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Story highlights

Peggy Drexler: Loved ones of those aboard EgyptAir 804 face a punishing grief

Those grieving in an age of risk must accept - not seek to avoid - fear, she says

Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

As the world waits to learn more about the cause of the crash and disappearance of EgyptAir Flight 804, the friends and families of the passengers on board are facing punishing anguish. EgyptAir Vice Chairman Ahmed Adel told CNN in an exclusive interview with Christiane Amanpour: “Our main concern right now is taking care of the family and friends of those who perished.” And for good reason: It is growing more and more certain that they have all suffered a terrible loss.

Peggy Drexler
Jeremy Freeman
Peggy Drexler

As many of us who have experienced a loss know, the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross five stage grief process offers intellectual structure in the face of emotionally chaotic situations like these. First comes denial: My loved one couldn’t have been on that plane, maybe there are survivors. Then there is anger: Why did this happen to us? Who is responsible, and how can we make them pay?

But as some officials raise the possibility that this disaster may have been an act of terrorism, a kind of anxiety — different from the grief of the families, but deeply profound — reaches into the lives of us all. And here the Kubler-Ross steps just don’t apply. Grief in the age of terrorism looks different. It can take days, or often longer, to know if and what you should be grieving.

10:52 - Source: CNN
EgyptAir VP: Flight 804 checks 'done in good time'

This keeps the families (and to a degree, all of us) in a sort of purgatory of fear and worry, as they grow desperate for information.

The lack of information is often an unfortunate matter of public safety. But it’s also one that has altered the grieving process as we’ve come to understand it.

There is also a particular sort of grief that can spring from the possibility that an attack was terrorism — one that includes fear at all stages. Terrorism is terrifying.

It’s also reality: We are living in an age of fear, where the sorts of headlines of this morning are the new normal. Consider this sampling of the news that found its way to my computer screen in the last few days alone: “A Week of Terror Attacks in Baghdad That Killed Hundreds,” “Southern Charm, Deadly Streets,” and the particularly harrowing, considering the latest events, “Europe’s Top Cop: It’s Almost Certain Terrorists Will Try to Strike Again.” There is good reason, these days, to be afraid.

01:09 - Source: CNN
EgyptAir Flight 804's final moments in 1 minute

So how does one deal with that fear? While the process of grieving in an age of fear may no longer fit neatly into the Kubler-Ross rubric, we should look to her fifth stage: acceptance. That is, learning to live with it. We should accept fear as a daily reality, because the act of resisting it simply produces more of it.

This may seem counterintuitive. It’s certainly tempting to look to the media, and the government, for reassurance or reasons not to be afraid, but such efforts are misguided. When we resist fear, we expend energy trying to prevent the sort of events that cause the fear in the first place. This, in turn, creates a “risk society,” defined as one in which we become obsessed with risks and irrationally focus on predicting and preventing them.

01:26 - Source: CNN
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Existing in a risk society is what’s leading us to raise a generation of anxious kids. It’s also producing a culture in which terrorists continue to terrorize us, even when they’re not.

Instead of trying to anticipate and avoid all risks, our energy, and our grief, may be better directed at learning to live with fear, for as long as we have to, and it may be a while. Grief is unavoidable.

But just as we cannot help but feel grief, we can and should not avoid feeling fear. Fear reminds us that we’re human.

That won’t provide any sort of consolation to the friends and families of the victims aboard EgyptAir 804, whose feelings of loss in the face of disaster are entirely personal. But for the rest of us, learning to accept and live with fear will stop terrorists from taking even more from us than they already have.

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Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.