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.

Photo: Getty
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What happened when a couple accidentally recorded two hours of their life

The cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic.

If the Transformers series of movies (Transformers; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Age of Extinction; and Transformers: the Last Knight) teach us anything, it is that you think your life is going along just fine but in a moment, with a single mistake or incident, it can be derailed and you never know from what direction the threat will come. Shia LaBeouf, for example, thinks everything is completely OK in his world – then he discovers his car is a shape-shifting alien.

I once knew a couple called Dan and Fiona who, on an evening in the early 1980s, accidentally recorded two hours of their life. Fiona was an English teacher (in fact we’d met at teacher-training college) and she wished to make a recording of a play that was being broadcast on Radio 4 about an anorexic teenager living on a council estate in Belfast. A lot of the dramas at that time were about anorexic teenagers living on council estates in Belfast, or something very similar – sometimes they had cancer.

Fiona planned to get her class to listen to the play and then they would have a discussion about its themes. In that pre-internet age when there was no iPlayer, the only practical way to hear something after the time it had been transmitted was to record the programme onto a cassette tape.

So Fiona got out their boom box (a portable Sony stereo player), loaded in a C120 tape, switched on the radio part of the machine, tuned it to Radio 4, pushed the record button when the play began, and fastidiously turned the tape over after 60 minutes.

But instead of pushing the button that would have taped the play, she had actually pushed the button that activated the built-in microphone, and the machine captured, not the radio drama, but the sound of 120 minutes of her and Dan’s home life, which consisted solely of: “Want a cup of tea?” “No thanks.” And a muffled fart while she was out of the room. That was all. That was it.

The two of them had, until that moment, thought their life together was perfectly happy, but the tape proved them conclusively wrong. No couple who spent their evenings in such torpidity could possibly be happy. Theirs was clearly a life of grinding tedium.

The evidence of the cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic: the idea of spending any more of their evenings in such bored silence was intolerable. They feared they might have to split up. Except they didn’t want to.

But what could they do to make their lives more exciting? Should they begin conducting sordid affairs in sleazy nightclubs? Maybe they could take up arcane hobbies such as musketry, baking terrible cakes and entering them in competitions, or building models of Victorian prisons out of balsa wood? Might they become active in some kind of extremist politics?

All that sounded like a tremendous amount of effort. In the end they got themselves a cat and talked about that instead. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder