Understanding the Five Stages of Grief through MH370

When the word “delay” flashed across the screens at the arrival hall for MH370, nobody batted an eyelash. Flight delays were annoying, sure, but nothing out of the ordinary.

However, as the delay dragged on and on, messages soon leaked out telling Malaysia that the flight could not be found.

On the first day, emotions lingered between anxiety and hope. Okay. The plane was missing, but nobody has found it yet, so it also means that it hasn’t crashed. But the authorities had not released any official information, and everything was based on hearsay. Family members clamored for any sort of news and eventually made their way online where conflicting information were scattered all over Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the media.

Nobody could pinpoint for sure what is happening, or what has happened, and the uncertainty became the first in a roller coaster of emotions.

First Stage of Grief: Denial and Isolation

  • When families of those on board MH370 first discovered that the plane was missing, the first thing they did was to deny the reality of the situation.
  • At this stage, the families try to rationalise the overwhelming emotions. The defense mechanism buffers the immediate shock.
  • Everyone is still praying and hoping for the safety of the passengers of MH370, while blocking out negative possibilities and hiding from the facts.
  • This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.
  • Malaysia Airlines tried to minimise reports and unreliable announcements. All information needed to be verified for its validity and reliability so that they do not provide any misleading information to family members. In fact, the more information the family members obtained, the higher the level of anxiety and depression.
  • Reactions to such crisis vary considerably from person to person. Symptoms and reaction times are different for each individual. As the result, different family reacts to missing of MH370 differently.

Second Stage of Grief: Anger

The emotions of family members shifted from denial and isolation to anger when the reality and its pain re-emerged.

“Why isn’t Malaysia Airlines disclosing the facts?! What are they trying to hide?” Abuse was flung at MAS and the Malaysian government as it had become the target and reflection of the anger within. Anger could also have been directed at the passengers.

The family could’ve thought, “I have told you not to follow the trip. Why did you not listen to my advice?”, or even “I have asked you to come back earlier, why did you stay for those extra days?!”

Of course, rationally, the family knows that the passenger is not at blame. Emotionally, however, they may resent the person for causing them pain or leaving them. After some deep reflection, the family member would feel guilty for being angry, which could lead to even more anger.

As a result, Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian government which were unable to find the missing flight makes a convenient target.  Everyone – the families, the government, and even those of us linked directly or indirectly to this situation have felt sad. It’s this fundamental connectedness that influences everyone’s emotions.

At this point, Malaysia Airlines has taken several initiatives to comfort the family members by giving them extra time or to explain just once more the details of the latest development of MH370. The department is taking all initiatives to provide answers to the family members the latest information and latest development of the investigation.

Third Stage of Grief: Bargaining

At this point, family members of the missing passengers are racked with feelings of helplessness and vulnerability, and a normal reaction to that is the need to regain control.

A wife might think (towards her husband), “If only you had safely reached home, I would take care of you better”.

A son might think (towards his parents), “If only you are back, I would spend more time with you instead of my friends”.

A boss might think (towards his employees), “If only you come back, I would double up your salary”.

Secretly, we may make a deal with God or our higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable. People around the world started to pray for MH370 regardless of ethnicity and religion. Everyone hopes they could come back home safely. This is a weaker line of defense to protect us from the painful reality.

Fourth Stage of Grief: Depression


During the next stage, family member undergo depression in two extents. Firstly, the depression due to the loss of a family member or loved one. This emotion is a mixture of sadness and regret, with regret predominating. Some parents may have started to worry about their financial support without their child. This phase may be eased by simple clarification and reassurance. With insurance coverage and financial assistance, they could overcome this emotion. However, the second type of depression is more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate and to bid our loved one farewell, sometimes all we really need is a hug.

Final Stage of Grief: Acceptance

Death is perhaps one of the most difficult things to accept. Sudden death is far exceeds our ability to control our emotions. But after working their way through the different stages of grief, family members will start to search for calmness and withdrawal. The acceptance is not necessarily a mark of bravery but realisation that it makes little sense to resist the inevitable and to deny ourselves the opportunity to make our peace.

Throughout a person’s lifetime, he or she may return to some of the earlier stages of grief, such as depression or anger. Because there are no rules or time limit to the grieving process, each individual’s healing process will be different.


Have you been through a death of a loved one as well? How did you deal with it? Share with us in the comments below or on our Facebook page.


Edited by: The HealthWorks Team
Contributed by Dr. Leow Chee Seng

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