Counselors in Haltern are helping friends and families of the A320 passengers overcome the loss of their 16 students and two teachers. But how far can psychological help relieve the pain of the victims' families?
Residents of Haltern are numb with shock and grief after news came that 16 students and two teachers of the Josef König HIgh School died after a Germanwings A320 passenger jet crashed in southern France on Tuesday. The students were returning to Germany from a week-long language learning trip in Barcelona when disaster struck. Their plane, an Airbus A320, slammed into a mountainside in the Alps and disintegrated.
A German emergency psychological guidance team says reactions to such occurrences include helplessness, fear, depression, feelings of guilt, loss of orientation and the incapability to undertake daily activities. Counselors of the St. Sixtus church in Haltern, for example, are now talking to families and friends of the children who died in the tragedy.
Many at the school just cannot comprehend why this disaster occurred. A member of Haltern's Facebook page writes, "RIP, feeling shocked." A resident asks, "Why????"
"The first reaction is a state of shock or disbelief," says Dr. Aruna Broota, a clinical psychologist from New Delhi, who treated victims of the Air India hostage crisis in 1999, when the Taliban diverted a plane to the Afghan city of Kandahar.
"You want to watch the news again and again. It may be true, it may not be true…There is trauma, there is shock, and there is denial, " the psychologist says. In many cases, if there is a lack of warmth from family members, counseling becomes extremely important to provide some kind of support to the victims' relatives, Broota stressed.
Support for traumatic experiences
"We were many yesterday, today we are alone," says a placard at Haltern high school. Students and teachers of the school gathered again on Wednesday, but classes have been suspended for the next couple of days. Mayor Bodo Klimpel has said everyone would get a chance to release their feelings about the tragedy.
Families who have lost their loved ones in such a crisis need to be treated in different ways, psychologist Broota says, unlike those who have lost their relatives in natural circumstances, like old age. "When you face an accident which has taken a life prematurely, then you have to use techniques for stress management."
Broota uses breathing exercises which help people relax and let out their feelings of grief. "Some cry, some sob and some break down bitterly," but there also are personalities which may not talk and display body language that conveys that these persons have lost everything, she says. In such cases, psychologists have to argue with their patients and help them find support among friends.
'Life has to go on'
The steps in front of the Haltern school have been decorated with wreaths and candles. Meanwhile, friends and neighbors in and around Haltern have been generous in helping those affected by the crash.
Everyone is now waiting for the debris to be cleared and the remains of the bodies to be brought home. That could take days, due to the mountainous terrain at the accident site. Haltern residents have begun collecting money for arranging funerals for the victims on the town's Facebook page.
A relative of a victim writes: "Hello and good morning to all those who want to donate money for the funeral of victims who died in the air crash in southern France…Thank you for the loving words."
How long will it take for Haltern's families to overcoem their grief? Broota says, "It depends on the relationship and the personality. If you are prone to depression you may need support for a longer time, but if you are balanced, the intensity lowers after three to four months. Life has to go on."
But, right now, that point seems so far away.