Parents are still waiting for their children's bodies to be retrieved from the sunken ferry Sewol, getting wearier by the day as they gaze out to sea from Jindo, South Jeolla Province.
Meanwhile, at a funeral home in Ansan south of Seoul, where most of the young victims came from, the brother of a schoolgirl who was killed put lipstick on his sister's lips as he bid her farewell. "I wanted to make her look pretty on her last trip," he said.
A month has passed since the tragic accident. The last 30 days must have been worse than hell for the victims' families. The image of those high school students hunkered down in the cabins of the ferry, obeying the instructions of the ship's crew to sit tight, are impossible to shake.
A few days ago, two parents of victims attempted to take their own lives. Watching their children grow up must have given them great joy, and the realization that they are gone must have been devastating.
Out of 338 students from Danwon High School, 250 are either dead or missing. The surviving students will have a hard time getting over the trauma of losing their friends.
The surviving families now have to live in an entirely different world. They will be tormented by guilt at having been able to do so little to save their children. There is a strong chance that they will suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, whose symptoms can last a lifetime.
Psychologists interviewed 129 survivors of the 2003 Daegu subway arson, and half of them were diagnosed with PTSD. PTSD victims end up shutting themselves off from outside contact and often hurt themselves out of rage, resentment and guilt. They become listless and can grow dependent on alcohol or drugs. The parents need all the help they can get to return to normal life.
The government set up a counseling center in Ansan to help the families deal with the tragedy. One-third were placed in a high-risk group vulnerable to PTSD. One Israeli psychologist who came to Korea to help counsel the victims' families said it is not a good idea to change counselors frequently. The same psychologist should consistently listen to the people they have been put in charge of so that they can continue to express their emotions in a trusting environment. That means more specialists are needed.
The city of New York provided free psychological counseling not only to the victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks but to witnesses as well.
Many families of victims are unable to go back to work. The country must help them continue to make a living. The government started paying emergency living costs for these people on May 8 but only provides around W1 million (US$1=W1,027) for each family of four and for only up to six months.
The Cheonan Foundation, launched in November 2010 with W39.5 billion in donations from the public, gave W500 million to each of the families of the sailors who were killed in the North Korean torpedo attack on the Navy corvette Cheonan earlier that year. The remaining money is being used to give scholarships to the children of the victims or to help the 58 sailors who survived.
The first responsibility for the families of the ferry disaster victims is the government’s, but businesses, hospitals, religious organizations and civic groups must also pitch in. We need to let the surviving families know they are not alone and will not be forgotten. If we fail to share their pain or lend a helping hand, their grief and anger will only grow stronger.