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.
Part I: How an Organization's Response to Trauma Influences the Way
Survivors Rebuild their Assumptions about the World
"Before my son died in the crash, I thought nothing would bring me to tears.
I never cried when my grandparents died, and I did not shed a tear when my
mother and father died. But when my son died, I learned what it meant to cry.”
–Father of an adult man whose
son died in an airline crash
Dan left his office early, September 2, 1998, to celebrate the Labor Day holiday with
his wife. While he waited for her to join him, he flipped through the television
channels looking for a program to watch. He paused for a moment when he saw
a bulletin about a jumbo airliner going down in the Atlantic Ocean. Continuing to
advance the channels, he thought to himself, “Those poor people, what a shame.”
Finally settling on a story of interest, Dan was surprised, when his wife Rosemary
rushed into the room, crying hysterically.
“Turn to a news channel!” she shouted. "Our son's flight has gone down,
and they are saying no one survived!" Dan immediately switched to a news
channel. Rosemary grabbed the phone and began dialing the number on the
television screen, continuing to sob.
Dan looked at the screen and saw the name of the airline involved. “That is
not our son’s flight, he said. “Our son is on Delta, and that is a Swissair Flight!”
“I know his ticket is on Delta, but the airline he was flying on was Swissair!"
Rosemary replied. "It was a codeshare flight!"
Now in full panic mode, Dan shouted back to her, “What the hell is
This short excerpt from Dan and Rosemary's interview, following the loss of their
adult son in Swissair 111, provides an example of a significant concept in
understanding the devastating effects of trauma—and how crucial it becomes that
all who work for an organization when tragedy strikes, respond with the utmost
kindness and compassion.
When disasters occur, the shattering of assumptions of those involved is a
predictable outcome. Psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bullman, Ph.D., published a
book on this subject in 1992. The theory of shattered assumptions involves the
belief that people come up with general assumptions about the world. These
assumptions are undeclared and serve as a basis for our well-being. These general
ideas about the world give meaning to our existence. The five central assumptions
are that the world is benevolent, the world is meaningful, the world is predictable,
the assumption of invulnerability and the self is worthy. Therefore, we have high
expectations for ourselves and the world around us to remain decent and meaningful.
Terrible events shatter our assumptions—they break our assumptions that the world
is a safe place. Most survivors in the Foundation’s research, like Dan and Rosemary,
believe that while bad things do happen, it will not involve them or their family. Dan
quickly discovered the meaning of the industry term ‘codeshare', and along with this
experience, he came to realize that he and his family were not invulnerable to loss
Dr. Janoff-Bullman teaches that once someone has experienced such trauma, the
survivor must create new assumptions or modify their old ones to recover from the
traumatic experience. As we repair our world views, we recover from the trauma.
When those who work for a company approach parents like Dan and Rosemary with
compassion and commitment to help in every way an organization can, it does have
an impact on how they recreate their assumptions. While we cannot make the death
of a loved one meaningful, tragedy predictable or change the fact that trauma
survivors realize their vulnerability, we can help them see that there are good people
in the world and that they and their family members are worthy of respect, validation,
Our research contains many examples where organizations have effectively assisted
parents who have lost children while traveling and often during family vacations.
Doreen and George's only child George, Jr. died in his sleep, Christmas Eve night on
board a Carnival Cruise Line ship. While no one knew initially the cause of young
George’s death, without hesitation, the cruise line's leadership team flew employee
team members to their side to assist them in the Bahamas, as they navigated their
way through the business of bringing their deceased son home from a foreign
country during the holidays. “I always said that Carnival was a class act,” George, Sr.
said as part of his interview where both he and Doreen praised the company for how
they responded. Starting with the excellence of the ship’s medical team, the time the
captain spent with them while they waited for the arrival of the care team, the parents
spoke with pride over the way the company’s employees responded.
In both cases, these parents lost sons without warning. During the early hours and
days of the tragic losses, both organizations offered practical support, transportation,
lodging and connection with other family members. Most memorable to the parents,
the companies had empowered their employees to act with ‘heart’, treating the
families as if they were their own.
“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate and to
connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”
-Oprah Winfrey, American media
proprietor, actress, and philanthropist
In business and industry, those in leadership positions are often pushed to restore
the operation quickly following a crisis. Leaders who understand how trauma affects
all those whose lives are involved, recognize the opportunity the organization has in
helping survivors by allowing them to see the goodness of the people who work for
the company. Many organizations today, through training and advance preparation
for crisis response, keep their core business going, while simultaneously allowing
their trained team members to care for those whose lives are drastically changed
by the trauma.
Research on Shattered Assumption Theory clearly shows that survivors who are
victims of trauma where there is a perpetrator may have more difficulty in the healing
process than those who survive natural or “God-made” disasters. In the case of an
airline crash, or a child dying on vacation, and similar tragedies in the workplace,
interviews with surviving family members reveal that the company is often viewed as
a perpetrator, regardless of the cause of the tragedy—when they feel abandoned
and unsupported. As in the examples cited above, the support and compassion
shown by the corporation’s employees helped both couples in their adjustment to
the loss of their sons. While nothing can be done to reduce the enormous suffering
associated with loss of a child, interviews with both sets of parents revealed positive
feelings that no doubt helped them in the rebuilding of their view of the world.
It is a testament to the organizations that both couples freely gave of their time to be
interviewed on videotape to help the Foundation in training employee responders for
future workplace tragedies. Part II of Shattered Assumptions will discuss the impact
of tragedy in the workplace on employees whose livelihood is largely dependent on
the company or industry associated with death and destruction.
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