Moving forward: Steps to take when mourning the missing

Everyone has heard the old saying, “Time heals all wounds,” but what if the wound is the result of something potentially unsolvable? Tragedies in which victims disappear without a trace are among the most difficult to bear for those closest to the lost person, and the most challenging for friends, neighbors and family members to understand how best to be supportive.

When Paula saw the newscast about the disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370, she experienced heart palpitations. She knew no one on the flight, but the image of a plane evaporating without a trace brought back her personal experience on September 11, 2001.  She knew that her daughter and five-year old granddaughter were scheduled to fly out of Boston that morning, but when she saw two American Airlines planes crash into the towers, she prayed that they had missed their flight at the last minute. She clung to the notion for as long as she could that they were still in Boston and hadn’t been able to reach her by phone. Paula said, “There’s no way to describe the pain of accepting that someone is gone from your life forever, it was not until they found my daughter’s wallet in the rubble that I knew for sure and could consider the idea that they were really dead.”

Loved ones of soldiers who go missing in action suffer the same sense of disbelief and suspension of reality. A strange silence descends after they are informed that their family member is missing and a fragile thread of hope is nursed by the fact that there is no hard evidence to show that they are “gone forever.” There is no death certificate. Nothing is returned except perhaps personal items left at their base camp. The result is an interruption in the grieving process and a continuing state of high alert takes over. The unearthing of even the flimsiest detail, or lack of details, keeps the fire of hope burning.  When we don’t know for sure if someone is really gone from this earth, it’s normal to stay vigilant and not “let them go.”

This particular state of bereavement, lacking a body to mourn or any clear evidence of death, requires special support and comfort. The reactions and behaviors that have been described as most helpful by people who have endured the excruciating condition of “not knowing” center around support for their need to feel empowered, perhaps participating in the search, and to continue believing in a positive outcome.

To assist with the emotional toll for everyone involved – friends, family and neighbors – here are some suggestions for healing practices:

  • Encourage conversation about the situation, even if it means talking about the same details over and over. It may seem like a futile exercise but speaking and expressing thoughts and fears is very therapeutic for the bereaved person especially if they imagine themselves to be guilty or culpable in any way. You may hear “if only” scenarios expressed again and again. Just listen. They need empathetic companions in this unimaginable landscape.
  • Expect and accept a variety of emotion ranging from calm discussion, to anger, to tears and exasperation. Even in dangerous occupations like deep-sea fishing or open ocean sailing where boats and crew can go missing and are never found, such a disaster is never considered to be “normal and expected.” Family members still need to search for truth, reason and resolution.
  • Support the habit of daily gratitude practice. Asking, “In the midst of all this terrible unknowing, is there anything that you can be grateful for?” can be a bridge for the bereaved to cultivate gratitude practice and focus on their loss in a different way, perhaps allowing themselves to remember positive things. Even small moments of gratefulness each day have been shown to increase well-being and decrease depression and anxiety. Paula, who suffered unimaginable tragedy described above, today ends her telephone answering machine message with, “Make it a grateful day!”
  • Include invitations to participate in light physical exercise in your interaction with the bereaved. Research has shown that even casual walking for a few minutes each day increases the normal body chemicals that control depression and anxiety and can be as effective as antidepressants. The opportunity to “walk and talk” with a compassionate listener is a therapeutic gift for someone suffering a loss.  Such opportunities also help them to fight the urge to isolate and obsess about the situation away from others.
  • Provide nutritious comforting foods and/or invite them to eat with you in quiet peaceful settings. When the body’s fight or flight reaction is triggered by stress, appetite decreases. Food may not seem interesting or even necessary to someone experiencing the trauma of loss and the hyper-vigilant state of expecting news at any moment.
  • Encourage them to keep a journal and write down their thoughts. Writing a letter to the lost person has been shown to help survivors express tangled emotions and create connection and calmness.
  • Don’t forget about the healing power of touch. A hug, an arm around the shoulder, even just a touch on the hand can remind the bereaved that they are not lost and alone.
  • Deep breathing is restorative and empowering and there is a tendency for people in difficult emotional situations to “hold their breath.” Sitting across from them in conversation, or even silence, encourage a deep breath now and then by taking one yourself.

The words “grief” and “grieve” come from the French language, meaning, “to carry a heavy burden.” This grueling activity is not something we are well prepared for in Western culture. It seems almost as if we might unconsciously think it can be prevented by not preparing for or acknowledging grief. But, grieving (and hoping against all odds) are both universal human experiences. Time does not necessarily heal wounds, but healing and developing ways to cope will take its own time. When family and friends face inexplicable and confounding loss, we can lighten their load by simply being present with them and acknowledging that this really happened and could happen to any of us.   

Ruth W. Crocker, Ph.D is an author, writing consultant and expert on recovery from trauma and personal tragedy. Her book, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War describes her experience following her husband’s death in Vietnam and how she found resources for healing. An excerpt has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. She is Writer-In-Residence at Riverlight Wellness Center in Stonington, CT where she teaches the art of writing memoir and personal stories. She is available for workshops, readings and public speaking. Contact her at