We’re here to learn from our mistakes, but if we’re not learning, there are just mistakes day after day, year after year, until a life goes by.
-John de Ruiter, Canadian Spiritual Leader & Author
FAERF Institute's consciousness@work series intends to raise awareness on how organizations can put the psychological and emotional needs of people first in all issues in the workplace. For example, improvements in how we respond to survivors of traumatic loss grow with the evolution of brain science or neurobiology.
Neurobiology is the study of how neurons (the working unit of the brain) operate and how the nervous system functions. How the survivor’s brain cells integrate a trauma can be improved or impeded by a company's response in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. Research into this evolving field of science shows how the ability to heal (integrate the trauma) is directly related to what happens during the crisis phase of trauma. Second assaults make integration of losses and subsequent healing a more significant challenge.
The thirteenth anniversary of the crash of Colgan Air/Continental Flight 3407 prompted last week's article, which addressed the subject of second assaults, i.e., unintentional mistakes around the reporting of fatalities. While the crash killed all 49 on board, the airline's plan for assisting families did not include Doug Wielinski, who died when the aircraft hit his home. To make matters worse for his family, over the years, journalists and reporters have repeatedly omitted the fiftieth fatality.
Second Assaults in Memorials, Funeral Services, and Repatriation of Deceased Individuals
Let our advance worrying become advanced thinking and planning.
-Winston Churchill, Former Prime Minister, United Kingdom, 1874-1965
Over the years, families have provided numerous examples of mistakes made during funeral services and repatriation of the deceased persons—perhaps the most sensitive part of the post-crash processes. The purpose of sharing these selected examples is for education and training purposes.
The Missing Parents
Following a fatal airline crash where over one hundred passengers and crew died on impact, the location of the accident and the crash conditions delayed identification of the remains. After several weeks, the airline and local officials decided to go forward with a memorial service, even though many deceased persons were not yet identified.
Two sisters whose parents died in the crash traveled to the city of the accident, still hoping their parents would be found. At the memorial service, long tables covered with white table cloths were divided with ribbons. Each space on the table bore the name of a deceased passenger or crew member, and families were encouraged to place items of meaning on the appropriate area for their family member(s). The sisters walked up and down the aisles between the tables, searching for their parents' names, to no avail.
One of the sisters worked for an airline as a flight attendant. The ladies reasoned their parents’ names were inadvertently omitted from the passenger and crew list, as they were traveling on space-available passes and may have boarded at the last minute before departure. Years later, the pain over the loss of their parents in the crash was further complicated by mistakes in the aftermath of the crash. Losing their parents whose remains were never identified was bad enough. But attending a memorial service where their names were not included added salt to an already unimaginable wound.
Complicating Factors in a Mother’s Grief
Following another fatal crash, most families waited for months before receiving the remains of their loved one(s) for burial services. Finally, after four months, a mother received a call from police officials in the country where the crash occurred. They informed her they had identified her son's remains. Preparations were underway to transport her son home for a proper burial.
Her initial relief over the news quickly turned to disappointment. First, she learned that her son's remains were en route to a funeral home owned by the airline's third-party provider instead of the funeral home she had chosen. She then learned that her son's remains were coming home in a large casket provided by the same third-party vendor. When she saw the casket, she was further disappointed. It was nothing like one she would have selected. She felt she was denied the right to buy this last gift for her son.
A small white bag inside the enormous casket contained the bones from her son's foot. The grieving mother felt further violated when she saw that her son's name (a very prevalent name) which appeared on the small bag, had been misspelled. This mother waited months for her son to come home. Careless mistakes made by people who had little understanding of the need for attention to detail in this process further complicated her grief.
Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one the second time.
–George Bernard Shaw, Irish Playwright, 1893-1943
In Human Services Response™ Training, Commitment to Consciousness is at the top of the Helper's Hierarchy. This adaptation of Abraham Maslow's Needs Hierarchy depicts the energy levels of those helping survivors during the response phase of a traumatic loss. It represents a desire to learn from all of life’s experiences, and particularly from actual traumatic events. As care team responders, we need not personally share every type of crisis to plan and prepare for our own. Based on survivor testimony, we can learn about second assaults made by others and avoid repeating them with education and training. This final quote says it all:
When you repeat a mistake, it is not a mistake anymore. It is a decision.
-Paul Coelho, Brazilian Playwright