Co-authored by Anne J. Adelman, Ph.D
We are all riveted by the story of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which has seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth. We can practically hear the fading satellite pings echo in our minds. We cannot help but wonder: How could something so enormous simply disappear into thin air?
What may be a disturbing mystery for us is an excruciating nightmare for the family members awaiting news. Outside a recent press briefing, 12 days after the plane’s disappearance, relatives of the missing passengers were heard screaming, “Where are they? Where are they?” The futile response that came from the Malaysian authorities was that there was still no information about any of the passengers on the plane. The families’ anger and protests, reported by many journalists, was an expectable initial response. This is true for any devastating and shocking news of loss. However, in the face of such uncertainty and confusion, the voices of protest linger.
Even as we write this, one of us turned to the other and asked, “Is it possible that the passengers will still be found?”
For the bystanders, this question stems from the fervent wish that the lost passengers could still be alive. For the family members who are waiting, not knowing is excruciating. Lacking concrete proof of their death, what can the family members do to cope? How can they begin to mourn their loss? How can they even accept their loss when even a thread of hope still remains?
Mourning begins with the awareness that an essential person has died. It is the slow and painful response to recognizing that someone we love is truly gone. We yearn for them; we imagine we can still hear their voice. Even as we begin to accept their death, we continue to deny the reality of the loss. As best as we can, we contend with the ongoing wish (and fantasy) that our loved one will be returned to us. Yet in the end there is no escaping the recognition that this is impossible. We must endure the daily necessary and painful reminders of their permanent absence.
To help us bear the unbearable, to accept what the mind refuses, we naturally turn to familiar and comforting rituals. In almost all cultures, the care, visitation and guarding of the body allow for a tangible goodbye, one in which we have seen our loved one for the last time. While some part of us still holds on to the hope that the deceased could be alive, through these rituals we come to know with certainty that death is absolute. Yet without the body — the physical evidence of death — the goodbye lingers on. The death remains an unanswered and unanswerable question. The what-ifs and the if-onlys cannot be put to rest.
The still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is a story that continues to unfold before the world. With new information trickling in bit by bit, time seems elastic, and we observers are suspended as if in mid-air. In our imagination the missing passengers are still out there somewhere, waiting to be found. We are left with speculation and theories about what might have happened. Like the family members of the missing travelers, we are all holding out hope. We cannot help but envision the vanished plane concealed in a secret hangar, all passengers now perhaps prisoners of terrorists but alive, or perhaps they are stranded in a remote location, devising their own plan for rescue. Of course, such imaginings are fantastical and arise from our collective wish that this story will end with all passengers’ safe return. For those who knew and loved the people aboard this ill-fated plane, these fantasies are painfully magnified, with the continued possibility that their loved ones could still, against all odds, magically reappear.
How, then, can the mourning process begin?
These family members need to know what happened on board Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. As the story begins to unfurl, as the pieces of the puzzle begin to make sense, the process of mourning will truly begin, both for the family members and for all the nations that have drawn together to search, to wonder and to support. In order to be able to say goodbye, we need to understand the full story — no matter how painful — the story of the flight that began, was disrupted and that, somehow, came to a devastating end.