By: Suzanne Maiden
Another plane crash. One hundred-fifty-three are dead, and thousands begin to grieve. Broken hearts bleed as pieces of mangled bodies and bits of aircraft parts are “bagged and tagged” and carried off to a make-shift morgue. Unfortunately, I am a card carrying member of the ‘losing a loved one to an aviation disaster’ club.
On October 31, 1994 American Eagle flight 4184 carried a full load of passengers. They were destined for Chicago-O’Hare but due to traffic congestion and weather, air traffic control diverted the ATR-72 turboprop to Roselawn, IN. Twenty some minutes later, the aircraft began “…rapidly rotating at more than 50 degrees of bank per second, the aircraft was on its back…G forces exceeded two and one-half times normal. The aircraft dropped more than 600 feet every second. G forces reached 5.2…the outer 10 feet of both wings and the horizontal tail separated from the airliner. The last voice heard on the black box was the pilot who said, ‘Aw, shit!’ as the aircraft smashed to the ground and disintegrated into pieces.” (Stephen Frederick, 1996, Unheeded Warning, p. 47)
My brother, Rob McMillin, aged 37 years, was on that plane. He was returning early from a business meeting in an attempt to take his two sons, Douglas and Jamey, aged 5 and 3 years, respectively, trick-or-treating for Halloween. We did not know only pieces of his foot and torso would return to us in a sealed casket weeks later.
As a practicing psychotherapist, bereavement is one of my clinical specialties. This is a very condensed version of what you need to know if you or someone you care about is grieving:
- Generally, it takes about 24 months to regain emotional equilibrium from a loved one’s sudden death. This doesn’t mean ‘healed’ – it means you can begin to function with a relative sense of normalcy.
- Sudden death typically is a more complicated type of grief to navigate. This means, the process is amplified and extended vs. anticipatory death.
- Get support. Identify support groups in your area and go, or if you’re not a group person, get a therapist who specializes in bereavement. Call a local hospice for suggestions of locations and therapists. People erroneously assume that family members can support them – unlikely. Family members have their own emotional work to do.
- Allow yourself to grieve! You cannot outrun, anesthetize, or forget your pain. I tried. Grief will haunt you in very insidious ways. You’ve got to work it, work it, work it. Be conscious of your pain; acknowledge how this loss impacts every aspect of your being. Allow yourself a set aside time to process, then it’s OK to put it mentally away for a short period. The grieving process is like a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself.
- Suicidal thoughts are normal and especially peak around the 9 month post incident point. It’s a very predictable pattern. Don’t try to handle these powerful emotions by yourself. Tell a trusted friend and get help!
- Engage in comforting rituals. Plant a tree, talk aloud to your loved one, create photo albums, celebrate their life in whatever ways feel meaningful. I baked my brother his favorite birthday cake every year. I sloshed around in his grey leather dock-siders for months – even though they were too big, I loved seeing where his feet molded the worn leather.
- Ambivalent feelings are normal. You will experience idolizing your loved one to being very angry with them. This is so normal. Don’t wallow in guilt if you (eventually) feel pissed off at them for dying. You’re normal.
- Eliminate Emotional Parasites. If there are people in your life that drain you, e.g. emotional vampires – disengage from them. This may be a permanent change or temporary. Honor your feelings. Grief takes exhorbanant amounts of emotional energy. Don’t allow someone to parasitically feed off of you. Protect your energy supply.
The above are overly brief suggestions from my unfinished manuscript on grief. If you have questions, please leave me a vm at: 678-884-0524. Don’t suffer alone, or try to navigate through the terrain of grief solo – get support!