The Not Knowing.

One of the more pleasant things I did over the break (self care 101), was to sit in the backyard, in a bean bag. Our dear friend,  Kirsten Alexander published her first book, Half moon lake, so I was able to settle in for a good read. It’s a fabulous novel about true events in the south of the US. A child goes missing  on a family holiday, and the story revolves around how the family deal with this loss. I’m not going to mention anymore, because I would like you to go out and buy the book and read it for yourself. (I will mention that she does slip in some very good advice on hurricane preparations, emergency kits, and the role of social capital in recovery)

Her story has me thinking about that issue of when there is no body to grieve over. We have seen this so often in disasters. Sometimes the impact is too great. The heat too intense. Water too deep. Or there is the disappearance. We’ve seen this with the war dead, many being lost at sea, or buried in the mud, or worse still, in mass graves. Our Red Cross tracing service is still helping people trying to make sense of what happened in the wars.

The research that we did into the Black Saturday Bushfires found that separation from families (ie not knowing where they are) during disasters is one of the most stressful disaster experiences. Minutes turn into hours, into days, weeks, and then finally the realisation, as the Disaster Victim Identification team arrive to take samples of DNA, that awful feeling might meaning something else. People in the bereavement support groups, I’ve worked with said that they held out hope that they were just lost, or unconscious, or something, but reality of death started to become too true, when they needed something to start an identification process.

With identity, comes a certainty, and the process of grieving can begin, the funerals, the adjustment, the pain, the anger, the sadness, the helplessness. For some this continues on for ever. Others will adjust, and even grow from the experience.

In New Zealand, the Pike River Mine Explosion in 2010 caused the deaths of 29 men. Their families know exactly where they lay, but they are unable to reach them, as the mine was sealed in the aftermath of the explosions, and had been deemed unsafe to enter. I met with support workers of the families when I was there 2 years later. They described the cold hard fury of the families at the government and their determination to have the mine reopened, and their loved ones accorded a proper burial. Thankfully for them, the new government has made it a priority to re-enter the mine.

There were many undocumented workers killed in the World Trade Center. These are people used to moving in their shadows, so their families have had a difficult time navigating the system, when there is fear for your existence. Only 5 names are included in the 9/11 memorial . It is another dimension to disappearance, when you don’t exist in the beginning.

Psychologists call this ambiguous loss. It’s hard to know what to do. Remain in hope? Mourn? Shift between the two? There’s no final place or body to bury. Do you have a memorial service? Do you create a memorial? How do friends deal with the person?

This is what the families of MH 370 are experiencing. Clinging onto any hope, until they find the plane, there might hope they are still alive. They just do not know. The Western Australian Government scuttled plans to build a memorial to MH370 because of the anger of the families. Its too soon, and it may well be the wrong spot.

Its complex and hard to fathom. Kirsten does a wonderful job in conveying that ambiguous loss in the Davenport family. The reactions of the mother and the father, so different, the mother wanting to keep the remaining children close, the father determined to find the missing boy. And the strain that brings. Until, she turns it all on its head. But that, you’re going to have to find out by reading the book!

And from the accompanying play list:

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