Buddy System

Understanding men and their friendships.

Ambiguous Loss and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Ambiguous losses are difficult to live and can haunt family and friends.

Loss greets us in some form every day. A high school senior gets rejected from the college of her choice, an aging parent moves into a nursing home, or an aching knee relegates our running shoes to the back of the shelf. Loss also greets us in more terrible and abrupt ways. We hear on the news about adults who are killed in car accidents and about children who die in house fires and of diseases. Other people’s losses cause us to wonder how safe the car we drive is and if our own children and grandchildren have an escape plan in their home and are getting the health check-ups they need.

When losses occur among our immediate family and friends, we participate in rituals that help us and the community to grieve. We gather in funeral parlors, houses of worship, and private homes to mourn together. We go to the cemetery or scatter ashes. We take time off from work or school and make a donation to their favorite cause or charity. An expected series of actions are taken.

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But ambiguous losses are crueler in some ways than deaths as they stifle the collective ability to mourn together and heal.

The disappearance on March 8 of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and now the potential location but not recovery have developed into the latest, excruciatingly painful example. Ambiguous loss, a term coined by Pauline Boss, an emerita professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at the University of Minnesota, refers to a loss that cannot be resolved and creates never-ending confusion about a loved one. Boss has used ambiguous loss to explain a family member’s reaction to a missing child, to a soldier who goes to war and is never heard from again, and to a victim of a tsunami or ethnic cleansing who never returns. In these instances physical absence characterizes loss, though they remain psychologically present as attempts are made to locate them. No established rituals guide behavior in these circumstances.

Despite the narrowing search, the families and friends of the passengers and flight crew do not know what happened. It is that “not knowing” that freezes emotions in place and hinders coping. The partner of one of the missing Americans said five days after the flight took off that she was holding on to the hope that he was alive and clinging to a piece of the plane, a metaphor for her own hopes.

With most losses, a community can help a family mourn in a way that is consistent with their culture and personal wishes. With a collective ambiguous loss it is more complicated and less private. The interactions in this newly formed community of anxious family and friends may provide comfort for some yet traumatize others. At gatherings with officials, emotions ping pong around the room and may heighten the pain and feelings of helplessness that is experienced. Little seems under control.

Boss believes that finding meaning is one way to cope with ambiguous loss. People I have interviewed who have missing family members due to abduction have coped by endowing scholarships in the loved one’s name, talking to school groups about personal safety, and writing about their experiences in an attempt to help others. They commit to annual candle lighting rituals on the missing person’s birthday or on the anniversary of the disappearance. They turn to spirituality for guidance and peace.

It is inappropriate to recommend anything in the Malaysia Airline situation given what we know. Not enough time has elapsed and too many questions are unanswered. But if the passengers and flight crew remain missing, families and friends will have to consider if and how they want to move on whether it be six months, one year, or ten years from now.

For us, watching the pain of others from afar may cause us to consider altering our behavior in terms of travel. It may bring back other losses we experience as we listen to others’ expressions of grief. Hopefully, though it will result in our increasing our attachments and appreciating those that we love. In that way we can also honor those that are missing.

Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D., is a Professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships.

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