Can Money Relieve Grief?

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As it becomes increasingly certain that Malaysian Airline Flight 370 crashed into the southern Indian Ocean after disappearing more than two weeks ago, talk has turned to compensation for families of the missing passengers.

The airline has already given $5,000 of the $176,000 that an international treaty requires it to pay to each family, according to news reports. Lawsuits will likely go after many millions more from both the airline and possibly also from Boeing, which built the plane.

Will that money make any difference for grieving families?

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Cash clearly can't bring loved ones back. But, experts said, financial restitution goes a long way towards helping people cope with traumatic losses -- though in an international case like this, comfort might be tainted by glaring disparities in how much courts in different countries are willing to demand for relatives left behind.

"There is some form of closure that is attained by most families in getting an answer that the legal process can provide them and having an airline or manufacturer accept responsibility by making a compensation payment to recognize the loss," said lawyer Dan Rose of Kreindler & Kreindler, which specializes in aviation accidents. "It's saying,'It was our fault and this is all we can do to make your life better at this point.'"

"Some people want it over with quickly and are more likely to resolve cases like this," he added. "For others, it becomes part of their quest for answers and accountability. They want their day in court to let the world know what happened and that it shouldn't happen again."

When commercial airplanes crash, it is common practice for airlines to give money to relatives of victims who die in the accident. And while some families accept what they get, many end up suing for more on the basis that the airline was negligent and should've prevented the accident from happening.

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Exactly how much money families get after tragedies like this depends on many factors, including the salaries of the deceased, the state or country they came from, and the severity of the negligence, Rose said. For families who are able to take their cases to court in the United States, payouts may reach $5 million or more, Rose said, though laws in some states are more generous than others. In China, compensation could be less than $100,000 per passenger. Malaysia falls somewhere in between.

One rationale for compensation under American law is that it helps families cope with the financial hardship of losing a relative. While grieving, people often need to miss work, arrange travel, and pay for funeral services, among other costs. They lose the income the deceased person would have brought in for the rest of their working lives. On top of all that, there is the ambiguous cost that comes with intense emotional suffering.