Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of
traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart.
“You (the call center agent) had a terribly sad job to do, and you did it with
compassion, patience, and love.”
Mother of a USAir 427 Passenger
(Excerpt from letter as quoted in Handbook
for Human Services Response, 2004)
After a tragedy has occurred, First Contact should come from the company as
soon as possible. This initial contact, which establishes an essential communications
channel and sets the tone for all that follows, should not be confused with formal
notifications that come from a medical examiner or coroner, hospital personnel,
police, or other authorities. This part of family assistance response is frequently
In our interviews, families often describe the pain of learning their loved one’s fate
through news media or social networks. While that can’t be controlled, families tell us
there is nothing more important than having immediate official contact from the
In one non-survivable airline accident, the captain’s mother heard about the crash from
her son almost immediately. He was certain it was his sister’s flight, and their mother
knew it in her heart as well, but she was just as sure that her daughter’s employer
would be in touch to confirm the terrible news. She sat alone for hours, waiting for a
call or a company visitor that never came. She finally contacted the company the
following day and her fears were confirmed. This mother never received a call from
the company offering any support or even expressing condolences for her loss.
Even worse, because of the circumstances of the accident, the captain’s remains
were never identified so there was never a formal death notification. Examples like
this, of which there are many, highlight the critical nature of First Contact because
formal notifications from government officials may not even be possible.
A First Contact call should let the family know about the crisis and the potential
involvement of their loved one regardless of how much information is available.
Then, even if there is news or communication from other sources, the family
knows the company cares enough to reach out, establish a relationship, and
share the information it has. Such validation leads to trust and credibility, and
the company becomes part of the family’s support system during the first critical
hours of a tragedy.
“On the morning of the memorial service, which was the first full-day after
we arrived back in the states, I made it a point to approach each and every
one of the family members to let them know that I was the squadron
commander who was responsible for their loved ones.”
Commander, 1996 Khobar Towers Bombing
(Handbook for Human Services Response,
Effective, well-planned family assistance plans include both First Contact and
coordination with the appropriate officials when death has occurred. While calls
are going out, relationships are being built and simultaneously, the logistics
team is working closely to coordinate formal death notifications to families of
the deceased, and following up with additional contact to offer the services
and support the company wishes to provide all of those impacted by the tragedy.
In the example of the captain’s mother referenced above, the missed opportunity
to offer her information and support set the stage for years of isolation and
long-term resentment toward the company’s leadership which, understandably,
only exacerbated her grief.
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Aviem & Family Assistance Foundation
555 North Pont Center East, Suite 400
Alpharetta, GA 30022
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