The Washington Post

The MH370 text: What it says about grief, and communication, in 2014

A relative of passengers on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is taken away by medical personnel after being told the news that the plane plunged into the Indian Ocean. (AFP PHOTO /Goh Chai Hin)

The Internet reacted very strongly over news this afternoon that some relatives of the MH370 passengers were texted the news of the plane’s presumed crash in the Indian Ocean — not called or told in person, as basic respect would presumably dictate.

“Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived,” the text reads. “As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minister, we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.”

This, the airline has clarified, was a bit of a false alarm; relatives were notified by text message in addition to calls and meetings. But that fateful text still ignited a surprisingly vehement debate. On one hand, critics argue, texts sacrifice humanity on behalf of practicality. On the other, supporters parry, this is 2014: 22 percent of young Americans end relationships by text. Wouldn’t you rather get bad news electronically? Do you want a stranger to witness your grief?

It’s a debate, essentially, over more than just the etiquette of breaking bad news — or even the psychology of bereavement and mourning. We’re talking about how delicate interpersonal relationships are mediated by technology. Can a text message express compassion? Do our digital ties really bind us? Does tragedy demand a return to older, more intimate modes of communication — even though we so commonly communicate things, even very personal, serious things, by text message these days?

“We’re just swimming in social media now,” said Tom Golden, a Gaithersburg-based psychotherapist who has written extensively on grief and bereavement. “It’s hard to pull away from that … but I think it’s awful.”

Grieving is a complicated and culturally varied process, Golden explains. There are no prescriptions; there is not, contrary many pop psychology articles, any “right way” to break bad news. But the factor that trumps all others, in terms of psychological recovery, is the suddenness of the loss — and the best therapy is developing what Golden calls a “story” about the death, an explanation for the bereaved to tell themselves and others. (“She was in the hospital for six weeks,” or “the plane had such-and-such mechanical problem.”)

That makes the case of Flight 370 — whose loss was both shocking and unexpected — especially difficult to bear, Golden said. In the absence of a clear narrative, the mind has a way of inventing possibilities “like an eight-ball” — imagining a different fate for their loved ones with every shake.

“These people have no story to tell,” Golden said. “That complicates the grief tremendously. They’re living in chaos right now.”

Text messages and e-mails aren’t inherently evil, Golden adds; he hesitates to make any clinical distinctions between a text notification and an in-person one. But he says a text, in its brevity and abstractness, doesn’t make any sense of the chaos people are suffering.

“I would send someone in person, no matter how long it took,” he said. “There’s something about having someone there, even a stranger — it gives a sense of stability and safety. And these people are in the midst of feeling perhaps the most unsafe they’ve felt in their lives.

It all comes back to the narrative-making. The answer-searching. “They need someone there to tell them a story,” Golden said.

But perhaps that’s the exact problem of Flight 370: There’s still no story to tell.

Caitlin Dewey is The Post’s digital culture critic. Follow her on Twitter @caitlindewey or subscribe to her daily newsletter on all things Internet. (



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