Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of
traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written
and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D. and distributed by the Family
Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., fafonline.org. Reprint is available
with written permission from the Foundation.
Early in the author’s research (Coarsey) intended to help develop preferred practices for
employees who assist family members in various tragedies, it became apparent
that any reference to the actual traumatic loss should involve words that validate
the family member’s experience of how their loved one died. For example, a mother
whose daughter died in a crash caused by a terrorist’s bomb, needed to see that
any reference to the manner in which her daughter died did not include the words
‘accident’ or ‘incident’. Words such as ‘tragedy’, ‘disaster’ or references to ‘terrorism’
felt right for her and allowed for effective communication. She felt it necessary for
the world to understand that her daughter was murdered. Her death was not
‘incidental’, nor was it ‘accidental’.
Terminology such as ‘incident’, ‘event’ and the like, is used by police and
investigative officials to avoid making any attributions or implying blame for the
loss until a thorough investigation is completed—thus words like ‘incident’ and
‘event’ are understandably used to avoid rush to judgment as to what caused
For Care Team members and those who provide assistance and direct support to
survivors and family members, it is best to avoid the word ‘incident’ or ‘event’ when
speaking to families where their loved one has been injured or killed. And until
investigators rule that the traumatic loss occurred due to an ‘accident’, this word
is typically avoided also. Words that validate survivors and may be substituted
for ‘incident’, ‘accident’ and ‘event’ include, ‘tragedy’, ‘disaster’ or even ‘tragic event’.
When the final report announces probable cause, these findings will also play an
enormous role in healing for survivors. But the main point is that before the
investigation is complete and after, communications with those who are suffering
the most should be as sensitive and validating as possible—and words matter.
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