Aftermath of MH17 hindering relatives' grieving process: psychologist

Schiphol Airport Amsterdam memorial MH17
Flowers left at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport in honor of the 298 people killed aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. 20 July 2014Roman Boed / Wikimedia Commons

Relatives of MH17 victims who are actively involved in the legal and political aftermath of the disaster, are struggling more with the grieving process than those who pay less attention to it, clinical psychologist Jos de Keijser said in an interview with the Volkskrant.

Working with colleagues from the Universities of Groningen and Utrecht and the Victim Support Fund, De Keijser studied the grieving processes of 173 people who lost loved ones when flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014. The researchers hope that this study will help people cope with the loss of a loved one in future disasters. The conclusions of the research will be presented during a meeting for MH17 relatives in Nieuwegein on Tuesday.

Of the 173 MH17 relatives who participated in the research, 20 percent mourn without additional complications. 80 percent still experienced complex grief almost a year after the disaster and have difficulty dealing with the loss. Of this group, for 15 percent this complex grief was accompanied by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 27 percent also struggled with depression, and 36.4 percent struggled with multiple mental health issues. 

De Keijser described complex grief as mourning that lasts longer than a year on average. "These relatives have an extreme longing for the deceased - so strong that you have to sleep under your child's comforter, go to the cemetery every day or smell the smell of your loved one every day. That you cannot escape", he said to the newspaper. "Other symptoms of complex grief are feelings of emptiness and avoidance. They avoid talking about a person or places, to protect themselves from the pain. And that protection is at the same time maintaining the grief."

The clinical psychologist emphasized that the relatives who mourn without complications are not better than those who are still struggling. Everyone mourns in their own way. "That is a matter of aptitude and character."

From questionnaires and conversations with relatives, De Keijser found that negative reports about the disaster in the media can influence the social functioning of the surviving relatives. The more negatively the media coverage is experienced, the more it affects relatives' lives. Psychologists came to similar conclusions after other attacks, such as the 9/11 attacks in New York. 

The fact that the MH17 disaster has largely disappeared fro the collective Dutch consciousness is another complicating factor for the relatives' mourning. "In the beginning, the relatives were embraced by everyone", De Keijser said. "But the collective compassion after such a traumatic loss ebbs away faster than the grief of the relatives. And with that, often also the understanding of neighbors, colleagues, employers and company doctors. That leads to disappointment, in addition to the grief."

A striking conclusion of the study is that people who lost four or five loved ones in the MH17 disaster, often process the grief more easily than those who lost one loved one. "Mourning does not pile up", De Keijser explained to the Volkskrant. "At a certain point you are full. In professional literature this is called bereavement overload; you are overloaded with sorrow, your working memory is full, you can take no more. Then it is not the case that you first have to process one and then the other deceased. It seems rather that you include the grief for the other at the same time."

De Keijser also noticed that people often do not seek psychological help after a traumatic loss, despite the fact that this has proven effective. "When you are sick, you go to the doctor, but when you are very sad, people think: I must learn to live with it. Or: treatment won't bring my loved one back. While it has been shown that it helps. Grief is inevitable, you need to process it. A psychologist cannot help you get rid of the pain. But can help you with the restrictive circumstances around it."