WW66 August 15, 2018: Supporting Those Who Wait for Tragic News

Wednesday Wisdom Series: Supporting Those Who Wait for Tragic News
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Here is your bi-monthly Wednesday Wisdom series from the Family Assistance
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. 
          Supporting Those Who Wait for Tragic News
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Sunday, August 5, 2018, the Foundation stood by, alongside member, the Alaska
Tourism Industry Association (ATIA), as they waited to learn the fate of five people
on board a missing airplane, operated by one of their members, K2 Aviation.
The pilot of the floatplane sent a message on Saturday afternoon saying that the
flight had gone down and that he and possibly other passengers survived, but were
in need of rescue.  
While the emergency locator beacon on board the aircraft continued to broadcast
its signal, after two calls, nothing further was heard from the pilot. Nothing more
could be learned until weather conditions allowed for the National Park Service
to search for the missing plane. Finally, by Monday, the wreckage was located
almost 11,000 feet up a remote mountain near North America’s tallest peak,
perched on a steep glacier.
According to the Anchorage Daily News, when the weather cleared, a park
ranger was able to stand on top of the downed aircraft, suspended by a climbing
harness hanging from a fixed rope attached to a helicopter. He determined that no
one had survived. Difficult decisions followed, in that the park services and the
NTSB investigators all agreed that there would be no recovery of the deceased
passengers and pilot, due to the danger involved. The aircraft and its contents
would have to remain on the mountain, as others have in past tragedies, due to the
risk of additional loss of life—as the steepness of the mountain, and other
freezing conditions made it impossible to conduct a safe recovery.
What have we learned from people who are awaiting such tragic news? 
Waiting for information, and particularly confirmation of death, has been identified
as one of the most challenging parts of traumatic loss, as the following quote from
our research shows:
“Waiting to find out was the worst part. Once I knew my husband was gone,
I could focus on my kids and how I would tell them. I could focus all my
energy on them. I knew I could not help him.” 
Words from a military wife
who waited several hours before learning of husband’s death in a plane crash.

Those who choose to support family members and friends in the Care Team or
Special Assistance Team role have all too often found themselves waiting with
families of passengers and crew members for news that turns out to be the worst
imagined. The anxiety seems unbearable at times—and requires patience. It seems
fitting that the word patience comes from the Latin word “pati” which means to suffer. 
Social Psychologist, Kate Sweeney at the University of California has found that
people who are waiting for what they fear will be bad news, often experience
rumination that may create more problems for themselves at the time as well as
long-term. Persistent and repetitive thoughts that are negative are shown to
interrupt one's ability to think clearly and may block the ability to employ healthy
problem-solving skills. This rumination also causes people to disconnect from others,
whom they usually might go to for emotional support.
Published research, such as Dr. Sweeney’s, refers to situations like waiting for a
medical diagnosis, news of failing an exam and other types of waiting for
potentially bad news—and therefore not completely applicable to our work. However,
information about the rumination referenced above, as well as the emotions people
experience while waiting, are similar. Typical feelings identified include anger,
disappointment, sadness, and regret, as well as others.   
So, what can we do?
The opportunity to be with other people in similar situations provides an outlet for
people to express their thoughts and fears with others—as opposed to holding them
in. Interviews with survivors have shown that bringing families to one location to
wait together is helpful, as the mutual sharing provides a bonding experience that
for many will become a significant part of their long-term adjustment to the loss. Often
new relationships are formed that will last a lifetime.  
In cases where geographically it is difficult or impossible to bring families
together, survivors have found it helpful when a company assists in bringing their
friends, families, personal religious leader, or their own counselor to one place
for emotional support. Where distance is a problem, providing bridge calls can also
help in this way.
In previous articles, we have written about the need to provide as much information
as possible during the waiting, even if it is only to describe what efforts are taking
place in rescue and recovery. When surrounded by others with a similar need for
information, family members are better able to support each other emotionally
during the gaps, between the times that news comes in from the scene. Therefore,
regardless of whether the families are brought together as a group, or if their support
comes from their own family and friends in their hometown, having others to
share emotions with during this critical time, is considered by many to be essential. 
While group support is most often what survivors have told us they wish to have,
like all of our recommended procedures, it should be an option. Interviews show
that there is not one solution for all we serve. Providing opportunities and choice
is key.

Wednesday Wisdom Head

Leaders who have had the unenviable position of being in charge of the family
assistance response during a crisis where people are waiting to learn the fate of their
loved ones can attest to the strain of the assignment. Supporting worried, anxious
and often frantic family members, while managing an employee group, plus ones’
own emotions is a grueling job. 
Much of what we have learned about supporting families of the customers and crew
members apply to the leadership team as well. Pulling the team together and finding
ways of helping one another during highly stressful times has shown to boost team 
spirit. This bonding that occurs during times of extreme stress has benefits that carry
over into routine operations and produce a stronger, more connected team.

© 2018 Higher Resources, Inc./Aviem International, Inc.
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