Families whose loved ones are missing on Malaysian Flight 370 and the Washington mudslide are in a uniquely painful dilemma.
Pauline Boss is a world-renowned expert on the phenomenon she calls "ambiguous loss." The University of Minnesota professor emeritus has been repeatedly called in to help in the aftermath of disasters where people are missing and feared dead.
Boss joined The Daily Circuit to discuss the pain faced by loved ones in such situations. Highlights of that conversation:
To grieve, without a body, seems disloyal
"The people will hold the ambiguity and uncertainty for their lifetime, as many people have in the past — from wars, from genocide, from tsunamis, from floods, earthquakes. They'll never know for sure. We need to have patience with them and give them our empathy. But first we have to understand the nuances of this kind of loss. Which you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. It's a very, very painful kind of suffering. ... The grief is frozen, because when people don't see the body or don't have absolute evidence of death, they feel guilty about grieving. They feel it's disloyal to start grieving until they know for sure. So they are just hanging there, not able to grieve and not able to move forward. They're immobilized."
Families can't 'face facts' without facts
"When someone said early on, 'The families have to face the fact that their loved ones are dead,' that's a stupid statement. And of course it enraged the families ... you can't face the fact if there are no facts. And right now there are no facts. There is no absolute evidence right now of even where the plane is, or where the bodies are. So we need to be more patient with these families ... because they're in a void of information. There isn't any information. We can't say to them, 'It's over, you need closure now.' Even if they find a piece of the airplane, there won't be closure for these families unless they can have the bodies to bury."
People will imagine sightings
"I never, ever contradict families of the missing about their holding onto hope, even if it's 40 years after. The odd thing about having someone missing, and never knowing for sure where they are, is that people tend to imagine, for example, 'They might be on an island somewhere,' or 'I thought I saw them on a crowded street the other day.' This is natural and typical. I never, ever contradict that, because how do I know? Yes, it may be improbable, but ambiguous loss is an irrational loss. So when people react irrationally, that's somewhat symmetrical, there."
Friends should say 'Sorry,' and stop there
"The best thing to say is nothing. Just to be there. Or to say, 'I'm sorry.' Almost everything else will irritate. ... All you can say is, 'I'm sorry, I'm with you,' and that's about it. They need your presence. They need to know that you understand they're in a dilemma. The worst thing to say to them is, 'I'm sorry your loved one is dead.' That would end your friendship."
We don't have to accept loss, just live with it
"'Acceptance,' now, even in ordinary grief and death literature, is no longer accepted — pardon the pun. No one has to accept even the death of a beloved, elderly grandparent. We don't have to accept it, we don't have to like it. We can recognize it and acknowledge it. The new term in the grief literature is to learn to live with the loss and grief, not to get over it. There is no need to get over it. My experience is that people get angry if you talk to them about accepting a loss. There's no need for us to bring that up. And with ambiguous loss, of course, it's multiplied by a thousand."