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The “Lucky” Ones


Seventeen days — that was how long it took the families of the passengers on board flight MH370 to find out that the plane, which vanished from radar on March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, had crashed in the Indian Ocean in the remote waters off Australia’s west coast.

For the Austin, Texas-based company Freescale Semiconductor Inc., this incident is personal. Twenty of its employees — 12 from Malaysia and eight from China — were on the ill-fated plane. The crushing conclusion has extinguished hopes of finding any survivors, which the company has been embracing by wearing orange ribbons as a symbol of hope while the search was underway.

As the international search-and-recovery effort enters a new phase, a different kind of journey deep in the souls of the families, friends and co-workers of those on the flight has barely begun. For many people, survivor guilt is real — regardless of whether that mental condition is a result of surviving layoffs in tough economic times or being the lucky one who got away while a colleague did not in a workplace accident.

Lucky — that is precisely the cornerstone of survivor guilt — the burden of being the one who got out alive by sheer chance. It stings when life and death seem to be determined in such a random, cavalier fashion; a baggage that those who unfortunately “got lucky” had to carry with them for a long time.

Survivor guilt, characterized by a deep sense of remorse for surviving a catastrophe that took the lives of many others, was first noted in the 1960s among Holocaust survivors. Listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a significant symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, the condition derives in part from a feeling that one did not do enough to save the others who perished and in part from feelings of being less worthy than those who died.

This condition can arise in combat soldiers, law enforcers who witnessed the death of a fellow officer while on duty or employees who have seen a fatal workplace accident. Nightmares, flashbacks, angst, increased irritability, disrupted relationships and even inclinations to hurt oneself are among the associated symptoms.

G.R.I.E.F., or Guided Response, Intervention and Evaluation for Fatalities, is a pocket response guide that outlines a six-phase plan to help an organization’s employees recover from a traumatic workplace incident. The first three phases involve finding out what actually happened, conducting debriefings to allow employees to share their feelings, and letting them express reactive feelings during the debriefing process. Clinical symptoms pertaining to employees’ emotional, cognitive, behavioural and physical states are likely to emerge during the fourth phase, before progressing to the fifth stage of dealing with the trauma cognitively instead of emotionally. In the final phase of readjustment or recovery, employees should be able to summarize the critical incident and determine an action plan for moving on.

Cantor Fitzgerald’s chief executive officer Howard Lutnick, who was delayed from getting to work on time the day when the Twin Towers fell and killed 68 per cent of the staff at the financial services firm located on the 101st to 105th floors of the World Trade Center, has this to say when people call him lucky: “If luck is defined by I get to live, but all my friends, my brother and everyone gets killed, that’s a very strange sort of luck.”

Strange as it may be, it is a privilege to be alive. And while we may never understand why some people got lucky while others did not, the only thing we can do is move on, live well and do justice to the luck that we have all been given.