THE BLOG
03/24/2014 06:16 pm ET Updated May 24, 2014

Starting the Conversation

Starting the Conversation. "What would it be like if your loved one did not return?"

"All are lost" does not stop the conversation, it may just turn up the volume.

The Malaysian Government is new at this. I truly believe that after initial challenges and basic shock, efforts are now being made to do the right thing. Meaning, including the families and loved ones of MH 370 in communicating what is known, when it is known.

Domestically, we know there is a federal multiagency response plan that has been well rehearsed through multiple transportation and other mass fatality events. Emergency management at all government levels as well as passenger carriers and other designated agencies, all know what to do. There are Victim Support Tasks (VST's) and they are unique and pre-determined by the scope of the disaster and immediate needs.

For instance, local fire and police departments are the lead in immediately responding for search and rescue and, in many incidents, recovery. Recovery of loved ones. Recovery of those who may have had only 29 seconds between start of takeoff and impact like the crash of Delta Comair in Lexington, KY. How could this have happened here?

What we now know is this. Family members have gathered at hotels in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur. There have been several briefings for them. Several weeks late but occurring. Counselors have been called in and, hopefully, they have mass fatality disaster experience and know how to provide the health and mental health/spiritual care support that is vital.

This morning the Prime Minister of Malaysia confirmed what might have become increasingly evident. The plane and all aboard lost in the Southern Indian Ocean. Many would have suggested not notifying the families by text message. Culturally, the power of information rests from above with those in authority and seeking to balance expectations and consequences. Offering to fly family members to Perth is valuable, but what if the search lasts for several years? What support do they have in a distant land?

Until proof has been found there may always be hope that loved ones will return home one day walking in the front door. Finding debris is culturally imperative. The families of those lost when Egypt Air crashed in the Atlantic off Nantucket would not accept the reality until pieces of the plane were displayed privately for them on a secluded beach in Rhode Island. Some, devout Muslims, fell immediately to the ground to pray.

Because trust was not established from the beginning; immediate notification that the plane was missing, a designated telephone number or website where families could receive updates before hearing it from the media, and a safe place to gather where their privacy and support services could be facilitated. Without integrating disaster family assistance as an integral part of the response from the beginning, the raw, visceral pain of the family members conveyed the human side of this event along with courageous air searchers seeking to give these families 'closure'.

A common question always asked is, "Did my loved one suffer?" The most compassionate answer to this question can be interpreted by the information in the black box recorder. Some want to know in order to painfully understand what their loved ones may have had to endure in their last seconds, if they were conscious. To inhale those details in a sacred connection at the time of death. There are no hands to hold when one is a world apart from your mother or husband, your child, partner or beloved. Somehow, I believe, there is a bridge of prayer that may eventually comfort the living and the lost.

There will be many more casualties of this airline disaster. Without identifying resources and making sure those profoundly impacted are companioned in the months and years ahead, grief will shorten the lives of those family members who survive. Not all, but how one is immediately treated following these intense, traumatic events, makes a huge difference. Your identity is forever changed. You are now a family member of MH370, just as there are Families of Pan Am 103 or TWA 800. Ironically, two airlines that endured unfathomable crashes that, some would say, they were unable to fully recover.

For many, after mass fatality disasters, there primary coping mechanism is their religious faith. Helping identify what has helped with difficulties in the past is one task of the chaplain or mental health professional. One cannot assume that all the passengers were religious, or that all the Malays were Muslim or Chinese non-believers. At times of overwhelming crisis, loss is universal, and broadcast globally. In post-Christian Norway, after the Utoya youth camp murders, thousands of flowers and candles were placed in front of the Lutheran Cathedral in Oslo, with the King and Queen leading the nation's mourners.

Generally, after transportation disasters, some compensation to families is paid for their loss. It never can make up for the loss but it does help the survivors pay rent and buy food in the months and years ahead. However, no one really recovers from these catastrophic, unanticipated disasters. Loved ones have better days than others but the trauma, may be under addressed or addressed too early. "Tell me how it feels" becomes an axe to the skull of a grieving parent or spouse. Starting the conversation is vital, but, not without consequence. Counselors supporting loved ones need to be prepared for the answers and work in integrated care teams and know how to make referrals when specialized care is required. Some trust media to share their stories and communicate their pain in the absence of support, from those victim support tasks that we know are vital and immediately essential. Media may have finally directed the Malaysian government to recognizing the importance of family support and assistance.

Listen to their voices. These families are speaking for all of us. All who journey to exotic destinations or simply across town. Will I be safe? Will those entrusted to my safe passage, to my care, have done everything they can to insure that I get to my destination? Or, as my late colleague at the National Transportation Safety Board used to say, "Who will accompany my mother through her journey if something happens to me? Disaster response may become a matter of social justice, respect for the grieving, and dignity for those emotionally and spiritually injured.

There are so many reasons not to be prepared for these catastrophic mass fatality incidents, because resistance to preparedness is widespread. None of these reasons are ethically viable or economically sound.