Wednesday Wisdom Series: Myth #2 …“Should the person who provides initial notification of a person’s involvement in a tragedy really be allowed to assist the same family?
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Here is your bi-monthly Wednesday Wisdom series from the Family Assistance
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., Reprint is available
with written permission from the Foundation. 

Myth #2… "Should the person who provides the
initial notification of a person's involvement in a
tragedy really be allowed to assist the same family?
Wouldn't that be harmful to the family members?" 

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While family assistance workers do not provide the “official,” formal death
notification, circumstances often result in a family survivor learning of their loved
one’s death from the organization involved in the tragedy. For example, when
the media is broadcasting that there are no survivors, confirmation that someone’s
family member was involved becomes a de facto death notification. 
We continue to hear trainers and family assistance leaders of various companies
say that the person who notifies of death, informally or otherwise, should not be
allowed to assist that same family. We know this to be a myth. There is no formal
or informal research on family assistance to support this conclusion. In fact,
interviews with families as well as with those who have been the bearer of such
tragic news clearly indicates that the reverse is true.
It is not the message itself that poses the problem, but rather how the message
is delivered. The following excerpt from an interview with Merrilee Morris, whose
son died in the 1994 crash of US Air Flight 427, makes the point. Merrilee did not
have face-to-face interactions with the airline. From the beginning, the voice on
the phone was her only connection to the company.
Within 24 hours, we had first contact with the airline. We had information on who
would be our contact. Different victims’ families were assigned different airline
employees to assist them. The person that worked with us was warm and
considerate. She was a good person. It came right through the telephone. She
had a horrible job to do and she did it with such dignity, such warmth, such caring.
I felt bonded to her. That probably sounds weird under the circumstances. She
was always there, whether we called to change reservations, add people to the list,
or deal with rumors.

When anyone provides life altering news, e.g., that a loved one is involved in a
crisis where death and/or serious injury is a potential threat, it is an opportunity for
emotional connection if the information is given with warmth and compassion. This
begins the “Kinship of Sorrow,” which will very likely contribute to long-term healing
from the loss. 

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We at the Foundation emphasize the importance of First Contact in setting the tone
for all that follows. We train responders with videos and interview results like
Merrilee’s, to show why it’s essential that the notifier’s empathy and compassion
come through. This is important in all contact with families, but especially when
information is initially given. We believe survivors are always the true experts, so our
methods and procedures are based on what they teach us – not on myths.

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