Force Reserve Tech. Sgt. Alexandria Erwin, she was doing her best to prepare for the inevitable.

Her younger brother Ryan, was losing his 10-year battle with brain cancer.  At just 28 years old, Ryan was fighting not only a secondary brain cancer which was a direct result of previous treatment, but doctors also found a third cancer in both his esophagus and lungs.  In an effort to focus treatment on the emerging issues, the medical care for the brain cancers were diminished.

Unfortunately, since moving from Washington State to Arkansas it had been quite a few years since Erwin and Ryan had last seen each other.

“Before I left for my deployment in 2018, I had the opportunity to visit my family in Wisconsin. That gave Ryan and me the chance to catch up,” said Erwin. 

Once she returned home from her deployment, Erwin would fly back to Washington State to visit her family and reconnect those family bonds.

By the fall season of 2019, Ryan was battling three different brain cancers as well as the cancer in both his lung and esophagus.

“Unfortunately his quality of life was diminishing at a fast rate and I was faced with planning another trip home to spend quality time with ‘Ry’ before he declined further,” Erwin said.  “It was tough watching my little brother struggle with simple day-to-day tasks.  He wanted to make the most of my trip, but to make it through the day he had to take multiple medications just to give him enough energy to get out of bed.  By the end of the day using his walker was a struggle and he’d end up swapping over to his wheelchair.”

Ryan continued to push through and refused to give up doing the things he loved, but as time went on Ryan’s condition deteriorated, requiring hospice care.

Late one evening, Erwin was woken by a frantic call from her brother, Zach.  Erwin assumed the worst had happened and Ryan had passed away.  She braced herself for the initial shock and wave of grief to hit.

“My brother was hysterical, asking if I had seen the text messages from our mother.” Said Erwin.  “Trying to wake up, I scrolled through my cell phone quickly realizing that I was reading my mother’s suicide note sent to both, Zach and I, in a group text.”


Doing her best to stay calm while this tragedy unfolded, Erwin directed her brother to call 911.  Immediately after hanging up with Zach, she attempted to get her mom to answer her phone. Without success, she frantically wakes up her husband telling him to call 911, only to directed to Arkansas dispatch.

“I kept calling over and over hoping she would finally pick up, and eventually she did,” Erwin said. “I begged her to tell me where her fiancé was; I begged her to go get help; I begged her to help herself.

“It is difficult to be on the phone with someone who at the time doesn’t want your help or refuses to help themselves.  As powerless as I felt, I did the only thing I could think of and kept her talking and awake until I could either motivate her to get help or until help arrived,” said Erwin.

After what felt like an eternity, Erwin was able to find her fiancés number and her husband took over keeping her mother talking as she called to alert her mother’s fiancé.  He had been downstairs in the basement the entire time.  Luckily, as he ran to Erwin’s mother’s aid, both her brother and the ambulance were arriving.

Her mother made it to the hospital in time and received the help and care she needed, but has continued to receive the support she needs.

“My brother and I were panicked, but I believe that our prevention and intervention training helped me to keep a clear enough mind to direct others to help,” Erwin said.

Just as the wave of shock began to subside, two and a half weeks later her brother, Ryan passed away.

“We all knew this day was coming, but I really didn’t have a chance to breathe between tragedies,” said Erwin. “I took only one day off after my mother’s suicide attempt and took the following day off after the passing of my brother.  I thought I could handle everything and decided to use work as a distraction.”

Members of the 96th Aerial Port Squadron chipped in to help Erwin with airfare and some brought meals for her family.  Others offered their sympathies and emotional support.

“Master Sergeant Schmidle offered to watch my four kids, which I never had any intention of using,” Erwin said. “He was persistent though.  Both he and his wife took on an additional four kids one weekend, planned full of games and movies. It finally allowed me to decompress and let out some of my bottled up emotions.”

As the stress and grief surged, the unit came together to hold her afloat.  Erwin admitted she didn’t know how she would have been able to get through all of the recent events without everyone’s support.

“The smallest action can sometimes have the greatest impact,” said Erwin. “A fellow Port Dawg lost a family member recently and she simply shared a passage talking about how grief comes in waves and this particular passage hit right at home with me.  It fit perfectly”

Erwin went on to encourage others to reach out to their fellow squadron members and to seek professional help.


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