Here is your 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., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is available with written permission from the Foundation.
The Healing Power of Experiences that Don't Make Sense, Logically-Part II
"I used to believe that we must choose between
science and reason on the one hand, and spirituality on the other, in how we
lead our lives. Now I consider this a false choice. We can recover the sense of
sacredness, not just in science, but in perhaps every area of life." -Larry Dossey, M.D. from Reinventing Medicine
In the December Wednesday Wisdom article, I described
survivor experiences, which helped in their healing after the loss of loved
ones.Dr. Larry Dossey, referenced in
the opening quote of this article, refers to skeptics as being afflicted by
“randomania" or "statisticalitis" and rightly notes how they
deride people's experiences as "mere anecdotes." I
have discovered that while many experiences defy scientific explanation, it is
listening and supporting these survivor stories that is a gift to the grieving
relative.In Part II of the article, I
will provide more examples of unexplainable
experiences survivors shared with me that became the basis of their
acceptance of the loss and impetus for creating a new life, enlarged due to the
The previous article on this subject concluded with examples
of visual phenomenon that could not be explained. This continuation of the
discussion includes another individual survivor experience where a visual
sighting was the turning point in a woman's grief process. A young widow whose
husband perished along with a total of 229 passengers and crew told of an
experience which she considered in her words, "transformative." Following
the crash of the Swissair Flight 111 crash off the coast of Nova Scotia, the
families of those who died when the aircraft crashed into the water, were
offered transportation for visiting the site near the crash.
Like many family members, this was a difficult decision for
her to make as she had three small children under the age of six. The youngest,
an infant, was still being breast-fed at the time of the crash. After a great
deal of indecision and obtaining advice from her counselor and family members,
she decided to go to the site of the accident. To help her with the exhausting
travel, the airline also offered travel for a companion of her choice. Leaving
the older two children behind with family members, she and her brother, along
with her young infant, set out on a journey which she had great trepidation
about—but she felt compelled to take.
She told me that when
she and her brother went to the hangar, where the deceased's personal
belongings were on display for the families to view, she had an experience that
was difficult to explain. However, it was a turning point for her to accept the
loss of her husband. She explained that as she walked by the long tables,
viewing the massive amount of clothing, shoes, children's toys, and other items
pulled from the sea—the young woman felt pulled into a vortex. Moving into what
she described as being "sucked into gelatin," she saw behind the
table, wispy outlines of the deceased passengers and crew. She said simply, “I
saw their souls.”
She described ghost-like figures without faces. "I
could not recognize my husband individually, but I knew he was there.I knew at once that while he and the others
on the flight were no longer in human form, their energy was alive, and they were
with us—and they always would be". This sighting gave her great peace, and
she knew on a very spiritual level, that she and her children's father, her
soul mate, would forever remain connected.
I set my rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the
covenant between Me and the earth.
-Genesis, 9:3 New King James Bible
As long as we do science, some things will always remain unexplained.
-Fritiof Capra, Austrian-born, American Physicist
While individual stories, like those mentioned, gave great
consolation to the survivors who told them, themes of shared experiences where mass death occurred, were also described
by numerous family members. By far, the most significant number of shared survivor experiences pertained to
the sightings of rainbows, which consistently gave their suffering instant
meaning.Throughout time, in religion as
well as mythology, the rainbow has been a symbol of promise and provides higher
meaning to human suffering. In Greek mythology, the rainbow is seen as the
footpath between heaven and earth. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy sings that somewhere over the rainbow, there is a
land where dreams come true. Furthermore, as quoted above, there are
numerous references to rainbows in religious writings that are symbolic of the
covenant between God and man, as well as animals.
Three accidents, two
airlines, and one military crash are great examples of shared grief and
shared-healing associated with rainbows. Following the crash of U.S. Air Flight
427, September 8, 1994, where 132 perished, the day after the crash, at the
exact time of the crash, a double rainbow appeared over the site. The men and
women working recovery and clean-up were all witnesses to the radiant image in
the sky that appeared over one of the most destructive crash sites in U.S.
history. One of the men took a photo of the double rainbow. Through the
airline, he was able to obtain addresses of all of the family members listed.
He mailed copies of the picture to them with a letter explaining the timing of
when the rainbow appeared. The mother of one of the victims allowed me to print the letter in Handbook
for Human Services Response. Her reaction to the rainbow appearing over
the site was nothing short of 'joyful.' She described being uplifted and
buoyed by the news and the picture.
The rainbow sightings over the Miami Everglades, where
ValuJet Flight 592 crashed on May 11, 1996, are a legend to the families of the
110 victims who died in the fatal crash. The first memorial was held on a
clear, hot, sunny day, following the crash. Buses carried the despondent,
shocked family members as near as possible to the site of the crash. To their
delight, from beneath the billowy white clouds in a serene blue sky, an
iridescent arc appeared over the everglades. Many family members exclaimed in
delight at the visual imagery.
On the second anniversary of the crash, a local television
reporter traveled from Atlanta, GA, along with many of the survivors. She had
heard survivors speak about the rainbow and knew that many were expecting a
similar experience at the memorial service. Again, the sky was bright blue and
there were no signs of weather that might produce a rainbow. Her camera crew shot
footage of her standing at the sight, in a sarcastic tone saying, “So where is that rainbow?" As she was speaking,
a bright rainbow suddenly appeared over her head. In a stunned, excited tone;
she began to shout, "Oh, there is the rainbow! There is the
rainbow!"The significance of the
rainbow appearing two years in a row on days where there had been no rain
showers or any of the weather conditions generally associated with rainbows needed no explanation—to the survivors.
The final example of rainbows and family survivors left
behind after a crash pertains to an Air Force crash from the mid-nineties.Several men stood by as the aircraft
scheduled to transport them to a different base in Germany was repaired. Finally,the men boarded. One of the mechanics took a
photo of the giant aircraft taking off directly into a blue sky, covered by a
giant rainbow. Within moments the aircraft crashed, no one on the plane
As part of a survivor assistance project I was working on
with the Air Force US Pentagon, I interviewed the wife of one of the men who
died in the crash, along with her two young boys. After the interview, I asked
about the rainbow story that other Air Force members had shared.
Matter-of-factly she responded, "Yes, of course,that is a true story. The picture of the
aircraft taking off straight into the rainbow hangs on my living room wall. The
appearance of the rainbow over the aircraft taking off has been a great source
of strength and hope for my children and me."
Dossey, Larry. One Mind. Carlsbad: Hay House; 2013
Coarsey, C. V., Handbook for Human Services Response. Higher Resources:Blairsville; 2004.
Don’t try to steer the river. Deepak Chopra
It is often challenging for Leaders of Care/Special
Assistance Teams working the aftermath of a traumatic loss to remain in
"the straight and narrow" of managing a response where less than
factual occurrences and stories circulate. As discussed in the last two
articles about the spiritual phenomenon associated with incidents,acceptance of the experiences as being real
is not what matters.What matters is
sustaining an environment where people can do their work while accepting their
own experiences and those of their teammates, as valid and real for them.