IN THE DAYS following he destruction of TWA 800 there has been considerable focus on the plight of the victims' families. At times it has seemed that the officials in contact with them have been in as much need of counseling as the families themselves.
Those in charge expressed chagrin at the anger and impatience expressed by those whose loved ones perished. First TWA was denounced for the delay in releasing the list of passengers. The airline argued that it needed to verify names to ensure accuracy. Unspoken was the obvious fact that people already knew whether they had a family member on board.
The wrath of the bereaved was then turned on the Suffolk County Medical Examiner for the slow pace of identification of bodies. Then there was a conflict in priorities between the crash investigators, who wanted to recover the wreckage as quickly as possible, and the families, who only wished to bury their own. "The very important thing to us is to find our bodies and go back home," said Meyer Dadi, who lost his brother. "If you find the black box, it doesn't matter."
The families were also enraged at the conflicting information that is inevitable following a disaster.
The only thing surprising about any of this is that anyone was surprised. All who have suffered the loss of a loved one can attest that anger is an expected part of the grieving process. The recurring question in the minds of the survivors is 'Why?' In the absence of any logical answer, the sense of loss of control is overwhelming.
Feelings of helplessness and frustration routinely erupt into rage that has no satisfactory direction and is vented on whomever is handy or presumes to be in charge. In the case of a calamity involving hundreds, the act of housing the families together, while meant to provide an environment of mutual support, produces a "critical mass" of grief that can be explosive and complicate the lives of those seeking to help.
It is understandable that the memorial service on a Long Island beach and the opportunity to fly over the crash scene were greeted with relief by the families. They saw the magnitude of the rescue effort, and were consoled by the New York governor and mayor.
"Attention must be paid," said Willie Loman's wife in "Death of a Salesman." And so it fell to President and Mrs. Clinton to travel to New York and, in private conversations, reach out to the bereaved and assure them that the nation's first priority was the recovery of the bodies. Before the Clintons arrived some of the families had planned to present a list of demands. After the meetings, such action seemed unnecessary.
"He was just very reassuring," said Richard Penzer, whose sister Judy died in the crash. "He was a real human being, no artifice or phoniness."
Lessons for coping
Embedded in this story of mass grief are lessons to be learned. There will be more disasters, more grieving families. It matters little whether a loved one dies in our arms or at 13,000 feet in the company of many. Anne Morrow Lindberg said, "Suffering -- no matter how multiplied -- is always individual." Each survivor endures his or her own holocaust of pain.
When we gather the bereaved together we can expect them to unite in their anger and frustration. Attending to these emotions without surprise is important. Particularly helpful was TWA's assignment of "escorts" to each family to see to their needs. The availability of a trained grief counselor, whose primary task is simply to listen, is also important.
The help provided by politicians, while denounced as "grandstanding" by some, is a true act of leadership much appreciated by bereaved relatives. Even the questions and cameras of the much-maligned press corps, seen by many as intrusive and insensitive, can be a temporary reassurance to families that these deaths are not going unnoticed. Acts of sympathy by unknown strangers -- cards, signs, flowers upon the water -- can comfort.
The process of mourning is endless and lonely. The bereaved families of TWA Flight 800 will find this out soon enough. In helping them, if only in spirit, through the first awful stages of their grief we prepare ourselves -- for all of us who live long enough will travel this road.
Gordon Livingston is a Columbia psychiatrist and father twice bereaved.
Pub Date: 8/02/96