That last call to loved one
The Washington Post
Flight attendant CeeCee Lyles called her husband from the same doomed jet to say she loved him and their sons.
Brian Sweeney called his wife from another hijacked plane and left a message on the answering machine: "Please be happy. Please live your life. That's an order."
These days, due to the miracle of modern telecommunications — more than 120 million Americans possess wireless phones these days, up from only 340,000 in 1985 — people can call home in the midst of a tragedy to report that they are about to die and deliver one final message to their loved ones.
In the aftermath of Tuesday's terrorist attacks, counselors, psychologists and clergy join ordinary people in pondering some perplexing questions:
In those circumstances, would I want to make that call? Would I want to receive it? Is it better to communicate in those horrible last moments, or does such a call cause more trauma than relief?
"My colleagues and I have had hours of conversations about this in the last two days," says Linda Kovalesky-McLaine, a clinical social worker at the Counseling Center of Fairfax, Va. Several clients from military families have also raised these questions.
"Quite a few have brought it up," she says. "They ask, 'My God, would I want my husband or wife to call?' "
Kovalesky-McLaine has no definitive reply. "I think it would be a different answer for every person."
She and her counseling colleagues agree that the call would be helpful to the person who was making it. "No one disputed that it's good closure for their lives," she says.
"What we struggled with was the people on the other end. Would we want to hear that a loved one was dying and there was nothing we could do about it? It's like watching someone drown and they're out of reach. It could haunt you forever."
"Who would have thought this would ever come up?" says Kurt Jensen, an Ohio-based psychologist who trains Red Cross teams preparing for disasters. "The technologies we develop lead us to moral and ethical and psychological questions that we never expected."
It's not a simple question, Jensen says. "There is no clear answer to whether it's a good idea or a bad idea," he says.
Many people find a deep satisfaction in comforting and saying goodbye to a dying relative, he says: "To be part of that is very special and I would say that something similar would be true when a cell phone is used."
But, he adds, talking to a loved one who is facing an immediate violent death would be very traumatic. "It is shocking to the nervous system and the brain," he says.
"For the person receiving the call, there must be an overwhelming sense of futility and desperation over their lack of ability to do anything," says Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md.
"But knowing that the last message was one of love and concern is something that would hopefully help them to deal with the loss."
"It's a very good thing for the person who is going to die," says psychologist Therese Rando, author of "How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies."
"They're able to make a connection and reach out and touch someone they love... But the flip side is that (the person receiving the call) thinks, 'He knows he's going to die and he can't do anything about it and neither can I.' ... There is a part of us that wants our loved one to have died suddenly without any knowledge. We don't want to think, 'Oh, my God, they were frightened, they saw the plane going down and they were screaming.' "
But enough with the abstract discussion, the careful weighing of pros and cons. If these folks were on a plane headed for certain doom, would they call a loved one to say goodbye?
"I think I'd want to do it," says Kovalesky-McLaine. "I would want to connect with people and tell them how much I love them."
"Assuming my cell phone is working, yes," says Weinblatt. "I would want desperately to call my loved ones and leave them with a message of love."
"You're damn right I'm calling," says Rando. "It might be hard for my family but at least they heard my voice and knew I was thinking of them."