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AARP The Magazine

Living With A Loved One's Disappearance

Whenever loss is laced with uncertainty, achieving closure can be difficult. To overcome it, learn to embrace the unknown

Sarah Bajc photographed at her home in Beijing.  She lost her partner, Philip Wood on Malaysia Airlines flight 370.

Sarah Bajc photographed in Beijing. She lost her partner, Philip Wood, on Malaysia Airlines flight 370. — Mark Leong

The last time Sarah Bajc saw her boyfriend, Philip Wood, the couple were in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, saying goodbye as they always did: with a long hug, a kiss and a promise to see each other again soon.

The plan was for her to go back to Beijing, where she worked as a teacher. He would meet her there in a month, then they'd fly back together to Malaysia to get married and begin a new life.

On March 8, Bajc (pronounced BAY-jack) sat in her apartment, hitting refresh on a flight-tracker website and waiting for Wood's plane to come in. The flight's status flicked from "Delayed" to "Missing."

"I was like, 'How could that be? Maybe it's just a bad joke or some system glitch,' " says Bajc, 48.

In the subsequent weeks, the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — and the coverage of it that dominated cable news — spun a cycle of rising expectations and cruel letdowns. Each new piece of information, from the data relayed by the plane's transponders to reports of newly discovered debris, set off a fresh wave of speculation about the plane's fate. But to Bajc and others close to the 239 passengers and crew on board, the developments weren't just curiosity-feeding news flashes — they were causes for hope and despair, joy and anguish, day in and day out.

"Every time they sight debris, your heart just drops into your stomach," Bajc says in late May. She's sitting in a cafe in Beijing's Lido neighborhood, near the hotel where the family members of other missing passengers had until recently been staying. "The first one or two, it was like, 'OK, it was a crash.' Then you wait for the confirmation, and it doesn't come, and you kind of level yourself off a little bit. A day later, there's another one. It's been going now for eight weeks. Peter has cried wolf about a hundred times."

Bajc was locked in a kind of emotional limbo: Wood was neither alive nor dead; he was just gone. "You grieve for them not being there," Bajc says, "but you can't really grieve for them because you don't know that they're dead." Instead of going through the sequence of five steps famously theorized by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — "all those phases happen on an hourly basis," Bajc says. "It's exhausting. I waver between being sad and frustrated and just incredibly pissed off."

The search itself has only fueled her anger. After the plane's disappearance, Bajc emerged as the English-language-media spokesperson for the families, most of whom are Chinese. She then became a familiar face on CNN, where she's been a vocal critic of the investigation. She also posts updates on her personal Facebook page, as well as a community page she created called "Finding Philip Wood." There she urges on supporters, delves into the details of the search effort and sometime writes notes addressed directly to Wood, 50. "Each night I say goodnight to your soul on the pillow next to me," she wrote three days after the flight disappeared. "Can you hear me? Please please please come home baby."

As the daughter of a grief counselor, Bajc knows the term "denial." But that's not what's happening with her, she explains. "I'm fully prepared that we may never find anything," Bajc says. Her advocacy is simply "a way of coping. Partly it keeps me busy; partly I want the truth. There's a mystery to be solved here, and until we understand what happened, I don't know that I can accept that he's gone."

There's a term for this state of frozen grief: "Ambiguous loss" can occur when someone disappears, either physically or psychologically. The situation might come about because of a natural disaster, in which it can be difficult to tally or recover the dead, or from human-caused catastrophes, such as wars or mass kidnappings. Other losses are triggered by more mundane but no less traumatic life events — a parent vanishes after a divorce, a relationship with a friend ruptures, a spouse descends into dementia.

Pauline Boss, a family therapist and professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, coined the term in the early 1970s. While studying troubled families in graduate school, she wrote a paper on "psychological father absence" in families with fathers who were "there, but not there" — physically present but emotionally distant. After presenting the paper at a conference in 1973, she was approached by a pair of therapists who were working with families of servicemen missing in action (MIA) in Southeast Asia. These fathers were essentially the reverse of Boss' absent dads: physically absent but still psychologically present. As the therapists told Boss, " 'You have a theory with no data, and we have data with no theory,' " she says.

From her subsequent research grew the underlying premise of ambiguous-loss theory: Both types of disappearance trigger a kind of stressful, unresolved emotional state that is distinct from traditional grief. Critically, it's often resistant to the usual therapeutic treatment regimen — one-on-one therapy with a grief counselor or psychologist. Instead, the path to healing involves negotiating an uneasy rapprochement with the unanswered questions that such loss leaves in its wake. "You can't use grief therapy with ambiguous loss," Boss says, "because there's nothing wrong with the person. There's something wrong with the situation itself."

Next page: Missing in action. »

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