Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Unresolved Grief: When a Loved One Is Missing

Not every loss was confirmed by an officer at the door. Nor a telegram with the power to sink a fleet. Loss, often the worst kind, also arrived through the deafening quiet of an absence. ~ Kristina McMorris

A reader writes:  I honestly think I'm going a little mad. Three months ago my brother took a break from moving into his apartment [in Jamaica], went out for lunch,  and never returned. Boxes were not opened and he never slept in the bed. His car was never recovered, which makes things more complicated. From all indications the police have a suspect(s) but according to them, without a confession or a witness there is absolutely nothing they can do. I believe the detective who says if the opportunity arises to catch those responsible they will but, how likely will that ever be? My brother was 33 years old and single with a promising business career in printing. Crime and corruption in Jamaica is bad, but where isn't? Everyday someone goes missing, young and old and you never hear of them being found dead or alive. The police told me that his body may not be on earth as it would have been found, which they translated to mean they disposed of him out at sea. Until it happens to you, you never know how you would feel.
No one tells you that the emotions hit you at once, all balled up into one...I'm primarily angry all the time. Just thinking of him breaks me into tears as we were close . . . [G]oing to Jamaica to clean out this apartment was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my entire life. Looking through his life in cardboard boxes is so tragic . . . It's been a year, and I need help letting the emotions go or just be able to stop crying in the middle of the day. I don't think my friends understand really, because until it actually happens to you, it’s not something you can relate to when you've lost someone in this manner. Now the tears are flowing but at least I don't have to talk. I've accepted that he's gone, I resent the fact that more can't be done to bring his killer(s) to justice. However, since it is out of my control, I have to let it go, I just need that help. I pray and pray but it is still hard. I'm grateful for any suggestions. Some help is better than no help.

My response: I'm so very sorry to learn of the disappearance of your brother, and I can only imagine how painful this must be for you and all the other members of your family.

Whatever the circumstances, because of the uncertainty involved, your experience is a most devastating kind of loss, in some ways even worse than a death. That's because you have no idea what really happened to your brother, whether he is living or dead, suffering or at peace, homeless and wandering in the streets, or living someplace else.

What you are dealing with is a form of complicated grief known as ambiguous loss, and the feelings associated with it are the same as if you had confirmation that your brother has died, such as sorrow, longing, denial, anger and guilt. But this grief is also complicated by your need to keep hope alive, which constantly interrupts or delays the mourning process and makes it far more difficult to resolve. It's like harboring a wound that cannot heal. As one expert in this field states, "With ambiguous loss, there is no closure; the challenge is to learn how to live with the ambiguity."

I encourage you to find a copy of a book by PaulineBoss, PhD entitled Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live withUnresolved Grief. If you click on the book title, you can read Amazon's description and reviews. (If you can't find the book at your local library, consider asking the librarian to order a copy for you.)

Here, Dr. Gloria Horsley of Open to Hope interviews Dr. Boss:

I also suggest that you to pay a visit to Dr. Boss's Web site, AmbiguousLoss.com. See especially Four Questions about Ambiguous Loss (How does it differ from ordinary loss? Why does it matter? How does one ease its effects? What are the types of ambiguous loss?)

Finally, because this type of loss is so difficult to resolve, I strongly encourage you to find a therapist who specializes in complicated grief. This is way too big to think you can manage it all by yourself. You need and deserve the support of an experienced professional, and I hope you will think of it as a gift you can give yourself.

Afterword: I wanted to thank you for your response. Since writing, a mysterious weight has lifted somewhat, as I was never able to really be vocal on the subject without bawling. When I was in my twenties a friend of mine lost his father very violently and I didn't know how to interact with him after. So instead, I removed myself, because I didn't know how to deal him and I was a little scared. I've been very fortunate up until now, not having a major loss in my family or anyone close till my thirties. A sense of embarrassment has resurfaced, call it being naive and stupid and living a too sheltered life. Sometimes I think now words can't help, but sometimes words do help a little. Today I’m too familiar with death. I’m going to get the material recommended. Never knew they actually had a word for our kind of loss, talk about an education - Ambiguous Loss. I suspect the not knowing will be over my head, lurking like a bad dream forever. This circle of life is indeed some ride. When you can’t turn to your family, and you have someone like you, it helps. Thank you again. 

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