How families of Flight 370 can cope


Story highlights

Relatives of people on board Flight 370 protest about the missing plane

Curt Drennen: It is heart-wrenching for these families who are in limbo

He says with each passing day, it's likely that passengers are dead

Drennen: Relatives have to create a new life without their loved one

Editor’s Note: Curt H. Drennen is a clinical psychologist and manager for Disaster Behavioral Health Services in the Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response at Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment.

CNN —  

It is agony for the relatives of the 239 people on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which set out from Kuala Lumpur heading to Beijing on the night of March 8. After more than a week, the plane is still missing. With new clues spawning new theories every day, authorities are searching a huge area of nearly 3 million square miles of the Indian Ocean.

At a nightly news briefing in Kuala Lumpur, relatives protested and demanded more information from Malaysian officials.

Some relatives, such as Sarah Bajc, partner of American Philip Wood, are still hopeful. But many others are angry, frustrated and overcome with grief. They’re fed up with the “Malaysian government’s inaction.” On YouTube, a video shows a mother asking: “Where is my son? Why are you not giving me answers?”

Curt H. Drennen
Curt H. Drennen

The 227 passengers and 12 crew members might all be dead. Most of the passengers were Chinese. There were three Americans.

It is heart-wrenching for these families who are in limbo. As long as the plane is not found, there is a glimmer of hope that those on board are alive. But with each passing day, it seems more and more likely that they are lost forever. This state of ambiguity may be the most painful: The not knowing, the wondering “what if,” the process of seeking answers and not receiving any. The waiting is excruciating and makes people justifiably upset.

For these families who are in despair, they may have to accept the loss and create a new life without the person they loved.

I’ve counseled people in various stages of loss and grief. In my role now as Colorado’s behavioral health disaster coordinator, I have often worked with people who have experienced sudden, painful and intense loss.

We shepherd them to the first responders who provide counseling, guidance and support. Colorado has had its share of disasters – wildfires, tornadoes and floods that destroy communities, businesses, farms and take lives unexpectedly. Community violence such as the theater shooting in Aurora in 2012 or school violence such as Columbine High School that happened 15 years ago next month, take innocent lives from our midst in tragic and unimaginable ways.

Grief is not an emotion per se, but a process that is physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral and spiritual. It hits you in your gut. It doesn’t just affect immediate family members; I know people who are grieving for the passengers of Flight 370, and they have no connection to anyone who was lost.

When we grieve, we feel the loss of an expected hello or an anniversary. We sense the absence of a planned outing or joint project, and what was supposed to happen tomorrow, next week, next year, next decade. We think back on fond interactions. We feel sorry for not having parted on the best of terms, leaving arguments or expressions of anger in the air. We expected to know someone for a very long time, and that time was suddenly cut short.

How can the relatives of those on Flight 370 best deal with the current situation? Here are some suggestions:

1. Be connected to others. Don’t struggle with ambiguity or grieve in silence. Surround yourself with people who can love and support you through the hard times. Share your experience, talk about it or write about it. Tell stories about the lost individual and celebrate his or her life.

2. Allow yourself all the time that you need. Some people will appear to get over it quickly. Others will take years if not decades to feel like they have accepted their loss and have returned to a normal life. Be careful that you don’t blame yourself for still feeling sad when you see others moving on.

3. Get help if you need it. If you find that you are really struggling, that your sleep has changed for the worse, that you’re not eating or eating too much or that you can’t focus or think clearly, then seek out a therapist, a counselor or a spiritual caregiver who can provide you with more direct guidance, direction, support and resources.

4. When you are ready, allow yourself to return to your everyday routines, roles and responsibilities. This can help you orient yourself to your life, even as you continue to mourn your loss. But don’t be too hard on yourself if you haven’t completely gotten on track in your job, life commitments and other activities.

5. Finally, look for ways that you can give to others. There are hundreds of stories of people who, after the sudden and tragic loss of a loved one, took action to honor the lost life by helping their communities. When we focus on the needs of others, it helps alleviate our own pain.

In the months and years to come, each individual, each family, each community will define what the loss means. Humans are naturally resilient. The loss may be forever, but the grief does not have to be.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Curt H. Drennen.