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When a child is missing, both ambiguity, resolution bring their own pain

Posted: May 5, 2012 - 11:13pm

Etan Patz, Madeleine McCann, Phylicia Barnes, Jaycee Dugard: four children who were declared missing and whose cases have had different outcomes so far. What knits their families together is that they all experienced loss, though of different types.

Etan Patz, missing since 1979, was 6 when he vanished and was declared dead in 2001. A recent search for his remains was started and stopped. Madeleine McCann, presumably abducted at age 3 while on vacation with her parents in Portugal in 2007, may still be alive, according to new police reports. Phylicia Barnes left the house while visiting family in Baltimore in 2010 and was found dead four months later. She was 16. An arrest was made last week in connection to her death. Jaycee Dugard was 11 when she taken in 1991 and was found alive 18 years later, having given birth to two daughters. Her abductors are in prison.

The cases of Etan and Madeleine have raised their families’ hopes — if only briefly — that closure of some sort is possible, whether it is to finally put doubt to rest or to reunite with a missing child. A few years ago, while I was working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, I met with adults whose sibling had vanished years before. Those I spoke with said that even 20 years later, they would see the back of someone’s head in a crowd and wonder if that was their missing brother or sister.

Pauline Boss, a professor and marital and family therapist at the University of Minnesota, coined the term “ambiguous loss” to describe what happens when people are missing, either physically or emotionally. The disappearance of loved ones due to brain injury (emotional loss), incarceration, war or kidnapping puts them out of reach and hinders coping because their loss is unresolved. When a missing child is found dead, hopefulness ends — but so does a period of ambiguity about the child’s fate. The loss is resolved and becomes absolute, as in the Barnes case. Established rituals of mourning can then take place as the community comes together. Closure is possible.

Etan’s parents waited 22 years to declare him dead, most likely in hope that he was still alive. Their loss, like that of so many others with missing family members, may still be ambiguous, despite publicly acknowledging his death. Madeleine’s parents may have their own dreams of reunification fanned by investigators, although in some cases the opposite happens. The Dugard case, in particular, might well cause any parents to consider whether their missing daughter or son might show up five, 10, or even 18 years later.

Such losses, whether resolved or ambiguous, can reverberate through the family for generations. How does one answer the question about how many siblings one has without reopening a wound? One woman reported that she and her family have not talked about a missing sister for 30 years. Differences in perception about why a child disappeared can impede a family’s ability to cope; missing teens may be seen as runaways by the authorities but viewed as kidnapped by the family.

Ambiguity can persist even in cases that result in reunification. Upon learning that Jaycee was alive, her mother might have envisioned the 11-year-old, not the grown daughter who had become a mother of two. Jaycee might have expected her mother to look the same as in 1991. Robbed of so many years, they have had to learn anew how to relate to each other.

Families coping with ambiguous loss are encouraged to also accept a loss of control. The goal, as Boss suggests, is to understand what can and what cannot be changed. While the loved one’s absence is not in the family’s control, working to adapt to the absence may be. People take concrete steps to deal with their losses.

Those whom I have interviewed have started scholarship funds in a lost loved one’s memory in order to make meaning of their loss. They lean on spiritual beliefs for support. They hold annual rituals like candle lighting at significant dates, such as birthdays, to keep the missing person present in their lives. They give lectures about dealing with loss. They participate in focus groups with other people dealing with loss. Sometimes they make profound life changes, like Phylicia’s half-brother, who decided to become a Baltimore police officer in response to her disappearance.

By being active, they take charge of those parts of their lives that they can control. And they rely on loved ones, as we all need to do when the road ahead is not clearly marked.

• Greif is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and the co-author of “When Parents Kidnap: The Stories Behind the Headlines.”

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