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., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is
available with written permission from the Foundation.
“The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used
interchangeably. But they signify different things. Information is giving out,
communication is getting through.”
-Sydney J. Harris. (American Journalist, 1917-1986)
At the Foundation we are actively involved in emergency drills and exercises
with members and clients including, airlines, business aviation companies,
cruise lines, airports, seaports, energy, and manufacturing companies on a monthly
and often weekly basis. Helping organizations select the most appropriate words
for communicating with survivors, who are often in shock and having difficulty
following announcements and updates about a tragedy, is a big part of our work.
Because our work involves training employee responders on how best to display
empathy and show compassion, we encourage those working with survivors to
choose words that support their message of connection and validation. Before
the passing of the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 and the Foreign
Air Carrier Act of 1997, investigative, medical, and public safety officials established
terms and phrases that fit their purposes. Due to the technical orientation of their
work, most were not expected to alter or amend their language when speaking to
survivors. The family assistance acts brought in a whole new aspect of working
with survivors and with it a new group of industry responders whose business it is
to soften and personalize words.
Employees who become part of an organization's family assistance team are
often confused about terminology and without training may mimic words and
language that while correct for other purposes, are not best for their role in
supporting families. At a recent aviation exercise, an employee whose job it was
to brief awaiting families about a flight that had crashed, spoke about the
"number of souls on board." While this terminology is understandable within other
groups, it is not the best selection of words for supporting the families. The
employee missed an opportunity to connect emotionally with the families, had this
been an actual accident.
A significant fear for families whose loved one dies for any reason is that the name
and relationship will disappear along with the physical presence of the deceased.
Referring to those on board an ill-fated flight as passengers and crew would have
been more in line with his job in supporting families. Follow-up articles will
feature similar examples where terms and words acceptable in other groups are not
best when communicating with survivors.
"They were passengers and crew before the flight took off. But then when the
flight crashed, and they all died, they were referred to as if they had lost their
identity. The officials referred to them as ‘the deceased' and the ‘victims'. My
son has a name, and I want to hear it.”
-Father of a young man who died in a crash where multiple deaths occurred.
Family assistance and special assistance team members should be cautioned
against using words that depersonalize passengers, crew, customers, who are
injured and killed in a tragedy. Those in leadership positions can help their team
members by listening for words and terms that come from the technical and medical
side. And help their responders understand that many of these words and phrases
were not intended to be used in the presence of those who are suffering from their
own injuries or grieving the death of a loved one. Offering suggestions for more
appropriate terms that humanize the process goes a long way in showing the
humanity within the organization experiencing the tragedy.
Encouraging team members to refer to deceased individuals by names, relationships
and groups, i.e., passengers, employees, customers and crew members, is invaluable
in creating connections with families, and an essential factor in long-term healing. It
is also helpful for leaders to model the terms that are more appropriate for family
assistance purposes, wherever possible.
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