UK United Kingdom

Coping with the trauma of missing flight MH370

It’s been ten days since missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The search is continuing over a wide area, with Australia now taking the lead over the…

A child looks on at Kuala Lumpur International Airport as the wait and search for the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 flight continues. AAP/Newzulu/Safiyan Salim

It’s been ten days since missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The search is continuing over a wide area, with Australia now taking the lead over the Indian Ocean.

But nearly everyone is asking the same two questions:

  1. where is the plane?
  2. more importantly, what has happened to the 239 passengers and crew – children, women and men – that were on it?

From the international search effort and investigation so far there are some things known but we may not find out the answer to these two questions – at least not in the very near future.

So where does this leave the families and friends of all the people on board? How do they continue to get through each day not knowing what happened?

Effects of trauma

We know that people experience the impact of trauma when they are confronted with an event that threatens their own life, or the life of a loved one.

A relative of missing passenger Firman Chandra Siregar holds a picture of him as she waits for the news of the missing plane at the family house in Medan, Indonesia. EPA/Dedi Sahputra

Some traumatic events happen suddenly (such as the missing flight) and are totally unexpected in an otherwise normal life.

Other traumatic events can be prolonged and cumulative, in that they can be a series of events that take place over a period of time (such is the case in domestic violence).

There is little precedent for this latest event with MH370 missing for so long, so in considering how people are coping, we must turn to some literature on what friends and families go through when a loved one is missing.

The trauma of losing a loved one, or friend, in the unique circumstances surrounding this flight can bring complex and protracted reactions. Friends and family are likely to be experiencing a range of emotions, including shock, despair, anger, frustration and hope.

Emotionally ‘frozen in time’

The traumatic experience of this is likely to be further heightened by feelings of powerlessness and helplessness and having no control over the event, and no ability to join in the search for their loved one.

An emotional time for family members of the those lost on board missing flight MH370. EPA/Ahmad Yusni

Families and friends are not only dealing with the trauma of their loved one not being with them, but also the trauma of the unknown – their whereabouts, or what has happened to them.

Given the uncertainty of what exactly has happened to the flight, many family and friends are likely to be feeling some hope that they will see their loved one again. This has happened in some previous air crash disasters such as the 14 who survived for more than two months after their plane crashed in the Argentine Andes in October 1972.

Without closure, some people will hold on to this hope for years to come.

But it is the nature of an ambiguous loss such as this, the feelings of not knowing what happened and holding hope, that can keep families frozen in time, unable to move forward and grieve.

At the moment those families are only able to consider what happened yesterday, what is happening right now and what may happen tomorrow. Further planning without their loved one is likely to seem incomprehensible.

The commonalities of the experience of grief crosses countries and cultures. Individual cultures may have different supports, rituals and ways of dealing with grief, but the enduring feelings of loss will be present for all.

Widespread search, global media coverage

The disappearance of the flight has generated masses of media coverage with some information known and released by the airline – and much speculation on what could have happened.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak © and government officials update the media on the latest details on the missing flight MH370. EPA/Mak Remissa

Many people will be checking the media each day to find out the latest developments in the search for this plane. For those with friends and families on board, it will be difficult for them to focus on anything other than the disappearance and the ongoing investigation.

And with so much global media coverage, it will seem impossible for them to engage in the other activities that often protect people from the full impact of trauma, including:

  • returning to the normal routines and rhythms of life
  • seeking support and talking about the strong emotions connected to the trauma
  • and starting to think about rebuilding their lives.

Community effects

Beyond the immediate family and friends of those missing, the disappearance of flight MH370 affects us all in some way.

Days after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and people continue to write encouraging messages on display at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. AAP/Newzulu/Zaki Zulfadhli

It has been well documented that watching, or being engaged with, a significant amount of media coverage of traumatic events can bring about distress and anxiety in those who are not otherwise connected to the event.

This can be particularly true for people who have experienced other traumatic events themselves, those with mental health difficulties and in children and young people.

Repeated exposure to the traumatic event, as well as exposure to the traumatic reactions of those directly affected, can trigger an overwhelming feeling that the world is not a safe place, one that we may have little control over. This can bring about intense feelings of anxiety that may penetrate our day to day life at home and at work.

For people who have lost someone close to them, the public exposure of grief around this issue may trigger a resurfacing of their own feelings of grief and loss.

For those already vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, there is an increased chance that they will start to sense danger in their own environment. It is essential that these people turn to friends, families and other supports to seek help.

Even for the many of us who are not affected by this event, it is likely to have allowed a niggling doubt in the back of our minds about the safety of the next flight we board.

Articles also by This Author

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

17 Comments sorted by

  1. John Crest

    logged in via email

    Malaysia is now saying that they believe the flight computer was reprogrammed after take off.

    Based on past events, we can therefore safely conclude the flight computer was not reprogrammed after take off.

  2. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    The media should stress that despite the perhaps unique MH370 event, air travel is much safer than driving yourself in your own car. In the months after the 9/11 tragedy in New York the death toll on the roads increased significantly.
    This fact, in itself, would help reduce trauma, perhaps. If an activity (air travel) is safer than driving it must be really unlucky to be involved in an event like MH370, which of course it is.

    1. Allan Gardiner


      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      "The media should stress..."

      Strictly speaking, many people are already stressed quite enough as it is without there being any need of the media to worry itself trying to st_ress'cue anything.

  3. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to Peter Lang

      Apparently the plane was sited over the Maldives. If this is true, how can the info from Satelite be so wrong?

  4. David Pearn


    When exactly did the first search and rescue (SAR) actions take place?
    Did the Vietnam air traffic centre declare an emergency and at what time?
    Did they advise Malaysian control centre of no-coms with the acft and at what time?
    At what time did Malaysia declare an emergency?
    At what time did China activate its SAR responsibilities?
    We're not ALL regional radar centres informed and activated as a FIRST step.
    These actions are minimum steps for ICAO signatory nations.
    None of these questions have been answered from what I have read or seen from televised news conferences.
    Air Traffic Control in the region has much to answer from my perspective.

    1. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to David Pearn

      From my perspective the US and other satellite authorities have the most to answer. The Malaysian Armed Forces spotted a plane on their radar but they could not be certain that it was MH370. However the satellite authorities knew immediately that MH370 was heading west, as we now all know. So why did these satellite watchers let dozens of "assets" waste time- 3 or 4 days looking in the wrong place?

    2. David Pearn


      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Only if they were aware and specifically advised as part of the ICAO
      SAR protocol.
      One has to conclude, in the absence of hard questions asked, that nothing much happened until the aircraft failed to arrive at its destination.
      By that time it was long out of radar range and assumptions were made on where it would be located.
      There will eventually be a detailed report on ATC's performance in this disaster and even that may be disputed in the same way Egypt and US investigated the suicidal behaviour of an Egyptian pilot coming up with divergent opinions as a result of the national carrier's 'loss of face'.

    3. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to David Pearn

      I don't know what ICAO SAR protocol is. Or ATC.

      "Malaysia Airlines issued a media statement at 07:24, one hour after the scheduled arrival of the flight in Beijing, stating that contact with the flight had been lost by Malaysian ATC at 02:40. Malaysia Airlines stated that the government had initiated search and rescue operations. It later emerged that Subang Air Traffic Control had lost contact with the aircraft at 01:22 and notified Malaysia Airlines at 02:40." (Wikipedia)

      In my opinion any satellite operator (NASA? Rolls Royce? CIA?) who had any information when the plane was announced as overdue (7.25 pm US EST) should have said something to prevent assets looking in the wrong place.
      The plane was off the radar but on the satellite tracking system.

    4. Allan Gardiner


      In reply to David Pearn

      And this may not be the very first [or last] time that a Malaysia Airlines aircraft has -- for whatever reason -- flown off course like this.

      Many of Air New Zealand's aircraft going to Antarctica back in the 1970s had for quite some time flown a course that was markedly different from that which they were meant to take, until one of their Flight Captains [Simpson] noticed that something was quite amiss between the coordinates of the McMurdo TACAN navigation beacon [approximately three miles…

      Read more
  5. David Beirman

    Senior Lecturer, Tourism at University of Technology, Sydney

    There is no doubt that the disappearance of this particular flight breaks all the usual scenariois of airline crashes and disappearances. Clearly the lack of an hard evidence over the fate of this flight and its passengers and crew has significantly magnified the trauma for all stakeholders and especially the families of those directly affected. The media's unquenched appetite for speculation has also become an inflammatory element which has added to the trauma of those people most diectly affected.

  6. Tom Fisher

    Editor and Proofreader

    Sorry, but I simply do not subscribe to the "emotionally frozen in time" over-dramatisation. I do not even see such events as so traumatic as being made out by the news sensationalists.

    Night falls and the sun comes up again next morning, there are other people to attend to, families and children to raise, school to attend and work to do, and different people coping in quite different ways with many in a position of help and support quite as much as needing support.

    My objection primarily lies…

    Read more
    1. Tom Fisher

      Editor and Proofreader

      In reply to Tom Fisher

      I must add that there is no evidence the little boy watching the airplanes taking off and landing through the airport window is traumatised in any way, especially on no further justification than that he is a child.

      This appropriation and in the process alienating people as human beings to mobilise some foreign cause, I find thoroughly objectionable.

  7. hopy

    logged in via Twitter

    Event 370 planes, who also worry than 200 times for passengers on the plane and the pilot, ... do not know how things will be? Countries around the area missing aircraft had tried to seek help.
    <a href="">hopy</a>;

  8. David Pearn


    Surely rubbish circulates around the Indian Ocean in the same way it does in others.
    Would it not be accepted that some of it, at the 'perimeter' could be blown by northerlies out of such a circular pattern and the 'sightings' simply be flotsam and jetsam.
    We had been previously told the Southern Ocean was not heavily trafficked by shipping and was thus 'clean'.
    Just a thought.

  9. John Richardson
    John Richardson is a Friend of The Conversation.

    National Coordinator-Preparedness at Australian Red Cross

    An important article, Amanda, helping us understand the nuances of this challenging situation. What is faced here is also faced by families of people who go missing. It is the not knowing that is the challenge, which makes it hard for people to make sense of the situation, and a meaning for it all