To go from fear to elation then grief is a kind of torture’
From The Times January 5 2006
IN OUR culture we probably use the word trauma too lightly as we attempt to
compensate for everyday loss of life. It is also true that in mining communities such
as West Virginia the families involved knew what they risked. Mining has always
killed miners and it always will. Death itself is not the problem.
The difficulty in this event is how far the human coping response can stretch before it
snaps. To be told that relatives whom you feared dead are alive only to learn they are
dead after all amounts to torture. The result is double bereavement.
When we fear the worst, although still hoping for the best, we are at least braced. All
our physical senses are on alert. We may label this state high anxiety but at this
stage levels of chemicals such as noradrenaline and cortisol soar to cushion the
impact of shock. The brain clears its deck of everyday mental clutter so that we can
face a true nightmare and begin to interpret the potential consequences.
Receiving good news will naturally reverse these processes. We lower our security
guard because it is metabolically expensive. Mentally, we start to place an ultragloss
on an excitingly rosy future. Literally, we breathe a huge sigh of relief. But to go from
fear to elation to ritual celebration only to have the whole edifice crash down is to be
“battered between two mallets”, as the therapist Alan Jamieson has put it. Here is an
emotional ambush of maximum impact that caused fistfights among those gathered. I
am only surprised that nobody died outright of shock.
It is redolent of the scenes among relatives of those who died on the submarine
Kursk in August 2000 after the Russian authorities had initially reported that all was
well with the boat apart from slight technical problems.
Wives and children were allowed to hope that their men would return, when in truth
all 118 hands were doomed.
The relatives at that time vowed that they could never forgive the cover-up and
dissembling because it really did trivialise human grief.
For officialdom, this became unendurable and some of the widows were forcibly
tranquilised to stop them making trouble.
The emotional consequences in West Virginia now will include a grief anger that will
be unlimited because some of the bloodshed will appear to be on the authorities’
hands. Homicidal rage in a society of gun owners is a concern.
Modern trauma response avoids any specific debriefing, wisely waiting instead to see
who might need professional counselling or psychotherapy. In the short term, it is
family and friends who offer the key support.
When a community is shattered it is imperative that the authorities establish some
form of truth commission alongside any legal processes to vitiate the fury and grief.
But above all the plight of the potential survivor Randal McCloy Jr must be
considered. If he lives, he will not only have lost colleagues and perhaps his religious
faith but will find himself the target of unappeasable and paradoxical animosity from
parts of the community. Survivor guilt may collide with the envious resentment of the
bereaved. As a survivor, Mr McCloy will prove to be no man to envy.