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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

The Lost: Living With Ambiguous Loss

Mark Leong

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

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."

Missing in Action

It's been 46 years since Donna Elliott saw her older brother, who disappeared in Vietnam on Jan. 21, 1968. Jerry Elliott, of Greenville, Miss., was 19 when he jumped from the gunner's seat of his helicopter to help survivors of a nearby chopper that had crashed near Khe Sanh. Facing intense fire, Jerry's helicopter lifted off without him. He's one of the more than 1,600 American servicemen and -women still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.

"When I was a kid, I always thought if I could just go back there and walk around, I'd be able to find some clue," says Elliott, 63, from her current home in Pleasant Grove, Ark. Later, after her own military career as an Army Reserve sergeant, she did indeed travel to Vietnam, and to the hillside where her brother was last seen. Like many family members of MIAs, Elliott lost faith in the government's efforts to bring Jerry home. So she tracked down veterans of the firefight that swallowed up her brother, and Vietnamese locals who shared stories of American soldiers buried nearby. Her grasp of his final moments is almost cinematic in its detail — she can see the precise slope of the hillside, the pilot's view of Jerry running in front of the bubble of the chopper. Then the scene goes black. "I've talked to so many survivors, I can pretty well get a picture right up to when he left," she says.

Donna's detective work did help spur investigations by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), which located the remains of an American soldier on the site in 2006. But DNA testing revealed that it wasn't Jerry. Lately, Donna has been urging JPAC to use ground-penetrating radar to search for an underground bunker rumored to be in the area. "I find myself pulled back to this," she says. "Who else is going to look for him if I don't? We know he's probably dead. But where is he? It's terribly frustrating."

This cycle of hope and discouragement, and the pursuit of answers that shades into the pathological, is familiar to the MIA community, which is larger than many recognize. The number of missing soldiers from World War II — more than 70,000 — dwarfs the toll from recent conflicts, and Pauline Boss' research with MIAs in Vietnam has shown that the trauma triggered by all those vanished fathers, brothers and sons is capable of leaping from generation to generation, haunting children and grandchildren with unresolved feelings over loved ones they never knew.

Boss posits that multigenerational ambiguous loss is a phantom force that has shaped American culture, via the reverberations from national traumas such as slavery and the Civil War (where more than a third of the dead were never identified). From this great vanishing comes a strain of our collective character: a can-do, self-reliant people who demand clear-cut answers. "We have a mastery-oriented culture," Boss says, "and we're very uncomfortable with not knowing. Our culture doesn't know how to handle ambiguity. It's really about wanting to be in control."

It's also, to a degree, a failure of narrative — a reluctance to accept story lines that feel unfinished. "We want a period at the end of the sentence," she explains.

For missing-person cases such as Elliott's or Bajc's, resolution may come only after learning to psychologically balance the likelihood of never knowing what happened with the possibility of, just maybe, someday knowing. "They keep two opposing ideas [about their loved ones] in their head at the same time: They're probably dead, but maybe not. That's as close to the truth as they'll ever get," says Boss.

It's not the same, she stresses, as denial. "Denial is denying the facts. This is about adapting to having no facts." And here she drifts closer to existential philosophy: "You have to learn how to live with meaninglessness."

Loved One Lossed in Sept. 11 Terrorist Attacks

For Charles G. Wolf, 60, the quest for meaning after the loss of his wife, Katherine, is complicated by how she died: In the summer of 2001, Katherine Wolf, 40, began a new job at Marsh & McLennan, the insurance firm that filled eight floors atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. On Sept. 11, the first of the four airliners hijacked that morning struck the building right where she and her coworkers would have been sitting.

Wolf has never questioned the certainty of her death itself. "As far as I'm concerned," he says, "those people were vaporized." But he's also been deprived of any physical evidence of his wife's death: Katherine is among the 1,115 victims whose physical remains have never been identified. There is no grave to visit, nothing to put in a columbarium in a niche in the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine on New York's Amsterdam Avenue, where he imagines he'd have her remains interred if they are ever recovered. "The fact that you don't have a body is intermingled with the immense ongoing worldwide publicity about this," he says. "Those two points are inseparable."

Some of the resolution he's sought came with the opening of 9/11 memorials. He's a frequent visitor to both the Marsh & McLennan memorial wall and the one at ground zero, which opened in 2011. "When those things came, it started helping," he says. "Those waterfalls are healing. It's a place you can use to focus on and say, 'Yes, I love you.' "

While the family and friends of missing persons deal with the stress of a loved one whose body disappears, the flip side can be no less traumatizing — the psychological erasure of self that occurs in cases of depression, addiction and particularly degenerative brain conditions such as Alzheimer's disease. This is the second primary type of ambiguous loss, what Boss calls "goodbye without leaving."

Psychological and Emotional Disappearing Acts

Linda Lair's husband, Jim, was 54 when he was diagnosed with Pick's disease, a frontotemporal dementia often signaled by profound personality changes. Over the course of several years, a doting dad and husband was transformed into a sullen and obsessive character. "It was just horrific," recalls Linda, 67, who lives near Minneapolis. "He looked like himself; he sounded like himself. But he didn't act like himself. Jim's lack of empathy — that missing connection was horrible to be without. You felt like you were alone even though he was standing next to you. I can't describe how lonesome that was."

It's an uncanny sensation familiar to many caregivers of dementia sufferers. Making matters worse for Linda was the blurring of her own identity as a wife — a woman who'd grown accustomed to having a fastidious husband keep her car filled with gas had to adjust to life on her own, alone and yet bound to a man who had become unknowable.

Jim Lair survived for several years after entering a care facility; for Linda, relief came when she joined a dementia support group. "The farther I get from his death, the more I go back to the good days, when he was healthy," she says. "I don't want that disease to be how Jim is remembered. I want him to be remembered as the good guy he was."

Surviving the Loss

Living with ambiguous loss, Boss says, is a multistage process. If there's a silver lining in negotiating this path, it's in the positive personal changes that can occur along the way. Having a loving relationship with someone who can't reciprocate our feelings, she notes, is a worthy, if painful exercise: "In the end, we grow from that suffering we experience when our loved ones disappear. It doesn't have to destroy us."

That's what Donna Carnes has learned, seven years after the disappearance of her husband, computer scientist Jim Gray. In January 2007 the 63-year-old Gray, a celebrated figure in the tech industry, left San Francisco on a solo day sail aboard his boat, Tenacious. He was never heard from again. A massive search lasted several weeks. Carnes' determination to find her husband extended to hiring a private team to conduct underwater surveys after the Coast Guard's efforts had been exhausted, and she frequently appeared in the media to urge on the searchers.

When she thinks about her state of mind then, "I blush," says Carnes, 64. It was the culture she and her husband had come from. "I was a Silicon Valley problem solver," she explains. "It was devastating that we couldn't even find a trace of him. We couldn't even get one fact toward the solving of the problem. But it was a great teacher for me. You can't master everything."

It's now been two years since she finished the process to have her husband declared legally dead, a step toward closure she had long resisted — and, on one level, still doesn't fully accept. "I'll probably never know," she concludes. "He could come back any day. But he probably won't."

Meanwhile, life goes on, and other losses mount: Her mother has Alzheimer's; she's lost her father, her dog, other friends and family members. "Normal life trauma," she says. Every day, at some point, she wonders what happened to her husband. In her dreams, she sees a red sailboat, or runs into Jim somewhere crazy — he's at a circus or on a ski slope. Sometimes she wakes up convinced that the dream is real.

"It's made me much more tolerant of all kinds of ambiguity," she says. "I'm not as fearful. I can laugh about my own unknown future. Maybe I'm going to live until 90, and I'll know that Jim had a peaceful death. Wouldn't that be nice?"

Often these days she's asked about what the loved ones of the Flight 370 passengers and crew are going through. She sees in them an echo of her own anguish and rage. "You have to give those families a lot of space," she says. "Those people are just at the beginning of a journey."

Like Sarah Bajc and others who dance, still, with hope, Carnes, too, once insisted that, with time and money and technology, she'd solve her mystery. Today, she isn't sure. And she's made peace with that.

"Now I know," she says, "how big the sea is."

Christopher Beam, a staff writer for the New Republic, lives in Beijing. David Dudley is a features editor for AARP The Magazine.