The shock disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 with 239 people on board this week over the Gulf of Thailand while on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing has captured the world’s media attention.
The mystery surrounding it’s disappearance is unique in that there has not yet been any wreckage of the flight sighted, days after the flight was lost. And the lack of communications from the cockpit doesn’t indicate there were any problems or warning signs there was problem on the flight.
But what of the families and loved ones who have been left behind wondering what happened? Without any answers at this point, they cling to hope as news trickles through from the search operation.
We spoke to Australia Counselling member Sarah Wayland, who specialises in the area of missing persons and is currently completing her Thesis on this topic.
We ask her:
- What would the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew going through right now?
- How do people deal with the uncertainty of life and death in situations like this?
- How important is being hopeful vs being realistic in these situations?
- If you’re dealing with a missing person you love yourself, what should you do?
- How can you support someone that may be dealing with a missing person?
Listen to the audio interview by clicking the player below or read the transcript below.
Sarah Wayland is a social worker with a passion for stories. She runs a counselling practice in the Hills District of Sydney, speaks at community events about emotional health, women’s issues and loss and is in the final stages of completing her doctoral thesis on the role of hope for families of missing people. Alongside her practice she is a successful freelance writer for print and online media publications blending her interest in storytelling with her love of the written word. Her goal is to speak at a TED event and to always be respectful that people willingly choose to share their lives with her. Find out more on www.sarahwayland.com.au
Clinton: Hi, this is Clinton Power here. And I am speaking today with Sarah Wayland, who is a Sydney psychotherapist and counselor, who does specialize in working in the area of missing persons. Hello, Sarah.
Clinton: Now, I want to speak to you specifically today about the Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370. It’s making very big news at the moment.
Sarah: It is.
Clinton: And I’d love to hear about … what do you think families of loved ones of the passengers and crew … what are they going through right now? Because this is such an extraordinary case where days after this plane has gone missing, we still have no idea where they are.
Sarah: It is. It is. And I must admit I have been listening, not just to the news that’s coming out about what the investigation is bringing out, but about the narrative of the families and the friends, but also the community, in terms of how they’re responding to what’s happened. Because that shock of a planeload of people being here one minute and gone the next, and no information as to actually confirm what’s happened, has been quite interesting to me as a grief researcher and someone who’s been working in the missing persons sector to kind of watch.
So, one of the lines that really stood out to me. I was flipping through the newspaper, ordering my morning coffee yesterday. And a family friend had said that they were holding onto the last piece of hope. And that’s what my PhD is about. It’s about what the stories of hope are for families with missing people. And it’s interesting to hear how often that idea of hope comes up when we talk about people gone missing, whether it’s one person or hundreds of people. About this idea of holding on to the notion that everything might go back to the way it was before. Does that make sense?
Clinton: Yes. And how important do you think it is for people being hopeful, as opposed to being realistic? Because, I guess a lot of the commentary at the moment is saying … there were some stories that perhaps it’s been hijacked and landed in a different country. But many people think that maybe it’s just not realistic. So how important is it to be hopeful?
Sarah: Look, I think that hope exists right from the beginning when someone goes missing. And part of my study has been looking at, in a bereavement context … so when we’re talking about death, hope often starts to come to the fore quite a long time after you lose a loved one. So once you start to engage in the world again, and engage in thinking about the future, and some ideas about happiness. Whereas the difference when there’s someone missing, even though it’s a loss, that hope exists right from that very moment that you hear that they’re gone.
So hope punctuates all of the stories of families with missing people. But I think what’s interesting for me and for the community to understand is that that sense of hope oscillates between being hopeful and hopeless. And that that sensation can change from minute to minute, or hour to hour. And it’s dependent on the information that people are given about the investigation. About their gut feeling to things. About hearing stories, like you said, about those different hypotheses about what might have happened. About, you might have heard that 40 years ago a plane was hijacked and it turned out everyone was on a deserted island somewhere. People hold on to those stories because they allow them to be hopeful.
And sometimes that narrative about what might have truly happened isn’t necessarily spoken out aloud just yet because I think it takes time for the dust to settle, for the shock to kind of settle in, and then those different ideas of hope emerge. Like, perhaps if something has happened to people, about those customary markers of grief, about funerals or about having a place to grieve, then that idea of hope comes out in that sort of attachment. But at this stage, it’s about being both hopeful and hopeless all at the same time.
Clinton: Yes, and it sounds like it’s a common experience for people to fluctuate between the two. That’s what you’re saying.
Sarah: Definitely. I mean, we all talk about grief and trauma being a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. But I think that to have someone missing is a really cruel emotion to have to navigate because you don’t have the certainty that you have when something catastrophic happens and you know what’s happened to a loved one. So you not only have to contend with that physical sensation of the loss of them not being here, but you also have to contend with those ideas where your mind plays tricks on you. That they might walk back through the door. But that spurs fantasy thought sometimes. They’re really useful for getting us through, but it’s difficult to sit with for long periods of time. And particularly now, with the third and fourth day, it’s about trying to work out, “Well how long am I going to be suspended in this space of not knowing?”
Clinton: Yes. I guess that’s the real challenge in a situation like this, is there is no closure. And even if we find out there is wreckage and the plane went down in the sea, many of these bodies will not be recovered. So how do families deal with that kind of loss, of never being able to have a funeral or a burial for their loved one?
Sarah: They do. And it means then sometimes not being able to demonstrate to the community how much they’re missing someone. When we are given that opportunity to have a funeral, to stand up and speak in front of other people, to stand in front of a grave, or to bury a loved one, we’re able to acknowledge outwardly what it means to lose that person. But without all of those options available to families when someone is missing, then it sometimes feels like you’re being cheated a little bit out of those opportunities to grieve. And I use inverted commas with my hands, to grieve properly. And so that’s often the challenge.
Clinton: So what are some of the other feelings you imagine that families and loved ones are going through? Because I’m guessing that anger would be a big one there as well. Perhaps anger at the airlines, or…
Sarah: Yeah, and the sense of being able to place that injustice somewhere. Might it be on someone that was on-board, or the pilot or the community as a whole. About trying to attach some meaning to this loss by trying to work out who is to blame. And they’re very common emotions for people to have. That sense of needing to have answers to all of your questions is really difficult to sit with.
Some people find, and I don’t want to be gender-specific here, but I do know in spending the last 10 years with families with missing people, is that there’s often a lot of men who are very focused on the technicalities of the case. So the investigation, about wanting to find out from the authorities, exactly what’s known and what’s not known. What else they could be doing to assist with the search. All of those sorts of things. Whereas sometimes what was noticed, and this is all anecdotal, is that women tend to turn inwards. To have to sit internally with that sense of ambiguity or unresolved loss of trying to work out how are they going to navigate life without this person around, and without all of those answers as well, to what happened to them.
Clinton: If you’re dealing with a missing person yourself, maybe a loved one of your own or a family member, is there a healthy way to deal with that? Or is it really just riding the roller coaster?
Sarah: I think that’s it’s really just … six or seven years ago, I spent a week with America’s professor, Pauline Boss, who’s the woman that pioneered this idea of ambiguous loss. And that came out in the 1970s around Vietnam vet families. And also soldiers missing in action, about learning to sit with what’s going on. And I think after a week of sitting with her and writing and trying to come up with some different ideas about developing a counselling framework, the thing that I took home from that is that families have to learn in some way to tolerate the ambiguity. To sit with the not knowing. To sit with the fact that the world around us doesn’t always have the solutions that we’re looking for, but also to honor the person that’s not here.
And not in a way of saying that they’re gone and that they’ll never come back, but at this moment in time, saying, “I miss them right now. I don’t know if tomorrow I’ll find them. I don’t know if next year I’ll find them. But right now I miss them.” And, “What does that missing look like? What do I remember about them? What makes me smile when I think of them?” So all of those very normal grief reactions, but without suggesting that they have to grieve forever of this person because we don’t know what’s happened to them.
Clinton: So a big part of this is dealing with the uncertainty. Isn’t it almost having to befriend, and as you say, sit with uncertainty? The not knowing.
Sarah: Yeah. Definitely. Definitely. And it’s very hard when we’re surrounded in the media. They’re always interested in these sorts of cases where there’s large volumes of people. Where there’s intrigue. Where there’s mystery. And those narratives that people have to hold on to hope at all costs. But there’s no closure for people who were left behind. But the reality is people find ways themselves to deal with this type of loss, but it’s very individual and it takes long periods of time to learn to just sit with what’s going on.
Clinton: So how can we support people that perhaps … people we know who are dealing with a missing person?
Sarah: I think what I’ve noticed over the years … I put together a collection of stories a few years ago called, “A Glimmer of Hope,” and it was about collecting stories of families left behind. And what I noted was families became very frustrated when people kept suggesting different ideas to them about how they might resolve their case. When someone goes missing, we all kind of become a pseudo-detective and we try to throw in our two cents worth.
And I even know myself, when I first started working with families in that counseling space, it was really difficult to bite my tongue and not kind of say all the time, “Well have you tried this? Have you contacted these people? What about this service – maybe they could help.” Families tick all of these options off of their list, but there’s always a never-ending list. So I think sometimes just acknowledging that they’re missing that person right now is the most powerful thing that you can do for families. And not necessarily adding to their sense of the things they should be doing. We should be celebrating the fact what they have done, and what they’re comfortable with, and what they need to tick off that list. So it’s really hard, because we grow up with those stories of people missing and we try and work out what might have happened. The Azaria Chamberlain’s of our youth growing up. We all get involved in thinking up solutions. But in terms of supporting people left behind, it’s just sometimes sitting with the fact that right here and now, they’re missing that person.
Clinton: Some great commentary and advice there from Sarah Wayland. Sarah, how can people contact you if they’d like to speak with you?
Sarah: Sure. People can contact me through my web site. So it’s Sarahwayland.com.au.
Clinton: Great. Thanks for speaking with us today.
Sarah: Not a problem. Thanks.
photo credit: Aero Icarus