Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of
traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written
and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D. and distributed by the Family
Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., fafonline.org. Reprint is available
with written permission from the Foundation.
Offering bereavement counseling is not appropriate during acute phase
To learn that someone we love is involved in a crisis that may cost them their
lives is shocking and overwhelming. The family member(s) in these situations are
driven by an intense need for reconnection with their loved one(s). Interviews with
families clearly show that information about the condition and whereabouts of their
loved one takes priority over everything else, and there is no substitution.
It is unfortunate when poorly trained responders offer bereavement counseling
during this phase of acute distress on the part of a family survivor. It shows that
there is a lack of education and understanding about traumatic loss during the
first few hours of a crisis.
The following example illustrates how lack of understanding of the difference
between trauma support (providing information and reconnection with loved one)
and bereavement counseling can further harm family members and may prevent
the company from being able to provide needed services and assistance.
A woman whose husband had called her from the aircraft, just prior to
takeoff, confirming his arrival time, realized later that same night that he
had died when she heard the news and saw pictures of the burning jet.
In addition to seeing the footage of the fiery crash, the media reported
that all on board had perished in the impact and subsequent fire that
destroyed the aircraft.
The following morning she felt that it might help her accept reality if she
could receive confirmation that his name appeared on the manifest. She
called the airline’s toll-free number being broadcast in the media for
families. She gave her husband’s name and asked the agent to confirm
if he was indeed listed. The agent answered her by saying, “You need to
call this number and speak with a bereavement counselor.”
The woman slammed the telephone receiver down and called an attorney
whose contact details had been provided to her by a family member. This
reaction by the employee unnecessarily set up an adversarial relationship.
Four years later, in an interview, the woman talked about the insensitivity
of the employee’s response and how it made her angry each time she
Bereavement counseling is provided to a person after the loss of a loved
one. The acute phase of trauma includes the period of time when family
members are learning about the fate of their loved one(s) and the
processes associated with the rituals surrounding death, per their faith,
culture, and individual family expectations, e.g., wake, memorial service,
burial, or cremation, etc.
In the above example it was several weeks before the man was identified and
the family could hold a funeral. Several months after the crash, the wife chose to
have bereavement counseling, but it was with a counselor of her own choosing
and when she was ready to work through the process of accepting a future without
Those involved in planning the response to a crisis within their own organization
must ensure that communication to families of those impacted is swift and carried
out by knowledgeable and trained responders who understand the need for
information and validation in the acute phase of the trauma. As information is
provided to family members, other team members should be coordinating with
local authorities and organizational decision makers to determine what other
assistance can be offered to those who are desperate to be reunited with their
loved ones—and to coordinate with officials in the municipality to ensure that
death notification has occurred by the appropriate police, medical, or other
According to country law, certain processes and procedures must be
followed, and there are no shortcuts for responding to, or completing the response
to, a disaster. It is the same in responding to survivors. Bereavement counseling
should not be offered before families know the fate of their loved one and are
provided with the opportunity to understand, on some level, what has happened
and how they will be able to reconnect, albeit to complete death rituals.
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