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.
Survivors Part III
“When someone tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you
-Louis C.K., American Comedian, 1967-Present
In Human Services Response™ Training, an important concept in communicating
with survivors pertains to the term, “Tracking”. It refers to staying in tune with the
survivor you are supporting—in your choice of words as well as voice tone and
behavior. Last week’s Wednesday Wisdom brought feedback from more than one of
our followers. It seems that the subject of carefully choosing words during times of
grief and loss, resonated with more than one reader.
One email exchange had to do with the tense we use when referring to deceased
persons in the presence of their family and friends. It reminded me of a discussion I
had with a woman many years ago when I was first writing the HSR™ program. I
attended a funeral of the wife of one of my colleagues at the university where I was
working as a research associate. While my co-workers and I knew the new widower
well since we worked with him, we did not know his wife.
One of her close friends was standing near the casket along with the widower and his
children, receiving funeral guests. As I approached to offer my condolences to the
family, she greeted me and introduced herself as the best friend of the deceased. I let
her know how sorry I was about her loss and that while I did not know the deceased
personally, I had heard that she was a wonderful person. The best friend corrected
me, “She is a wonderful person!” The friend raised her voice, letting me know that I
had offended her. I apologized and rephrased my statement. “She is a wonderful
person”, I said. She seemed to be satisfied with my apology and extended her hand
to the person behind me. I never forgot that exchange and believe it to be an
excellent example of tracking with our words—as a way of validating survivors.
While not every survivor chooses to speak of the newly-deceased in the present
tense, the point is that we need to follow their lead. That is what tracking is all
about—making adjustments in our words or actions in order to validate someone
who is suffering. No doubt the best friend, along with the newly bereaved husband
and other family members were all trying to come to terms with the tragic situation
they were confronted with at that time—they needed validation by all who came to
Grief and HSR™
Being in the moment with people who are in the acute phase of grief is very
important if we are to gain their trust and earn the privilege to walk with them during
the time we are in their presence. Too often, during the first few hours of a crisis
when families are trying to comprehend the magnitude of what is happening,
well-intentioned helpers move ahead of them—adding additional distress.
Interviews with families in the Colgan Air tragedy where all on board and one man on
the ground perished, presented several examples of this. The morning after the
crash, a woman whose husband was still unaccounted for, called into the airline
asking for confirmation that he was listed on the manifest. Rather than answer her
directly, the employee responded, “Let me give you the number of a bereavement
counselor." This made the caller angry. This one, poorly-timed statement caused the
survivor to lose confidence in the airline team’s ability to understand her, much less
help her. She began immediately searching for a plaintiff’s lawyer.
Tracking with this survivor would have involved recognizing that she was not
psychologically, much less emotionally, ready to think about bereavement. A
Washington State psychologist, Will Meek, Ph.D., differentiates between grief and
bereavement as follows: grief is the psychological-emotional experience following a
loss of any kind, whereas, bereavement is a specific kind of grief that relates to
someone dying. In the first few hours, even days following a crisis of this magnitude,
people need time to come to terms with the fact that death has occurred. For
example, six weeks after the crash, this woman’s husband had been forensically
identified. Burial services and other rituals surrounding his death had been
accomplished and the family was ready to pick up the pieces of their lives and start
planning for the future, despite the despair. Only after this happened was the term
In HSR™ Training, we stress that regardless of what the press is reporting, if we are to
comfort and support a survivor, we must take our lead from them. In the above
example of the Colgan Air crash survivor, a trained telephone responder, tracking
with her situation in the moment, would have confirmed her husband’s name on the
already released manifest. And the responder’s next step should have been to ask
how she could assist her at that moment.
"The best word may be more effective, but no word was ever as effective as a
-Mark Twain, American Writer, 1835-1910
The acute phase of crisis has an impact on both survivors and those who wish to
help them. In their haste to assist those who are helpless and dependent, employees
may tend to use words and phrases that are not timed well for the circumstances.
Those in leadership positions should make sure that all employee responders are
reminded that regardless of what is known about potential deaths involved in a
tragedy, research continues to point toward what survivors find truly helpful. That
includes providing practical support (information, travel, logistics), connecting family
members, and offering trauma support, prove to more helpful than speaking about
bereavement counseling in the early hours and days when survivors struggle to
comprehend the magnitude of what has happened.
Leaders can use daily employee meetings and briefings to remind team members of
words and phrases that are especially sensitive to families as well as the necessity
of following the survivor’s lead when speaking about a loved one in present or past
tense. Grief and bereavement are highly individualized processes and the survivor’s
perception of both is highly personal and must be regarded if we are to serve them.
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