Sunday, June 14, 2009

Lost at Sea

In today's New York Times, Donald G. McNeil, Jr. wrote a piece entitled, "The Sea Still Claims, but Not for Eternity." In it, he notes the huge differences between the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and the disappearance of Air France Flight 447. He begins with this belief-defying statement:

Watching Brazilian divers haul up the gleaming tricolor tail of Air France Flight 447, one can’t help but wonder what happened to the romantic notion that countless guitar-pickers have celebrated in “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight” since 1939, two years after she went missing somewhere in the South Pacific. Doesn’t anyone just vanish at sea anymore?

The Quarterback had to read Mr. McNeil's column three times before she could fathom that he really is saying what he seems to be saying. He is lamenting the fact that no one disappears without a trace anymore. He is saddened that bodies are being recovered. He writes, "Not to deny the sadness of so many lives lost, but the abyss suddenly seemed more like a subway grating." His only nod to the possibility that finding remains might be a positive thing is in the last paragraph, when he quotes Charles Lindbergh's widow, who said, "There is a huge terrible difference between 'dead' and 'lost.'"

When there is a well-publicized tragedy, such as the crash of Flight 447, we as a society have a morbid fascination. We talk about how horrible it is, how frightening. But we also seem to lose sight, in the statistics and numbers and news coverage, that these are real human beings. Flight 447 carried 228 human beings. Every one of them left behind someone who loved them, and 184 of those families, sweethearts and friends are still waiting for their bodies to be recovered -- only 44 have been.

Watching from the sidelines, it's easy for us to say, "Look, we now know the plane went down. No one could have survived, so why does it matter whether the bodies are found?" Well, it does matter. For families and loved ones, recovering remains is a very important step in accepting the death, processing the trauma and grieving the loss.

Disbelief is an almost universal response to traumatic loss. Sometimes people say, "It can't be true" or get angry at the person who tells them for lying to them. Sometimes it takes the more subtle form of not being able to process the words that are being spoken. People ask the person bringing the news to repeat themselves, sometimes several times.

As long as bodies are not recovered, it gives the brain one more detour to take in accepting what has happened. "Never giving up hope" sounds good in the movies, but in real life, clinging to false hope prevents you from doing the psychological and emotional work you need to recover from the event. You can't recover because as long as your mind holds out a glimmer of hope, the event is never over.

When crisis teams respond to traumatic events, we plan by thinking about the 5 T's: Trauma, Timing, Target, Team and Theme. Trauma is the event -- what happened? Timing is when the response should happen -- is it over, and are people ready for help? Target is which group(s) need the help. Team is who is going to respond. Theme refers to what the team should expect in terms of aspects of the event that are particularly troubling to those impacted.

If the Monday Morning Crisis Quarterback were responding to the families of Flight 447, you'd better believe we'd be talking about missing remains as a Theme. When the team asks, "What is the worst part of this for you?" not knowing exactly what happened or where the bodies are is going to come up.

So the Quarterback is terribly sorry to burst Mr. McNeil's bubble, but trauma trumps romanticism. It may not be the stuff of country songs or romantic novels, but the Quarterback hopes all 228 bodies are found. The families need that a lot more than you need to be able to sigh at the idealistic notion of "lost at sea."


Meet the Quarterback

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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