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.
Telling the Truth as a Form of Empowerment
“If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.”
– Benjamin Franklin, One of the USA’s Founding Fathers (1706-1790)
In training responders on how to give family survivors tragic news, there is often
discussion as to the choice of words to use. Many responders are afraid of upsetting
families when explaining what is known, and in some cases, unknown. For example,
the trainee may ask, “Won’t it upset a family to know that the name of their loved one
appears on the list of people believed to be involved, when we can’t say for sure
their condition? Especially when the media is reporting there are no survivors? What
if we are alarming the family for no reason, if it turns out their loved
one is not injured?”
At the Foundation, our training models are based on interviews with survivors of all
types of tragedies and from various survivor groups. Survivors repeatedly
tell us that hearing the truth – promptly and compassionately – about what
the company knows allows the family to make decisions about what is best for
them. Hearing the truth from those closest to the tragedy restores a sense of power
to powerless survivors. The following example from some of our earliest research
provides an excellent example of why honesty is best.
ValuJet Flight 592 crashed into the Florida Everglades on May 11, 1996. All 110 on
board were killed. One woman’s loss of both of her parents was made worse by
an employee who was, no doubt, trying to “protect” the family member from the
painful truth of what had happened. From our interview with the family member:
I was driving to the airport in Atlanta to pick up my parents, who had been traveling
on a cruise. I was stunned when the music I was listening to was interrupted with
news about a crash. I could hardly believe it when the reporter stated that it was the
flight my parents were flying back home on. I was the eldest child in my family and
I knew that I would now oversee all that would follow this tragedy
involving my parents.
As I continued to the airport, I remembered the last conversation I had with my
parents. They sat down with me and explained that before this trip they had
finished their wills and should anything happen to them, I would be in charge.
They gave me their attorney’s card and told me to keep it in case something
happened to them on this trip or any other in the future. Now hearing this news
about the crash—I felt I already knew they were dead and wondered if my
parents had experienced a pre-knowing that this trip would be their last. As the
news continued, I remember hearing that chances for survival
were nearly impossible.
Entering the terminal building, I remember being surprised at my composure.
I think it was the sense of responsibility that I was feeling for my siblings and all
the grandchildren who soon would be grieving my parents. I would need to
support everyone in addition to administering my parents’ last will and
testament. I went to the ticket counter and told the employee who my parents
were and that I knew they were on the flight that had crashed.
I was surprised and broke down in tears when the employee told me that what I
had heard was incorrect. She said that while there had been a crash, the Coast
Guard was out in the Everglades rescuing the survivors while we were speaking.
She told me to go home and wait for them to call. I rushed home filled with joy that
soon I would hear from my mother and father and where they needed me to pick
them up. When I turned on the television I saw the gaping hole in the swamp. The
absence of aircraft wreckage made it clear that the employee had lied to me. I
became angry beyond words. The previous sense of calm and empowerment that
I had experienced earlier never returned. I was the victim of the tragic loss of my
parents, as well as the employee who lied to me.
Preventing second assaults like the one described here requires training and
preparation of employees who have opportunity to empower or harm survivors.
Selecting caring and compassionate individuals for the Care Team is important.
Equally crucial is reinforcing this concept with reminders that honesty and
directness, delivered with empathy and compassion, are an essential part of an
effective response. Examples like this one are helpful to make the point of how a
lie, no matter how well-intentioned, often causes irreversible harm.
© 2017 Higher Resources, Inc./Aviem International, Inc.
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