Sunday, November 1, 2009

Keeping it Surreal: 9 Declared Dead Off California Coast

The search for 7 members of the Coast Guard and 2 Marines who went down in a collision between a plane and a helicopter off the coast of California last week has now been declared a recovery mission. The Coast Guard announced that, after 60 hours, the chances of survival were negligible. In a forgotten detail of this story, the missing boater whom the Coast Guard was searching for when their plane went down is also still missing.

Far and away the most common reaction people have when receiving news of a traumatic death is one of disbelief. I have seen people who have been notified of a loved one's death by someone who has seen the body still demand "proof." The mind can only handle so much, and refusing to believe bad news is one of the many ways we protect ourselves from the pain that sudden death of someone we care about can bring. Even once the news has "settled in" a little more, survivors report feeling like they are in a nightmare, waiting to wake up. It just doesn't seem real.

The Associated Press reports that the father of one of the missing, Marine 1st Lt. Thomas Claiborne, confirmed that his son has been "declared deceased." That very fact is surreal by itself. It's hard enough to accept that someone could be here one moment and dead the next. In this case, the divider between life and death is not a biological fact, but a decision by a superior officer. How can someone be declared dead? They either are or they aren't.

So it is no surprise and no shame that the mother of another missing sailor, Coast Guard Lt. Adam W. Bryant, is not accepting this news right now. She told the Associated Press,
Miracles do happen. Miracles every day.
After all, how would she live with herself if he were found and she had given up hope? And how will she carry on knowing that he is dead? Clearly, denial is a lot easier. Acceptance will come slowly. Our hearts go out to these families. Even if they find the remains of these servicemen, healing is going to take a long, long time.


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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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