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.
Don't Let Good Intentions Make Bad News Worse
“Honesty is the fastest way to prevent a mistake from turning into a failure.”
– James Altucher, American Entrepreneur and best-selling author (1968-
Our last Wednesday Wisdom installment dealt with the importance of honesty on
the part of Care Team responders. Building on that, let’s go on to another important
lesson on delivering the truth and how family survivors react to comments intended
to make a bad situation better.
What we know is that nothing can make the news that one’s family member has
been killed or seriously injured sound better or hurt less. When giving information
you know will be heartbreaking, the best way is always to present it with empathy
and a compassionate tone and without trying to make it sound “better” or protect the
person you’re speaking to.
Interviews show that family members in the initial phase of a crisis want
straightforward facts delivered in a caring manner. Untrained responders tend to
confuse people or worse, give false hope when they try to encourage or comfort
instead of staying on task. Here are two examples of poor judgment the illustrate
– Telling a caller who is upset at being unable to reach a loved one by phone that
“maybe their mobile battery has run out.”
– Reassuring someone inquiring about a loved one believed to be on an accident
flight that “they may not have boarded the plane.”
Both indicate either improper training or no training at all.
Encouragement and words of consolation may be appropriate from family and
friends during the initial phase of a crisis, but those representing the organization
involved must stay within their role and follow procedures. This will help avoid
making a potentially volatile relationship even more challenging. Those in any
helping or caregiving role must first and foremost remember that in these
tragic circumstances, there is no way to make something better, and
you should not try.
There are countless additional examples where trust and confidence in the
company and its representatives was eroded or destroyed in this way. One of the
earliest ones revealed in a Foundation interview made it crystal clear that the
employee involved did not understand. A twenty-three-year old college coed died
in 1988 when a terrorist’s bomb aboard Pan Am Flight 103 destroyed the Boeing
747 and killed all 259 aboard and 11 residents of Lockerbie, Scotland. When the
parents of the young woman were finally able to speak with an airline representative,
in their words, “She tried to get between us and the pain of losing our daughter.”
The employee gave few direct answers about the response on the ground and
what the airline could do for the family. During our interview, the father asked,
“Can’t they be trained that the worst thing has already happened and there is
no way to make it better for a family by trying to ‘spare our feelings’?”
In another case, an employee speaking with the grieving mother of a flight attendant
killed in a crash said, “Well, at least you will get some insurance money.” The
mother went on to say that what she really wanted was to know how the company
could help her and her family with information, logistics, and funeral arrangements.
For this family, like most during the early hours of the loss of a family member,
discussions about how things are handled financially may be relevant, but implying
that an insurance payout is in some way a consolation is anything but consoling.
The family showed the employee the door and turned communication between them
and the airline over to a plaintiff’s attorney.
“We are products of our past, but we don't have to be prisoners of it.”
– Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?
Training for people who will interact with survivors in crisis, either by telephone or in
person, should include role-plays that present opportunities to practice delivering
difficult news in the appropriate way. Trainees should hear about past mistakes and
second assaults made by responders, always with the emphasis being placed
on lessons learned. Responders should be reminded that theirs is a unique and
powerful role – but a professional one as well. Showing compassion and empathy
is essential in communicating with survivors, but misleading them, providing false
hope, or attempting to make a survivor feel better about the death or serious injury
of their family member is harmful regardless of the responder’s best intentions.
© 2017 Higher Resources, Inc./Aviem International, Inc.
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