Re: Dead Bodies & Grieving in PA

Pat Scheib (pscheib@PCT.EDU)
Tue, 30 Jul 1996 11:37:49 -0400

I live a few miles outside of Montoursville, PA and as you have all read,
we lost 16 high school students and 5 chaperones on flight 800. I had
the pleasure of having met some of these students and some of the
grieving parents are friends and colleagues of mine. I wanted to make a
few comments on the body retrieval and media issues posted earlier. I
realize I'm crossing over into psychology and the microsociology here,
but bear with me, maybe I need to vent:

Much of the need to retrieve bodies stems from the family's need for
closure to get on with the grief process. Especially when the victims are
so young and just getting started with their lives, it is difficult for loved
ones to accept that they are suddenly not there. Actually seeing a body
helps shatter the denial stage of grief so that one can move on. Some of
the families here have gone ahead with memorial services for the dead
whose bodies are not yet recovered because they recognized the ritual
would help them and the community grieve.

The sudden death of a loved one especially through an act of violence,
triggers a more complicated type of mourning which is even further
exacerbated if there are a lot of unknowns about how the person died.
Many people here also seem driven to find out the details of exactly how
their friends or family members died -- was it sudden? did they suffer?
were they burned? It could be argued that the truth may not be
comforting to them, but over the years studying parental grief and loss
issues, I am convinced that ambiguity only compounds grief. It's the not
knowing that really gets to you. I facilitated a support group for parents
of missing children several years ago when my own son was missing
(for 4 years) and found that parents whose children had been gone for
a year or more suffered more from not knowing if their kids were alive or
dead. In the case of these flight 800 victims, a confirmation of how the
person died can help bring closure, even if loved ones find out they died
in pain -- its not like these family members aren't already reliving
nightmares of their children dying a horrible death.

The media zoo here has also been very difficult for this area as people
feel they don't have any privacy to grieve. I have long believed that this
society's belief in its "right to know" every detail of every personal
tragedy has definitely gotten out of hand. Yes, media will "immortalize"
these victims and give the families a sense that the whole country
mourns with them, but only until a bigger news story hits. I personally
found the consequences of being in the media spotlight when my son
was found to be very difficult for us. It was alarming when total
strangers would rush up to us in KMart and throw their arms around my
son (we were living in a big city at the time and I was used to being just
another face in the crowd) but the payoff for me was that I had a sense
that the society, as a whole, was supporting me. Ironically, as much as
people here are distressed by the sudden wave of media, this same
area was hit hard by flash flooding in January which damaged or
destroyed hundreds of homes and killed 7 people, and we were all so
angry at the time because the media was so late and inadequate in
reporting the story. Perhaps in our culture, we feel a need for media
coverage of a tragedy to somehow legitimize it.

For those interested in books on grief, Terese A. Rando has several
good ones, including:
Treatment of Complicated Mourning
Parental Loss of a Child

Pat Scheib
Pennsylvania College of Technology