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.
“She was found passed out near the elevator, on the opposite end of the ship
from her cabin. We knew she was drunk, so we put her in a wheelchair and
took her to her room to sleep it off.”
-These comments were made by crew members aboard the ship where her
husband man went missing.
Other guests near the cabin overheard people arguing, and there were many
signs that the young man had likely gone overboard—not accidentally.
As the story unfolded a phenomenon known by psychologists as
"Just World Theory" began to steer the direction of the investigation and tragically,
the employees' poor response to the young woman whose husband
was never seen again.
Just World Theory
The need to see victims as the recipients of their just desserts is explained by
psychologists as the Just World Hypothesis. According to the hypothesis,
people have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is orderly,
predictable, and a just place where people get what they deserve. This
belief allows us to plan our lives or achieve our goals as we can assume that
our actions will have predictable consequences.
A few weeks ago, the WW article explained a related concept from the study
of trauma referred to as "Shattered Assumptions". The idea is that how one
sees the world before the traumatic event changes as part of healing from the
tragedy. Examples provided included a man who had no idea that he could lose
a family member in a crash—but thought it was unfortunate for those who did.
Like so many, he did not realize his vulnerability, until his son was killed. Part
of his healing process included coming to terms with the universality of trauma
and loss. He developed compassion for others and related differently to family
and friends’ losses when his assumptions changed.
The Theory of Shattered Assumptions and Just World Theory go together in
describing some of the challenges that survivors of trauma face. While survivors
struggle to come to terms with new assumptions about their own and their
family’s safety and regain trust in the world, they often feel invalidated and
unsupported as strangers, and even their own family members look for reasons
why they (the victim) suffered the trauma.
This quote from the mother of a pilot who died in an airline crash where no one
survived provides an additional example of how the two theories work together.
I knew that we were all prayed up. We read our Bible the night before the
crash. I knew there must be a mistake—as this could not be happening to
us. And then when they called to confirm that no one had survived the crash,
I did not know what to think.
In a subsequent interview the mother explained that her faith had gotten stronger
after the loss of her child. And in the aftermath of the tragedy she now realized
that her prayers and religious rituals were helpful to her—but did not necessarily
affect how things turn out. Like the father in the earlier example, she also developed
compassion toward other grieving people. She said that at the time she avoided
people who had lost a child, whereas now, she goes out of her way to reach out to
others who were suffering.
“When we heard the name of the captain on the flight where no one survived,
we realized she got what she deserved. After all, she crossed the picket line
during a previous strike.”
-This statement was told to me when I asked a pilot if he knew the captain who died
in a crash.
They had once worked for the same airline before bankruptcy ended
their jobs. I knew at once that his comments to me were more about his need to feel
in control and invulnerable to accidents than about the deceased pilot. Those in
leadership positions, benefit from understanding these concepts and sharing their
relevance with their team members during a response.
Care Team and Special Assistance Team Members
Interviews with family members of the man missing on the cruise ship and the mother
of the airline pilot referred above, revealed multiple second assaults. While it is
impossible to know why employees made hurtful comments and statements to
the families, the unconscious remarks left the families feeling invalidated and
often abandoned by company responders at the time they most needed them.
Rumors circulated on the ship about the drinking and partying of the young couple
and both were judged—as though they got what they deserved. Interviews with
other guests on board and videotapes of the young woman leaving the casino,
showed her to be sober within minutes before the man went missing. While no
one knows why she was passed out, procedures on the cruise line have been
amended to ensure that future guests found ‘passed out' would be taken to the
infirmary and treated sensitively from a medical perspective.
In the pilot’s case, the mother received cruel phone calls where callers made
unsubstantiated comments about her flying ability and comments about her crossing
a picket line during a strike.
Leaders may find it helpful to ensure that responders and all employees are trained
to withhold judgment of survivors during a response. Training on validation and
emotional support should be included in initial and refresher/recurrent training.
Investigators and Security Personnel
Due to the assumptions made about the young man and woman on the ship as being
responsible for their fate, some believe that the investigation may have been
compromised and valuable clues missed. Leaders in charge of these vital areas who
have learned valuable lessons about remaining open and the following procedure will
do well to share these and other examples to new and inexperienced personnel to
prevent the repetition of mistakes made.
In the case of the captain's death, while some of her peers were quick to judge and
blame her for the accident, the thorough investigation revealed that the crash was
caused by a fire in the cargo bin due to oxygen canisters that ignited shortly after
takeoff. The canisters should not have been loaded as they were known to be
hazardous materials. While this crash where 110 people died, proved to be the result
of human error, in many ways, the pilots were heralded by some as heroes. The
investigation revealed that they maintained control of the aircraft for longer than
many might imagine with the intense fire beneath their feet. In this case, the
investigation was not compromised due to the rush of judgment and unconscious
responses by the officials.
In summary, education and training of those who interact with survivors of trauma
will increase sensitivity on the part of all who respond to survivors. Passengers,
guests, customers, employees and all families who survive the physical harm of
tragedy deserve to be met by well-informed and trained responders and
investigators. While your organization cannot prevent second assaults caused by
others in the survivors' social circle, understanding of these and other trauma related
concepts can prevent those made by employees of the organization involved.
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