When grief gets no respite

By Andrew Stone

Loved ones of those on board Flight MH370 have to come to terms with their grief with no bodies to mourn. Andrew Stone looks at how to let go of someone when there is no tangible proof that they're gone.

Paul and Danica Weeks pictured with their two children. Photo / Weeks family
Paul and Danica Weeks pictured with their two children. Photo / Weeks family

"At least we know where our men are," says West Coaster Bernie Monk. "Danica's got nothing."

Mr Monk, whose son Michael was among the 29 miners killed in the Pike River explosion, was reflecting on the agony expressed by Danica Weeks over the fate of her husband Paul, a passenger on missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

The mother of two told the Weekend Herald that she could not properly grieve for her "soul mate" because she had no idea what had happened to the aircraft and, more crucially, no body to give her closure and allow the grieving process to start.

Mr Monk said he recognised the roller coaster of emotions that had rocked Mrs Weeks in the drawn-out days since the aircraft vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board.

She talked of confusion, fear, anger and, above all, loneliness over being completely in the dark over the fate of her Christchurch-raised husband.

"The pain is never far from the surface," Mr Monk said. "But we have seen pictures of two bodies in the mine, so we have a focus. Knowing that has kept us strong."

Psychologists who study grief and bereavement call the trauma experienced by Mrs Weeks "ambiguous loss". Behind this notion is the conflicting idea of someone being physically absent but psychologically present. It has been applied to families searching without success for someone who has gone missing or in the catastrophic circumstances of Flight MH370, where the occupants of an entire aircraft have vanished without any clear idea what happened to them.

As Mrs Weeks put it, she could not think of her husband Paul as dead or gone until she had proof. "It is still not final for me. I don't have anything concrete."

A relatively new field of research, the concept of ambiguous loss gathered momentum after the September 11 attacks in New York in 2001 as a response to widespread anxiety and grief experienced by families affected by the terror strikes on the Twin Towers.

In the unresolved trauma that gripped the United States, therapists dealt with bereaved families whose lives had been put on hold because they had no body to mourn, no way to get closure, no rituals that could assuage grief and no verification of death.

Chris Bowden, a Victoria University psychology lecturer, said it was an important element in the grieving process of many cultures for families to see or view a body before they could start letting go. By seeing the body, it meant loved ones could begin to alter their perception of the person who had died, and to begin to psychologically "let go".

Families affected by ambiguous loss tended to cling to the idea that the person missing from their life could still walk back through the door.

"They know they need to accept their loved one has gone, but at the same time they want to hang on to that hope that there's a chance, even if it's a minute or an impossible chance, that their loved one is somehow still alive," Mr Bowden said. "I think that's what makes it so much more difficult to deal with than a confirmed death."

In Western culture, dying was associated with rituals that honoured the dead, which gave approval for mourning. But when the loved one was missing, when there was no place of remembrance such as the site of death, then grief was especially hard, and could result in confusion, distress, guilt or helplessness.

Mr Bowden said the troubling sense attached to ambiguous loss compared with feelings attached to anticipatory grief, where those close to a gravely ill person were prepared for death. The distress felt could still be difficult, sad and unsettling, but not necessarily overwhelming or extremely hard to move on from.

Theories about grief suggest people negotiate death and loss, so making sense of what occurs when someone close to them dies is part of their resolution of dealing with the trauma. But when it was impossible to understand what had happened, emotions could become frozen and family life for those left behind could be plunged into turmoil which was hard to escape.

Mr Bowden thought Mrs Weeks appeared to be managing the impact on her young children with care and sensitivity by telling her 3-year-old son Lincoln that his father loved him and would be watching over him. This was in line with the theory of continuing bonds, as research suggested that some people needed to have a continuing attachment to a person after their death.

"With children you need to be honest but at the same time not cause stress or anxiety. If you leave it up to them they will often fill in the gaps themselves. They might blame the parent, or themselves."

Children learned to grieve from the adults around them.

"So if adults shut them out by not showing emotion in order to protect the kids, they could end up doing more harm than good," Mr Bowden said.

Clinical psychologist Sarb Johal of Massey University, whose specialty is disaster mental health, said Mrs Weeks and her children would need support for a long time. It was important that she was not pushed to accept that the time for grieving was over as it was normal for her to feel ambivalent about the fate of her husband.

The family would need to be ready for constant reminders of the plane mystery, as anniversaries rolled around or an event pushed the airline back into the headlines, as happened this week with speculation that the aircraft could have crashed in the Bay of Bengal, thousands of kilometres from the search area.

Dr Johal said the family would need to be aware that the ambiguity was a major stressor, and would have to set up mechanisms to understand how they would cope with it. "For example, remembering the psychological presence of the missed loved one, even though they may not be with them physically can bring comfort as well as pain — but it will be hard."

The Massey academic, who helped draw up guidelines for psychosocial help after the Christchurch earthquakes, said it was important to let families choose how they might want to be supported, and who by.

"You can't force the acceptance of a scenario that their loved ones may be lost forever. People will come to accept their chosen scenario in their own time, but it will take a lot of processing to get there."

He suggested dealing with guilt would be a challenge, as there was a natural tendency for people to feel responsible for events that affected those close to them, even though it had nothing to do with them. "Making sure that families understand that they are not at fault can be a lengthy process."

Beyond those challenges, living with ambiguity could last for years, if not decades. "The critical part is being able to reflect on what this means for them, and how the ambiguity shapes their lives, and how they may also wish to limit the effects it has upon them."

Mr Monk said the Pike River families retained tight links, which he felt had helped them but the sorrow of their loss was never far away. Two weeks ago the families watched a DVD on mine safety called Pike River: A Failure to Learn.

"Everyone had tears welling up. It was emotional viewing but we know once we get our guys home there'll be a big change."

As part of his work, Mr Bowden spends time with a group who all have lost people through suicide. He said: "They talk about it as a club that no one would want to belong to but there's comfort in knowing you're not alone."


Missing persons

Each year, police get more than 8,000 reports about missing people.

Most are cleared up within a fortnight. Usually it just takes a day or so.

But 350 New Zealanders have been missing for more than a year, leaving their families and friends anxious, frustrated, fearful, guilty and helpless as to their whereabouts and their fate — feelings of ambiguous loss.

The emotional impact can be profound and persistent.

One family approached for this story, whose son was lost at sea 25 years ago, declined to talk about it. They discussed the Herald's request before responding, but a quarter of a century on, they could not bring themselves to discuss it: "It's like bringing up all the heartache again."


Where to find help

Skylight

Lifeline

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- NZ Herald

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