Coping with traumatic, unjust loss

Understanding the long-term impact of the Westray Mine explosion

Mother’s Day is usually a joyful celebration. Not so in 1992, however, for the families of 26 miners employed at the Westray coal mine in Plymouth, Nova Scotia. At 5:18 a.m. on May 9, a methane gas explosion killed everyone working underground that morning.

Since 2000, Chris Davis (a professor in Carleton University’s Department of Psychology) has been researching the effects of the event. In partnership with sociologist Norine Verberg of St. Francis Xavier University, he has studied the experiences of the Westray families in order to understand how people grow in response to a traumatic loss that they believe to be unjust. The results of their work are to be published this year in the journal Death Studies.

As Davis explains, although many studies have been conducted on grieving people, the loss experienced by family members of the fallen Westray miners is unique. “This traumatic loss has been complicated by the senselessness of the event, the belief that justice has been denied, and the betrayal felt by many of the family members.”

The aftermath of the disaster is well documented. The response from the parent company (Curragh Resources) and the Government of Nova Scotia was that the explosion was an accident. This explanation outraged family members of the deceased. Their loved ones had openly criticized the dangerous conditions underground and had even reported the company to the provincial Department of Labour. The families argued that the explosion was entirely foreseeable and preventable–that it was a case of criminal negligence.

Quickly close relatives of the dead miners formed the Westray Families Group (WFG) to honour their loved ones and seek justice. “We didn’t know each other before this happened but it was obvious that there would be court action and we believed that we would be stronger as a group,” explains Allen Martin, a founding member of the WFG whose brother Glenn died in the explosion.

A highly publicized public inquiry, at which some of the families appeared, concluded that specific corporate and government officials had been negligent. Unfortunately, after a series of mishandled criminal prosecutions and despite the findings of the inquiry, no one was ever held accountable for the 26 deaths.

Davis points out that the entire experience has been an ordeal for the Westray families but, “they have shown remarkable resilience. I wanted to know how they managed to pick up the pieces of their lives, because this is often the hardest thing that grieving people must do.”

The study was based on the premise that some people cope well because they experience personal growth as a result of struggling to make sense of a traumatic event that violates their core values. The 52 participants were all members of the WFG.

Davis started collecting the data in 2000 and planned to do the final analysis when he arrived at Carleton in 2001. “But I couldn’t. The story had overtaken my objectivity and I needed some distance.” Plus, he was still looking for a new way to adequately quantify the participants’ responses so that their experiences could be compared.

By 2005, however, Davis and Verberg were able to develop their analysis with colleague Michael A. Wohl, who is also a psychology professor at Carleton. Wohl proposed a method that first qualitatively coded the interviewees’ narratives into themes and then used quantitative clustering techniques to establish similar groups.

The study confirmed that how participants coped with the loss depended, in part, upon whether they could make any sense of the tragedy and grow as a result of this process. Almost half the participants reported that they had found some meaning in what had happened. As a result, they felt stronger and believed that the tragedy had had a positive social impact such as causing changes to be made to public policy. Others, however, found no meaning in the tragedy and not only saw the world as a profoundly unjust place but also thought that nothing good had come out of the disaster.

Although the sample size is small, Davis believes that the results still shed light on how people cope with losses that are perceived to be unfair. “Those who have done well have made something good out of something bad. Those who have not done so well are still struggling to understand what happened and why their loved one had to die.”

Verberg agrees and is focusing her current research on the connection between the long-term adjustment of the WFG members and their social activism.

“These families pulled together at a time when the justice system failed them. By understanding why they were able to do so, it will be possible to understand further how families who have experienced an unjust tragedy can shape social memory and reform social policy.”

According to Allen Martin, being part of the study has been beneficial because it allowed both him and his wife Debbie to further process an experience that has been “a real eye opener–no one should have to start cold as we did. But although we still have unfinished business, I hope that we have been able to help others.”

This entry was written by Martha Attridge Bufton and posted in the issue. Tags applied to this article are: , . Leave a comment, bookmark the permalink or share the following short URL for this article via social media:

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