Caught in limbo: relatives of passengers aboard Flight MH370 wait in vain for news. (Photo: Getty)
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Coping with the trauma of missing flight MH370

While the world searches for the plane or theorises about its disappearance, what about the effects on the desperate families and friends waiting for news – and even us?

It’s been ten days since missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The search is continuing over a wide area, with Australia now taking the lead over the Indian Ocean. But nearly everyone is asking the same two questions:

  1. where is the plane?
  2. more importantly, what has happened to the 239 passengers and crew – children, women and men – that were on it?

From the international search effort and investigation so far there are some things known but we may not find out the answer to these two questions – at least not in the very near future. So where does this leave the families and friends of all the people on board? How do they continue to get through each day not knowing what happened?

Effects of trauma

We know that people experience the impact of trauma when they are confronted with an event that threatens their own life, or the life of a loved one. Some traumatic events happen suddenly (such as the missing flight) and are totally unexpected in an otherwise normal life. Other traumatic events can be prolonged and cumulative, in that they can be a series of events that take place over a period of time (such is the case in domestic violence).

There is little precedent for this latest event with MH370 missing for so long, so in considering how people are coping, we must turn to some literature on what friends and families go through when a loved one is missing. The trauma of losing a loved one, or friend, in the unique circumstances surrounding this flight can bring complex and protracted reactions. Friends and family are likely to be experiencing a range of emotions, including shock, despair, anger, frustration and hope.

Emotionally ‘frozen in time’

The traumatic experience of this is likely to be further heightened by feelings of powerlessness and helplessness and having no control over the event, and no ability to join in the search for their loved one. Families and friends are not only dealing with the trauma of their loved one not being with them, but also the trauma of the unknown – their whereabouts, or what has happened to them.

Given the uncertainty of what exactly has happened to the flight, many family and friends are likely to be feeling some hope that they will see their loved one again. This has happened in some previous air crash disasters such as the 14 who survived for more than two months after their plane crashed in the Argentine Andes in October 1972.

Without closure, some people will hold on to this hope for years to come. But it is the nature of an ambiguous loss such as this, the feelings of not knowing what happened and holding hope, that can keep families frozen in time, unable to move forward and grieve. At the moment those families are only able to consider what happened yesterday, what is happening right now and what may happen tomorrow. Further planning without their loved one is likely to seem incomprehensible.

The commonalities of the experience of grief crosses countries and cultures. Individual cultures may have different supports, rituals and ways of dealing with grief, but the enduring feelings of loss will be present for all.

Widespread search, global media coverage

The disappearance of the flight has generated masses of media coverage with some information known and released by the airline – and much speculation on what could have happened. Many people will be checking the media each day to find out the latest developments in the search for this plane. For those with friends and families on board, it will be difficult for them to focus on anything other than the disappearance and the ongoing investigation.

And with so much global media coverage, it will seem impossible for them to engage in the other activities that often protect people from the full impact of trauma, including: returning to the normal routines and rhythms of life, seeking support and talking about the strong emotions connected to the trauma, and starting to think about rebuilding their lives.

Community effects

Beyond the immediate family and friends of those missing, the disappearance of flight MH370 affects us all in some way. It has been well documented that watching, or being engaged with, a significant amount of media coverage of traumatic events can bring about distress and anxiety in those who are not otherwise connected to the event. This can be particularly true for people who have experienced other traumatic events themselves, those with mental health difficulties and in children and young people.

Repeated exposure to the traumatic event, as well as exposure to the traumatic reactions of those directly affected, can trigger an overwhelming feeling that the world is not a safe place, one that we may have little control over. This can bring about intense feelings of anxiety that may penetrate our day to day life at home and at work.

For people who have lost someone close to them, the public exposure of grief around this issue may trigger a resurfacing of their own feelings of grief and loss. For those already vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, there is an increased chance that they will start to sense danger in their own environment. It is essential that these people turn to friends, families and other supports to seek help.

Even for the many of us who are not affected by this event, it is likely to have allowed a niggling doubt in the back of our minds about the safety of the next flight we board.

The ConversationAmanda Harris does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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