Time is needed for families of the missing

SBy Pauline Boss

six days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers, I was in New York with two graduate students, called there because of my decades of work with families of the missing. The streets were desolate – like a movie set for the end of the world. From midtown to downtown, there were posters of missing family members pasted on buildings or being held up by still-stunned relatives. I choked on the smoke. The awful smell – I shall not forget it.

My assignment was to develop and implement an intervention for the families of the missing and to train New York therapists to work with this unique kind of loss. We were to aid families of the non-uniformed workers, those who serviced the twin towers, plus those who worked in the restaurant, Windows on the World – mostly immigrant workers with low incomes and large families. My team traveled almost monthly to New York after Sept. 11. Family meetings at the union hall for those with missing service workers and missing chefs, butchers or waiters turned out to be the most effective intervention. These family meetings continue.

Today, one year later, I reflect on what I learned from all this. I learned therapists and ordinary people tend to pathologize normal grieving. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with not being able to find an immediate fix; perhaps we see a loss as somehow our failure. After the first week or so, we distance ourselves from those who are grieving. But during such times of crisis, people look for someone to listen to their story. Stories from Sept. 11 are usually horrendous and difficult to hear. Their stories, you see, are not real in the social sense until someone is willing to hear it.

The narrative traditions we used merged European “talk therapy” with tribal storytelling. Merged together, traditions of Freud, Klein and Nelson Mandela promoted healing within the immense diversity of families we saw – immigrants from 40 different cultures or religions. We began by asking the adults, teenagers and children to share a story about their missing people and at the same time encouraged family members to listen to each other’s differing views. Most helpful was the joining of several families together in a circle, so that they could hear each other’s stories and form connections through common experience.

One woman, previously frozen with anger, sitting with arms crossed tightly, suddenly unfolded her arms and leaned forward toward another woman to speak for the first time. “This happened to you, too? You feel this way, too?” A human connection was made that could continue back in their own neighborhoods. That woman found someone who was experiencing the same kind of loss. The healing process could begin.

As a researcher, I had mixed emotions when I saw what I had previously predicted develop before my eyes. A sad success. What I learned over and over again this past year is that not having a body to bury is indeed the worst kind of loss. The ambiguity blocks the grief process and causes conflicting and confusing family processes. As if on cue, families of the missing argued over what to do, canceled family holidays and birthday celebrations and developed family secrets – all things I had written about. Two teen-age siblings were told, “Your mother is working in another state now,” rather than, “She’s missing and very likely dead.” A 5-year-old was told her aunt was now her “mommy,” but never told why, even though other children knew the secret and talked about it in her presence. Destructive “no talk” rules were enforced. Children couldn’t talk about their missing parents or relatives for fear of making the surviving relatives cry. They talked instead with other children. At one of our family meetings in the union hall, one little girl asked another while they were coloring, “Have they found your Daddy yet?” “Yes,” the other girl said, “but not his legs.” Her little friend seemed happy for her, since her own father was still totally missing.

Not having a body to bury, or to say good-bye to, constitutes a loss beyond human comprehension. We don’t know how to respond. There are no Hallmark cards for families and friends of the partially missing, for those who disappeared, vanished without a trace. Within a month after Sept. 11, I found journalists, cab drivers, TV interviewers and therapists who were impatient with the still grief-stricken families, friends and co-workers. They wanted closure. That means they wanted the door to sadness and loss shut as if the grief process was over and done with. They didn’t want to hear any more “war stories.” Over and over I was asked, “Why can’t they see there’s no one alive anymore in that rubble?” That’s the point: They were not able to see a body; they could not see their loved one as dead, transformed from what they were. Without such clear evidence, people keep hoping for some miracle. And now and then, someone did turn up alive, in the hospital or in a foreign country, just enough times to keep people off balance. The stress is endless, just as it still is for families of missing-in-action soldiers and families of missing children all over the world.

Our mastery-oriented culture encourages those stricken with grief to get over it and do so quickly. We have been told that closure is the goal. “Get back to normal. Suck it up. Stiff upper lip. Close the door and move on.” This is not normal: Crying and talking about the lost person is normal. People who experience loss need time and our patience. And clearly, those with an ambiguous loss such as no body or verification of death need even more time and patience. The least we can do is give them our attention and listen to them, for in the telling and retelling of the story of their incomprehensible loss, healing will begin. “My mother went to work one morning; she never came home again.” “We were expecting our first baby; how can he be gone?”

All of us can help people heal from such irrational situations by ditching the word “closure.” Shutting the door on loss is never possible when there is no body to bury. The goal instead is to learn to live with the ambiguity of never knowing for sure. In recent months, I have seen people begin to do this, but even more time is needed as they work to regain their footing.

When people accustomed to being in charge cannot stay on top of a situation, find the answer, or fix the problem quickly, the society grows impatient and alienates them. We must resist joining this impatience and recognize that there can be no such thing as closure or even resolution when a body remains missing. Rather, we must aim for learning to live with two opposing ideas in our minds at the same time: The person is dead; the person might not be dead. Giving this confusing situation a name – ambiguous loss – appears to quiet some of the turmoil of the bereaved. Naming the ambiguity as the culprit diminishes their tendency to blame themselves for feeling so confused and helpless.

Today life in New York goes on seemingly as before, but people seem more caring with more eye contact. Attendance at religious services is up. But in lower Manhattan, nearer to ground zero, the pain of loss is still palpable. People are quiet on the subways. Small businesses have failed. The neighborhoods have changed completely. Those who live and work there now realize their part of town will forever hold the memorial of that terrible day. They, like many others, will need still more time – and our patience – to process such massive loss and change.