MH370: It will be hard to find Closure

I refer to the front page headline “the need for closure” (The Star, March 27).

As Malaysia’s first and only certified Thanatologist (grief therapist), I have for the last 8 years helped large numbers of grieving persons come to terms with all kinds of losses through support groups and individual therapy.

This included reaching out to the families of disaster victims missing after the Haiyan typhoon in the Philippines and training their therapists for further follow-up work.

The confirmation by the Malaysian Government that the plane had gone down in the southern Indian Ocean will not result in bringing closure to the grief of the families members. Neither will the eventual discovery of the aircraft make any difference to their pain. This is because the loss of a person who went missing without the opportunity of saying the final goodbye in a traditionally meaningful way and accorded a decent burial defies closure.

Even when the aircraft is found, the individual bodies of their loved ones will not be intact or identifiable. The consolation is only in knowing and visiting the final resting place of their loved ones but such ambiguous losses remain living and ongoing, with the grief frozen and not lending itself to resolution.

Insistence on knowing what happened in the plane will also not make any real difference to their grief as they still have to face the reality that their loved one is gone for good. In fact, getting stuck on knowing the whys can be counter-productive as uncovering the mystery of the missing plane may take years, thus obstructing the acceptance of the loss, coming to terms with it and moving on in life.

With their yearning for evidence of life dashed by our Prime Minister’s announcement of the crash location, they now yearn for evidence of their deaths. Their assumption of a world that is fair, orderly and manageable has been shattered by such a sudden tragedy and they will continue to feel confused, distressed and helpless, to be made worse at a later stage by pressure from their relatives, the public and even professionals to find closure when they still want to hold on whatever faint hope of a miraculous return of their loved ones.

The most significant part of the therapist’s work in helping the family members is not in their present distress or trauma management as they await further news of the search and investigations, but in helping them to live with the tension and strain of not knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones, and eventually, the tolerance of the ambiguity of their deaths. As they long to make sense of their ambiguities, they will want to connect with others suffering under the same circumstances for validation of the ambivalent and conflicting thoughts and emotions.

Therefore it is imperative that in the weeks and months ahead, we must bring these different family members together to provide them with the avenue to connect with one another and share their frustrations and concerns under the guidance and supervision of trained therapists, so that as a new community of people who understand what each is going through, they will encourage one another to increase their tolerance for ambiguity and be hopeful about life once again despite not having all the answers. This is the only way for them to draw strength from one another to regain resilience to move on in life in the face of their ambiguous losses.

However, we must also be aware that these families come from different racial, cultural, religious and socio-economic backgrounds, each with different perceptions of what has happened and they also have different mourning practices towards deaths and losses. In addition, men and women grieve in different styles with males more instrumental and females more intuitive in their approaches. In journeying alongside these people, we must also be prepared to struggle with them some deep questions on the meaning and purpose of life and death.

Bereavements, be they normal or ambiguous, bring us to the boundary of life and death, and so there the potential meaning of life and meaninglessness of life becomes unclear, and the possibilities of both hope and despair are both present. Hence, most qualified counselors or psychologists without specialized training and experience in grief therapy may not be in a position to help these family members.

Dr. Edmund Ng
Founder and Resident Director
GGP Outreach, Kuala Lumpur