Dealing with ambiguous loss

The relatives of passengers on board the missing Malaysian Airlines plane have been told the plane crashed in the ocean, with no survivors. And the search for information continues. So how hard is it to mourn a missing person? 

mh370 When flight MH370 went missing, Prahlad Shirsath travelled from his home in North Korea to Beijing and then on to Malaysia as he searched for news of his wife’s whereabouts.

Kranti Shirsath, a former chemistry professor and mother of two, was travelling to see her husband who worked at a non-profit organisation in Pyongyang.

When there was no news and the days passed, Shirsath’s family called him back to his home country of India, where they could endure the uncertainty together.

This is called an ‘ambiguous loss’, says Pauline Boss, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, who treats people undergoing this unique kind of bereavement. There is no physical proof of death – no body – so people cling to the hope that the missing are still alive.

“People can’t begin mourning when there is ambiguous loss – they’re frozen,” says Boss. “Frequently, society thinks they should be mourning but, in fact, they are stuck in limbo between thinking their loved one might come back and thinking they might not.”

This is a kind of suffering that freezes their grief, says the professor, author of Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief.

The latest news that the plane probably crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, with no survivors, is unlikely to release them from this limbo, she says. “There is no closure even if they find definitely that the plane is in the ocean. They still have no body to bury. It will always be ambiguous until remains are found or DNA evidence.”

People need to see evidence before they are assured that the death has occurred, says Boss, and without that, grief is frozen and complicated. A more clear-cut death is undoubtedly painful but funeral rituals can take place where there is a body, and family and friends come together to re-affirm that the person has died.

In the absence of a confirmed explanation for what happened, relatives imagine their own outcomes.

But hypnotherapists at the National Council for Hypnotherapy are trained in treating clients who grieve and in helping them try to come to terms with their anxiety and sense of loss.

The therapist can help you assess your anxiety, identifying the root of stress or anxiety and then he will set you a goal asking how you wish to feel and overcome your grieving. He or she will then work with you to reach your goals using a range of different techniques. Every therapist may use slightly different techniques, but working towards the same goal. After sessions with a therapist you may feel more confident; more relaxed in situations that have previously challenged you. Many people say that they are calmer and that they have more clarity of thought – able to make decisions more easily. People who have experienced side effects of anxiety such as insomnia, find that they are sleeping much better and as a result are able to work more effectively.

To find a hypnotherapist near you, visit the NCH website or click here.