Closure Still Proving Difficult
The Journal of Employee Assistance had the opportunity to interview Grace (Weihong) Ding, a CEAP with China Linzi EAP in Shanghai, China, for a follow-up article about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared March 8, 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, China. Grace was among the professional counselors involved in consoling and assisting the families of the 12-man crew and 227 passengers of that ill-fated flight. An exclusive EAPA interview with Grace and Paul Yin, another CEAP in China, appeared in one of the online EAP NewsBriefs last year.
JEA: It has been more than a year since the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Are there still any types of counseling or other assistance going on currently?
Grace Ding, CEAP, Shanghai, China (with additional contributions noted from next of kin and Asiaweek.com): We opened our hotline to the next of kin of the passengers. Occasionally we still receive calls, sometimes as late as midnight when a caller feels helpless and emotional. Incidents like this tend to especially occur when something happens to “stir this person up” that was reported by the media, such as a declaration that the passengers are perceived to be passed away and compensation procedure is ready to start, and so on.
JEA: More than a year since Flight 370, it seems clear that these families’ loved ones aren’t coming back, but there is still a difference between disappearance and death – in which death offers finality, while disappearance brings limbo. How have you been able to help people cope with their lack of closure?
Grace: There is still a long way to go before closure finally occurs. Next of kin are still hoping that their loved ones will return. Therefore, the Malaysian government’s declaration of the missing flight as an accident triggers anger and still more grief and further mistrust. Fortunately, family members are very helpful to each other.
Next of Kin and “Asiaweek”
This unprecedented tragedy brought together 134 families from 20 different provinces. They feel that only the next of kin are in their shoes. They are originally from different social classes with different circles, but they can truly understand each other. The passengers are from very different backgrounds, a group of well-established artists, more than 10 farm labors who were returning home, more than 20 elderly people, some tourists and still others on company business. It is this fate that binds them together.
They often meet with each other – in a way they are bound together not by the pain and suffer they experienced together, not by the understanding of each other, not even by the unknown compensation, but by the faith that their loved ones are still alive.
For outsiders this faith is illusory and in vain. But as one old man said, “The whole thing is not transparent. We need definite and clear evidence [for closure], either from the airline or the government.” Five of his family members were on board MH370.
They analyze different scenarios and political situations, and many believe that MH370 is a conspiracy. “My son is still alive” one man told a reporter. “The truth is there, they are not alive because I think so, and not dead because you told me. The key is evidence. I will face it rationally and I need to know who is hiding the truth.”
The next of kin still go to the “cage” as if for self-punishment, or pious worship. The center where they meet is located away from downtown, if you travel from Beijing South Railway station, a station that connects most high-speed trains from Beijing to other cities, passengers need to transfer four times by subway and then walk another 20 minutes – for about 3 hours total.
The center is the place they meet, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Friday is the day most people will travel – especially people from other cities. When there is a major announcement, hundreds of people will gather like a big family, most of them elderly. They hardly chat about daily life, they mainly talk about the different guesses [as to what happened], and the most common topic is their children, how outstanding and how good they used to be.
They withdraw from other forms of social life. They have only the people that suffer from the same pain. One old man is a retired worker and another is high-ranking government official, some own real estate in Beijing and one couple stays in a cheap rented place outside Beijing.
As time passes, the friendships deepen and stories of helping each other are abundant. One person with a car drives the disabled to the center, while a farmer who has never had a smartphone, found someone who not only gave her one, but spent the afternoon showing her how to use it.
“Only by being together with them am I able to smile,” one woman commented. “I never smile with other people now.”
JEA: What are the cultural differences and issues in this type of [critical incident response] work in Asia, as opposed to in Western countries?
Grace: You can tell from these responses that reactions to trauma are similar, but people’s beliefs can be quite different. “Dead or alive, show me the body” is a belief deeply rooted in the Chinese mind. It is hard to convince our people of a conclusion [that the passengers are deceased] without firm evidence. People here are more group oriented – they act in groups, and they express themselves as a group.
Also, religion is a powerful way to comfort people when such tragedy occurs, I think this is true across different cultures. When there is no answer, people resort to religion for answers.
Finally, I wish to add that my main purpose in responding to these questions is to provide more understanding [to readers] about this group of people.
Asiaweek (n.d.) Retrieved from: http://edition.cnn.com/ASIANOW/ asiaweek/
Malaysia Airlines. (n.d.) Malaysia airlines flight 370. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysia_Airlines_Flight_370