Group Grieving May Help Families Through South Korea Ferry Disaster

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Heart-wrenching photos of families mourning loved ones lost in a South Korean ferry disaster capture what some experts say is a helpful process: group grieving.

At least 25 people are dead and 271 are missing from the sunken ferry, which was carrying 475 people.

PHOTOS: Sadness, Desperation as Ferry Sinks Off South Korea's Coast

More than 300 high school students were among the ferry’s passengers, prompting anger and heartache from crowds of inconsolable parents.

“The more similar the loss, the easier it is to share in a group,” said George Everly, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, Md. “But like most things, it’s a double-edged sword.”

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Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo
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While shared mourning can help families cope with an unfathomable loss, it can also amplify the grieving process, according to Everly.

“Those who share a similar loss can be a remarkable support to one another,” he said. “But in the acute phase, the grieving process can escalate by virtue of the group.”

Photos from the ferry disaster, like photos from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, show families uniting in grief as well as outrage toward the authorities.

“Grieving is helped when there is an efficient and effective flow of information,” said Everly. “Grieving is not helped when there is potential human error that caused the loss.”

The cause of the capsized ferry is still unclear, but Coast Guard officials said the boat’s captain was among the first to escape the doomed vessel.

“I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,” 69-year-old Captain Lee Joon-seok said on Korean television today, his face covered by a gray hoodie.

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Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo
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Relatives of dead students sobbed as ambulances transported bodies from Mokpo, a city near the disaster, to Ansan, a satellite city of Seoul. Meanwhile, relatives of missing students, desperate for answers and hoping for a miracle, gathered at Danwon High School in Ansan for a candlelight vigil.

“The moment it happens, that loss becomes the center of your life,” said Everly. “A healthy grieving process is one that moves that loss from the center of your life to somewhere else.”

Groups can help with that process by gathering to remember those lost, Everly said, citing support groups for those who lost loved ones in Pan Am Flight 103 –- the Lockerbie disaster.

“They formed a special bond that I think was helpful,” he said. “Grief is better shared, as long as it doesn’t continue to escalate.”

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