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It is not easy dealing with grief especially when it involves persons who you love and care suddenly are gone forever. It reminds me of  Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s seminal writing on the stages of grief which she categorised  into five phases: denial, anger, bargaining,depression and acceptance.

Unless and until you have  technically gone through these stages, you would not be able to achieve resolution to your grief. This surmise seems to be applicable to most people in general but you do get people who have already accepted their loss by alluding to the will of God and hence appear to be calmer in their disposition. Religious teaching plays an important role in resolving the mental pain of death of loved ones.

But not all people are brought up this way. And so it is vital to understand the stages of grief especially when you are dealing with grieving relatives as a result of traumatic loss.

It is obvious that most of the relatives of the missing passengers on MH 370 gathering in a Beijing hotel are in the state of denial and anger. To talk to this group, you not only need to be sympathetic and empathetic but you must be seen to be so. Just letting them know what you are doing and what you want them to do is not good enough.

That was why the grieving relatives threw water bottles at the MAS team in that Beijing hotel because they might have felt that their denial and anger were not being managed sensitively. The report in the New York Times here reveals the poor ability of MAS team in handling the relatives who became frustrated and aggressive instead of being appreciative of what MAS was attempting to do.

Not until a group of local Chinese leaders came in to that hotel ball room were the relatives calmed down. The meeting’s fiasco could partly be attributed to the need to go through an interpreter to get their questions across  and answers received as the team, not being fluent in Mandarin was speaking in English. Moreover, they were talking rather “officiously” and unable to give certain answers as they were not authorised to do so or were genuinely ignorant of the latest development in the search and rescue efforts that were ongoing.

The first water bottle was thrown at them reportedly after one of the MAS team member wanted to find out how many of the relatives would like to go to Kuala Lumpur (free of charge of course). I think while it was a good gesture, you would need to  articulate it sensitively (interpreted to Mandarin no doubt) to people in denial and anger. The question gave the impression that the relatives should stop asking questions.

The local Chinese group reassured them everything in their government’s power was being done to find out the fate of their loved ones and one of them even mentioned that he had a friend who knew someone on that ill-fated MH 370 flight, ( that is glaring empathy in action!).  The crowd subsequently settled down, at least these people were talking in their mother tongue, and some of the relatives were then seen  dabbing their eyes (crying releases mental pain and reduces anger) and there was no more overt aggression after that.

Well, this is a lesson for MAS to be more careful in selecting people to talk to grieving relatives. People want both facts, plan and veiled empathy. Perhaps MAS should have included a fluent Mandarin-speaking psychologist as well to guide the team on how to interact with such a crowd: angry, frustrated, fragile and confused.

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