Families of passengers from the missing Malaysian jet are in agony as the uncertainty to the plane’s fate drags on.
When a family member doesn’t know the fate of a loved one, it places them in what psychologists call “boundary ambiguity.”
“Think about having a husband,” said Anne Speckhard, an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School and an expert in stress responses to disasters.
“If he’s there with you, he’s physically present and psychologically present,” she explained. “But if he goes off to war, you keep him psychologically present. But when you get a notice from the military that your husband is missing in action, what do you do?”
Speckhard has worked with and family members and survivors of the 2002 siege of a Moscow theatre by Chechen rebels and a 2004 school siege in Beslan, Russia, when Chechens took approximately 1,200 children and adults hostage.
Speckhard sees similarities between the families of the victims of those sieges and the families of the missing airline passengers.
“At Beslan, it was very wrenching, because school children were inside the school and their mothers were outside the perimeter, where a fence had been put up, and they couldn’t get to their children,” Speckhard said.
The friends and family of the missing airline passengers are suffering in a similar manner, not knowing if their relatives are alive or dead, she said.
Malaysia defends itself
Malaysian authorities have defended themselves against mounting criticisms over how it is handling families.
Malaysia’s special envoy to China held a closed-door briefing for family members this week, saying his government has been “very transparent” in the way it manages information.
Tan Sri Ong Ka Ting also promised to update families regularly and not keep them waiting “too long.”
The airline says it has set up a family support center offering 24-hour assistance to any one in need. The airline says it will not only telephone families with any developing news but will now send them SMS alerts.
The company has promised to fly families to Australia if the objects picked up on satellite images in the Indian Ocean are located and determined to be part of the missing plane.
The airline also blamed conflicting media reports and the circulation of conspiracy theories on the Internet for heightening families’ distress.
Acting transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein has admitted that dealing with distraught families is no easy task, saying he has consulted with French aviation officials who arrived in Malaysia this week to participate in the international search for the missing plane.
But disaster stress expert Speckhard said the next-of-kin have also been getting mixed messages form assorted unverified reports that their friends and family members might still be alive.
“The message that they could be held somewhere, that this plane might be hiding somewhere, so they can’t start the grief process,” she said. “And we know from research, this isn’t good for you.”
The stress of not knowing won’t subside, Speckhard said, until family are able to redefine the boundaries of their family—that is, make the difficult decision on whether the missing member is still part of the family or gone forever.
Only when they decide can they begin the process of grieving and begin to find closure, she said.
“Authorities should expect family members to be crazed, and authorities should think that through and get a good psychologist and social workers,” she said. “They should be handling those people with kid gloves.”