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., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is
available with written permission from the Foundation.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has
-George Bernard Shaw (Irish Playwright, 1856-1950)
The subject of the previous WW dealt with the use of words that connect family
assistance workers with survivors during crisis times. This article will shed additional
light on how words can help or confuse survivors and either connect or distance them
from those who wish to help them. As mentioned in the previous article, many words
and phrases used by emergency management leaders and workers in technical
areas evolved before the field of family assistance came to be, i.e., before care and
special assistance teams were formed. Unfortunately, many of these terms and
phrases are neither sensitive nor clear in their message.
One example involves the use of the term, “personal effects”. While the expression
can be applied to items belonging to those who died in a tragedy, as well as those
who survived, its use is both confusing and unnecessarily impersonal. When one
survivor was told how to reclaim her personal effects after an accident, she thought a
mistake had been made. She had always associated the term with the belongings
of the deceased—and she nearly missed the opportunity to obtain her items due to
this confusion. In Human Services Response™, the Foundation’s training approach
for assisting survivors, we recommend referring to someone's items, for both living
and deceased, as ‘personal belongings'. We believe these words are both factual
Survivors also frequently complain about jargon and acronyms which allow ‘insiders'
to save time in written, as well as, spoken communication—but further distances
survivors from helpers during critical times. Family members are desperate for
information during the initial hours, days and weeks following a tragedy involving
their loved ones. One man, whose son died in a plane crash along with over 40 others,
traveled to the site to attend the family briefings, only to be disappointed at how often
he felt confused and even isolated due to the officials using a vocabulary he did not
understand. While he quickly caught on to the meaning of aviation terms, like FAA,
NTSB, etc., when asked what advice he would provide to those wanting to help
families in future similar situations, this was the area he felt most passionate.
"Helpers should avoid using terms and acronyms that only they know, at initial
meetings with families," he advised.
One of the more recent acronyms to come to our attention to discuss in training
family assistance responders pertains to the designation of a victim's ‘next-of-kin'.
‘NOK,’ as some employee responders have begun to refer to the person's name
listed as the primary point of contact for the family of a deceased person, is but
another example of a term that could be offensive if overheard by survivors. While
anyone can understand how important it is for the organization experiencing a
tragedy to know who should be considered the primary point of contact, or
‘next-of-kin’, hearing themselves referred to as a ‘NOK' could easily become a
second assault to many family members. This acronym could easily further distance
the families from those who are sent to assist them.
"Example is not the main thing. It is the only thing."
-Albert Schweitzer, (German Theologian, Philosopher 1895-1965)
Interviews with family members whose loved ones died in mass disasters, show the
need for precise and sensitive information from those who are assigned to help them.
Those in charge of training and leading the teams must pay attention to all
communications between their team members and survivors. And, perhaps most
importantly, those in leadership roles must model the use of sensitive words that
validate survivors, as well as, avoid using terms, phrases, and acronyms that are
known only to those inside the industry.
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