Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Missing Malaysian plane-How do relatives mourn such an ambiguous loss!


The relatives of passengers on board the missing Malaysian Airlines plane have been told the plane crashed in the ocean, with no survivors. So how hard is it to mourn a missing person?

When flight MH370 went missing, Prahlad Shirsath travelled from his home in North Korea to Beijing and then on to Malaysia as he searched for news of his wife's whereabouts.

Kranti Shirsath, a former chemistry professor and mother of two, was travelling to see her husband who worked at a non-profit organisation in Pyongyang.

When there was no news and the days passed, Shirsath's family called him back to his home country of India, where they could endure the uncertainty together.

This is called an "ambiguous loss", says Pauline Boss, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, who treats people undergoing this unique kind of bereavement. There is no physical proof of death - no body - so people cling to the hope that the missing are still alive.



"People can't begin mourning when there is ambiguous loss - they're frozen," says Boss. "Frequently, society thinks they should be mourning but, in fact, they are stuck in limbo between thinking their loved one might come back and thinking they might not."

This is a kind of suffering that freezes their grief, says the professor, author of Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief.

The latest news that the plane probably crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, with no survivors, is unlikely to release them from this limbo, she says. "There is no closure even if they find definitely that the plane is in the ocean. They still have no body to bury. It will always be ambiguous until remains are found or DNA evidence."

People need to see evidence before they are assured that the death has occurred, says Professor Boss, and without that, grief is frozen and complicated. A more clear-cut death is undoubtedly painful but funeral rituals can take place where there is a body, and family and friends come together to re-affirm that the person has died.

In the absence of a confirmed explanation for what happened, relatives imagine their own outcomes. Before the latest news, Kranti's family, including her 16-year-old son, were inclined towards the one that offered most hope - that the plane was hijacked, a scenario in which it was more likely that Kranti was alive.

"People can't begin mourning when there is ambiguous loss - they're frozen," says Boss. "Frequently, society thinks they should be mourning but, in fact, they are stuck in limbo between thinking their loved one might come back and thinking they might not."

This is a kind of suffering that freezes their grief, says the professor, author of Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief.

The latest news that the plane probably crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, with no survivors, is unlikely to release them from this limbo, she says. "There is no closure even if they find definitely that the plane is in the ocean. They still have no body to bury. It will always be ambiguous until remains are found or DNA evidence."

People need to see evidence before they are assured that the death has occurred, says Professor Boss, and without that, grief is frozen and complicated. A more clear-cut death is undoubtedly painful but funeral rituals can take place where there is a body, and family and friends come together to re-affirm that the person has died.

In the absence of a confirmed explanation for what happened, relatives imagine their own outcomes. Before the latest news, Kranti's family, including her 16-year-old son, were inclined towards the one that offered most hope - that the plane was hijacked, a scenario in which it was more likely that Kranti was alive.


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