With her warm blue eyes, broad smile and dazzling confidence, Linda Olson seems like a woman who has it all.
At 68, the happily married grandmother of five has written best-selling motivational books and has even delivered a prestigious TED Talk. But for more than four decades, Linda carried the deepest pain imaginable.
Back in September 1966, Linda was 14 and growing up with four siblings on her parents’ farm in the Canadian Prairies.
‘Life was simple but good,’ explains Linda. ‘Our family of seven knew first hand that if you don’t work, you don’t eat.
‘Mum and Dad expected all of us to muck in – my oldest sister Violet, 18, me, the middle ones Leonard, 12, and Vera, eight – and there was the family baby, Billy, two.
He melted everyone’s heart tagging along, always wanting to be part of the action. He couldn’t say “Linda”, so he called me “Nina”.’
Despite her youth, Linda’s mum suggested the sensible schoolgirl used the farm tractor to speed up the harvesting of the potatoes. ‘Taking a turn driving was common for most teens in the area, so I eagerly agreed,’ says Linda. ‘How I wish I hadn’t.’
As she was finishing up for the day, and driving home, Linda was unable to work the brakes. The Cockshutt 35 headed straight towards the front of the house, where her little brother was playing near the porch.
‘I put all my weight on the steering wheel and slammed down with all the force I could muster. The huge machine just refused to stop and the house was rushing up too quickly. I screamed “I CAN’T STOP THE TRACTOR!” and I could see Mum watching in horror and shrieking.’
Within milliseconds, the two-and-a-half-tonne vehicle had ploughed into the wall of the house, smashing the wooden doorframe. Exactly where young Billy had stood. But he could no longer be seen.
‘“Where is Billy?” I screamed as Mum vaulted three steps up the tractor and jerked the gear stick into reverse forcing the machine to back away – then she yanked out the keys killing the engine. We ran to the crumpled form on the concrete step and saw exactly what we both dreaded – Billy.’
The panicked family all immediately sprang into action, Linda scooped up the semi-conscious toddler, as her dad got behind the wheel of their Ford, her mum sat in the passenger seat, and they raced to the nearest hospital nine miles away.
‘I sat in the back cradling Billy, my head pounding, “Why wouldn’t the tractor stop? Did I do something wrong?” Dad drove at 90mph while Mum gabbled out what had happened in the accident to him. “Nothing wrong with those brakes,” he responded.’
While her father never directly blamed Linda for the accident, that tiny sentence haunted her for many years.
‘As Billy lay in my arms, he looked up at me and said, “Owee Nina, owee” and then went limp. Those were his last words. In just that one day, when my precious brother was killed, my whole life turned upside down forever.’
That night, Linda and her mum were given sedatives by the doctor, as the shattered family reeled from the shock. When the dazed teen awoke the next morning, she saw her father’s tear-stained, puffy face and knew it had not just been a terrible nightmare.
‘My big strong dad came to my bedroom door and said, “You have to get up, we have to keep going”. Getting out of bed that day, and the next, was the toughest thing I ever did, then for weeks and months and years to come.
‘At the breakfast table the only words spoken were, “Pass me the jam”. I didn’t know how I would face the people in our small community when word spread so quickly.
‘It was my first month of high school and I knew the other kids would be looking at me thinking, “She’s the one who killed her brother”. I was completely tormented by questions about the accident. “Why did God allow it to happen? And why was I the one on the tractor that took his life that day?”’
Somehow, Linda got through the funeral, numb with grief, then stumbled through the coming months, putting on a brave front.
‘Any outward sign of emotion was frowned upon at home,’ admits Linda. ‘We all hurt like hell but didn’t talk about Billy’s death. As well as mourning my brother of course, I also missed the close relationship I’d had with Mum before, because after the accident she withdrew into her own world of pain.’
Linda retreated from the bustle of school life, she mainly sat alone, and barely talked. She credits her strong Christian faith for helping her carry on living when she felt she could not.
When she was 18, Linda moved further away to study at college. During a chapel meeting with other students, she was encouraged to stand up and share her story for the first time.
‘My heart was pounding,’ she recalls. ‘I was terrified, but somehow I knew I needed to do it. I told my story and I remember seeing tears in people’s eyes. Afterwards they were so kind and warm, that changed things for me. These people cared, they didn’t reject me. They hugged me and told me they were there if I ever wanted to talk. That two minutes of sharing my story was a major breakthrough.’
After graduating, Linda felt her calling in life was to help others, and trained as a counsellor. Part of that training was going through her own therapy – 15 years after the accident.
‘Initially I didn’t think I needed a therapist, yet she was quick to identify the guilt I had buried so deep. One day, she walked me through that horrible day in slow motion. I sobbed from such depth I didn’t know whether I would ever recover. Afterwards, she told me to wait in a room until I felt safe enough to drive home.
‘As I calmed down, a conversation ran in my head. “Has God forgiven you?” I said yes. “Have your parents forgiven you?” I believe they have. “Then what keeps you from forgiving yourself?” The penny dropped. When I finally mustered the courage to forgive myself there was such a huge emotional load that just lifted. I didn’t drive home that day, I flew home.’
In 1982, Linda met a lovely man, Rick, now 66, who immediately supported her and proposed after three weeks. They have been happily married ever since and are both trained Marriage & Family counsellors. Linda is now a story coach, speaker and writer while Rick heads up an office of eight counsellors. They live in California, close to their daughters Melinda, 36, and Karine, 34, and are blessed with five grandchildren.
‘The journey to complete healing took 45 years,’ admits Linda. ‘I don’t mean I was miserable all that time, I have a great life, but emotions surfaced when I was least expecting them, and for years every time I saw a blond toddler it triggered pain and sadness.
‘It was a long road to self forgiveness, but along the way I discovered important lessons. When storms in your life happen, you need to identify the emotions you’re feeling, then you need to confront them, before you can take any action. Only then can you move on.
‘It took me many, many years to be able to say the sentence “I killed my brother”. It was only when I owned my own story that I could learn self-forgiveness.’
Linda has made it her mission to help other people in their darkest times, by encouraging them to find their personal story in life.
‘I didn’t know how to carry on living. But I am here. Having courageous conversations, and learning to love yourself is the bravest thing you can ever do. It certainly was for me.’
– Linda’s book, Transform Your Story: Letting Go of the Past When It Won’t Let Go of You, is available to buy on Amazon