Patricia Anne Van Tighem, who was almost mauled to death by a grizzly 22 years ago but survived to write a harrowing memoir about the brutal assault and her struggle to cope with it, has died. She was 47.
The lasting psychological and physical effects of the attack she chronicled in “The Bear’s Embrace” led to Van Tighem’s suicide Dec. 14 in a hotel room in Kelowna, Canada, her family said.
“What we keep reflecting on is not why she died when she did but how she lasted this long,” said her brother, Kevin. “She’d had countless surgeries, chronic pain and major episodes of post-traumatic stress.”
In 1983, Van Tighem was hiking with her husband, Trevor Janz, in the Canadian Rockies near Montana when a grizzly protecting her cubs and an autumn meal pounced on Janz.
With staccato sentence fragments, Van Tighem recounted in her 2000 book the horror of watching the bear savage her husband: “Two more steps forward. I stop. A bear? From the side. Light brown. A hump. A dish-shaped face. A grizzly. Charging. And Trevor. Fast. He half turns away. The bear’s on him, its jaws closing around his thigh, bringing him down.”
When she climbed a tree to try to get away, the grizzly clambered after her. The bear swatted her down and began inflicting the damage from which Van Tighem would never recover.
“Crunch of my bones,” she wrote. “Slurps. Heavy animal breathing. Thick animal smell. No pain. So fast. Jaws around my head. Not aggressive. Just chewing, like a dog with a bone.”
Two hikers stumbled upon the couple and helped them to a hospital, where each spouse was desperate to find out how the other was doing.
“Trevor finally just ... bellowed, ‘Trish, how are you?’ ” Van Tighem said in a 2003 documentary on Canadian television. “And apparently, I yelled back, ‘I’ve had better days.’ ... The whole emergency staff had a good laugh at that one.”
Her facial injuries were extensive. The left side of her face was nearly destroyed, her cheekbone absent, her left eye blind, the eyelids gone. The back of her scalp was missing. “I feel sick to my stomach,” she wrote about looking in the hospital mirror. “What I see isn’t even me.”
Her husband’s injuries were not as disfiguring. The third-year medical student’s jaw and nose had been broken but his spirit was still intact.
“I was young and wild, and I thought ... lightning never strikes anywhere in the same place twice. I’m virtually immortal now, and isn’t it great to be alive?” Janz, now a doctor, recalled in the documentary.
Surviving the bear attack was “the easy part,” Van Tighem said in the same interview. “The hard part is what came afterward.”
Van Tighem endured more than 30 surgeries, crippling pain, mental illness and unending emotional anguish.
She began writing her book as a form of therapy to help her deal with the trauma. To her “humble surprise,” her family said, it became a Canadian bestseller.
Every day, she wrote, the attack replayed in her mind. In a recurring nightmare, a bear performed surgery. She was haunted by the happiness she once knew.
The Times review in 2001 called it an important “reminder of what it means to be vulnerable in a world that has little patience for vulnerability.”
She was born Aug. 22, 1958, in Calgary, Canada, to Jack Van Tighem, a school board superintendent, and his wife, Eileen, who raised 10 children.
It seemed only natural that “the gentle soul at the heart of the family” would study nursing, her brother said.
After completing the nursing program at Mount Royal College in Calgary, Van Tighem earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1989 from the University of Victoria in British Columbia. At Calgary’s Foothills Hospital, she worked as a nurse.
Three years after the attack, the couple began building a family and had four children, including twins. They moved to Nelson, Canada, in 1993.
The children, who range in age from 8 to 19, were her “saving grace,” Van Tighem once said.
“It’s quite obvious that what kept her going this long was her determination to give her children the kind of life and mother they needed,” her brother said. “What bumped her back a lot was her frustration at not being able to be that kind of mother.”
When a daughter was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, Van Tighem learned about finding the value “and beauty in people who are so-called imperfect,” she told the Bellingham (Wash.) Herald in 2001.
She became involved with a resource group for families of children with Down’s syndrome and also established the Calgary branch of About Face, a support group for people with facial disfigurement.
In “The Bear’s Embrace,” Van Tighem wrote of the attack in a snowy forest as a constant companion. “People can tell me to stop dwelling on it, to get on with my life, but I am getting on with my life. They can tell me the attack is in the past, but it isn’t. I will deal with it every day for the rest of my life.”
In addition to her brother, husband and children, Van Tighem is survived by two sisters, five other brothers and her mother.