I remember how time stopped when my phone rang on March 27th, 1996, EXACTLY 18 YEARS AGO TODAY. My daughter, Jenna, had been in “a terrible accident, I was told. Jenna was in India, 10,000 miles from home, on a study abroad program. Frozen in unspeakable fear, I fell to my knees and cried out, “Oh my God,” dreading the worst.
My wife and daughter, Stefie, rushed into the room and joined me in a state of suspended horror when I told them what had happened. We huddled together by the phone, making desperation phone calls, pleading for God’s mercy and counting the minutes until we could breathe a sigh of relief that Jenna was OK.
My mind raced frantically like a computer gone wild in search mode, considering all the possibilities. And then finally, the phone rang. Our worst fears were confirmed; Jenna and three other beautiful young women had died. My heart shattered into a million pieces – and the wind went out of my sails. My life, as I knew it, had ended.
The 239 families of Malaysia Flight 370 have been suspended in time for the past few weeks since their loved ones disappeared. Had they been kidnapped? Crashed into the sea? Not knowing if your loved one is in peril, or has died, is a state of human agony and anguish that few of us can begin to imagine. Waiting helplessly as information is gathered. Imagining a heroic rescue. A close call. Or a miracle. And facing into the strong possibility that your son, daughter, husband, wife, mother, father or loved one has perished. Living under a dark cloud of uncertainty, fear, dread, outrage, despair, confusion, trauma, broken sleep and overwhelming sorrow for over 2 weeks takes every ounce of strength, courage, hope and faith we can summon. Trying to assimilate new information as it unfolds, maintain some semblance of sanity, console the other members of your family and emotionally prepare for “whatever” leaves us dangling somewhere between hope and despair. And then comes word. Breaking news! “We now have confirmation that Flight 370 ended in the Indian Ocean and that there are no survivors.”
Much like after I received the call telling me Jenna had died, the Flight 370 families began coming out from under a dark cloud and a ray of hope into a state of unbridled horror and heartache. Life as they knew it had ended. Hope was vanished. And the future they envisioned was lost forever.
Descending to the bottom of pain, the line between our own lives and deaths grows very thin when we are confronted with the death of a loved one. We go into shock and when the shock begins to wear off and reality sets in, we go into survival mode. Fluctuating between the surreal and the all too real, denial and overwhelming sorrow, blame, outrage and resignation, our hearts and minds are turned inside out. Emotional support, understanding, assurance and hand-holding help us get from one breath to the next, but just we’re barely holding on.
After founding the Jenna Druck Center in 1996, I would receive occasional phone calls from parents who were uncertain about whether their child was still alive. Whether their son or daughter had disappeared, been abducted/kidnapped, were estranged, incarcerated, strung out on drugs or alcohol or imprisoned in a cult, they were gone. These parents were grieving the loss of their living child – a loss that was unending and, in some ways, worse than that of a parent whose child had died.
I started a “Living Losses” support group where moms, dads, brothers, sisters, cousins, grandparents and friends could come together in safety to grieve, give and receive emotional support, learn from one another and experts and share valuable information about resources in our community. This program has helped countless families from all over the world in the aftermath of tragedies and disasters of almost every kind, from 9-11 to Hurricane Katrina to TWA Flight 800. The need for grief support for both “living losses” and now, life losses, cannot be underestimated for the families of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Until today, they have been praying for a miracle and quietly grieving the possibility that their loved one may not be alive. After today’s sad news confirming evidence of the wreckage, the winds have shifted from search and rescue to recovery.
Parents, spouses and siblings have fought valiantly to keep hope alive and mobilize global resources to find and save their loved ones. They are understandably exhausted. And depleted. Now begins the grieving that accompanies the death of their loved one(‘s). And the long arduous process of connecting the dots that would explain how and why this tragedy had to happen.
Our society has yet to recognize the severity of pain associated with living losses – or to provide adequate understanding and/or resources for those who are suffering. Living every day when someone you love has gone missing is a heart-wrenching, exhausting, depleting and overwhelming trauma. And this deserves our support.
Now, the loved ones of the 239 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and of those missing in the Washington mudslides, face the unspeakable challenge of waiting for news, and of grieving for someone whose final resting place may never be found.
I recently spoke with CNN about ways to cope with horrors like these. As we learn more about those lost on Malaysia Flight 370 and the over 100 people missing in the mudslide near Seattle, WA, watch their families on TV and read about them, let’s hold them and their loved ones especially close. Let’s also find ways to show this same compassion to families in our own communities who are suffering both living losses and life losses.
Anyone looking for support with a “living loss,” please sign up for Ken’s newsletter. He will be hosting a webinar soon, “Living with a Living Loss,” on Saturday, May 31st, and a workshop on June 7th, “Finding Joy Again: A Workshop for Those Suffering Living Losses” in San Diego, California. If you’d like to have Ken come speak to your group/community, please send him an email through the contact page.
Ken Druck, Ph.D., founder of The Jenna Druck Center in San Diego, is a renowned grief and resilience expert, speaker, organizational and family consultant, and award-winning author of several books including, The Real Rules of Life (Hay House). Follow Ken’s blog or find him on Facebook.
(Photo courtesy of CNN)