There are many tragic things surrounding the mystery of Malaysian Flight 370, including the horrible period of anxious waiting that terrified family members endured and the ongoing lack of information and closure regarding what happened to all of the souls who were aboard. Even after the authorities, using a strategy from physics called the Doppler effect, announced their theory that the plane had somehow crashed in the depths of the Southern Indian Ocean, the reaction of family members was as varied as we usually find in cases of tragedy and trauma.
Some families were able to take the tangible news and use it to emotionally shift from the frozen horrors of “not knowing” to the beginning stages of grief and bereavement. They accepted the theory that the violent, churning, Indian
Ocean, along with terrible weather, would make it nearly impossible to retrieve evidence of the plane or the bodies. In fact, as of this writing, no evidence of plane wreckage or debris has surfaced at all. And yet, in some cases, families were already accepting the $5000 restitution gifts offered by the airline. Although others weighed in with heavy criticism and judgment about the decision to accept the theory about the plane’s demise and their perished loved ones, you might make the case that it enabled them to take a necessary step in the direction of coming to terms with their losses while beginning to activate the grieving and healing processes. In essence, they accepted the proposed theory about the plane to no longer be stuck or “frozen” in not knowing. Or maybe, maybe after 17 days, their acceptance of the news is an indicator of no longer being in denial.
There was another cohort of families who violently objected to the government’s theory about the plane, believing that they were being lied to and that there was a “cover-up” at play. Some were quoted as saying that they continued to hold out hope that the plane had been hijacked and was taken to some remote place. They believe their loved ones are still alive, and will inevitably be used as bait for large sums of ransom. Some believed negations were already underway, happening in total secrecy, because the Malaysian government was “so ashamed” that their airplane was vulnerable enough to get hijacked in the first place. These families are demanding that the investigation continue. And they will continue to believe that their loved ones are alive until hardcore, tangible proof surfaces to contradict that belief. Perhaps this is a manifestation of denial, a refusal to accept the tragedy. Or maybe it’s a feistiness that will demand a higher level of accountability and responsibility.
What I continue to learn from these tragic experiences is that there is never one way to react. We can never fully understand why people land where they do on the continuum of questioning and acceptance. Some family members were so overcome with grief that they collapsed at the news and had to be carried out on stretchers. Others became instantly angry and activated, going into a “fight” response and physically striking out at anyone nearby. Some fully and completely accepted the news they were given, others refused to accept it. As clinicians, our job is to “be where the client is” and never project our own responses, or assume to know how our clients will react or feel. Whatever the outcome, may all the souls aboard the flight, as well as their loved ones, eventually find peace and healing.
Listen to my pod cast on Post Traumatic Growth, a theory that states that traumatic life events including medical diagnoses, transportation accidents, childhood abuse and neglect, acts of terrorism, divorce, and loss can all be transformed into experiences that yield a higher level of self-actualization.