When my son Jacob went missing and our family searched desperately for him for more than a month, I asked myself many times, “Does he still exist?” It was such a strange feeling to have someone very close to you in your life there one day, and then suddenly not, and to have no idea where they went.
Witnessing Death Up Close
It surprises me how many people I know who have never seen someone dying or dead. Many medical professionals face death, but the rest of us remain shielded from its reality.
I’ve seen death a few times. Working as a caregiver in my early twenties to a woman who was over one hundred years old, I happened to be on-shift when she passed. The sobbing and screaming of her seventy-something son proved more horrific than seeing her take her last breath.
When my son Jacob died, by the time his body washed up on the shore it had decomposed significantly, although the coroners still managed to match his fingerprints. I chose not to see his remains; yet later, holding the urn full of his ashes, I cried so hard it sounded like howling. Now it was I who experienced the physicality of death. The weight of my son’s ashes felt just the same as when I held my newborn in my arms.
It was an opposite experience to witness the deaths of both my elderly parents, who’d lived full and happy lives and said they were ready to go. Because they lived in a nursing home, their deaths came very gently, cushioned with oxygen and morphine, cleaned by nursing staff and surrounded by loving family members. Still, their dead bodies were hideous: the ragged breathing, yellowing skin, open mouths. For some terrible reason I took a selfie with my mom’s body, thinking to commemorate that moment–and then abruptly deleted it, not wishing to think of her as a corpse.
Our society hides from death. We do not want to think about it in advance or confront it in the moment. However, if you have to witness the lifeless body of your loved one, then you also have to face the reality that they no longer exist. There is no ambiguity.
Vanishing Does Not Feel Like Dying
More than 600,000 individuals go missing each year in the U.S. Luckily, the vast majority find their way home quickly. Others disappear due to catastrophes such as war, genocide, slavery, holocaust, natural disasters, major illnesses, or head injuries, and we may never know the facts about if or how they died.
Ambiguous loss, a term coined in the 1970s by psychologist Pauline Boss, results from an indefinite rupture of a human relationship. We’ve all experienced ambiguous loss with a breakup that didn’t include closure or a relationship severed by a person’s absence, be it physical (literally, they are missing), emotional (they are addicted, aloof, or otherwise unavailable), or mental (as with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other illnesses).
Boss and other therapists teach that the endless grief and not-knowing experienced by those left behind by a missing person, are not caused by “individual pathology”–i.e., it’s not that there is something malfunctioning in the grieving person but a result of the unbearable circumstances, an inevitable reality they must learn to live with.
Our culture does not endorse such gray areas. But ambiguous grief requires you to hold both options in your mind, maybe for the rest of your life. The most helpful suggestion I found online was to say to yourself, “They are probably dead. But maybe not.” In that way, you can resume work, home life, and other relationships while keeping only a corner of your mind focused on the hope of their return.
Horrific Choice: Missing or Dead?
What’s worse? From my experience, not knowing causes relentless stress. You constantly panic that you’re not doing enough to search for them, you’re not thinking straight about what may have happened, and you’re losing precious time while they’re surely in danger. Trying to go to work, perform household chores, or even getting a bit of sleep or a shower proves untenable, because nothing matters more than getting your loved one back.
Studies have shown that people who’ve lost loved ones to disappearance without the finality of a confirmed death, in Bosnia and Colombia, for example, have higher levels of distress and traumatic grief, suicidal thinking, and major depression.
My heart aches for those left behind when a person goes missing. I imagine you, like me, watching out the back window every evening at sundown, desperate to glimpse them coming in the back door, shuddering in the still of night, thinking they must be so cold wherever they are, and waking in the cruel morning to remember again that they are not here, and may never be again.
Cover image courtesy of khadeeja-yasser-GA_pY584htc-unsplash.