Loss, Grief, and Closure: How This Air Disaster Is Different

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Relatives of those lost in AirAsia Flight QZ8501 react upon receiving confirmation of the plane’s fate. (Photo: Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)

“My heart is just breaking for all of those families right now,” Sarah Bajc told CNN after hearing that debris from AirAsia Flight QZ8501 had been identified.

Bajc — the partner of Philip Wood, a passenger on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared this past March and still has not been found —captured the emotions of anyone following the story of the doomed airplane that crashed on Sunday over the Java Sea during a short flight from Indonesia to Singapore.

But she also offered a unique perspective and emotion that doesn’t come to mind for most people: jealousy. 

“…On the other hand I’m almost a little jealous in a way because at least they have this ability to put some closure to it…It’s such a different experience… compared to what we’ve had to go through, the families from 370 – you know, we’re still in limbo,” added Bajc. 

For the loved ones of those onboard Flight QZ8501, this new information allows them to begin to formally, definitively grieve and mourn. It’s a painfully stunning contrast to the experience of the families of those who were onboard the still-missing MH370. 

Indeed, says Lynn Michalopoulos, a professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work who specializes in trauma, telling Yahoo Health, “The absence of closure or not knowing in such a tragic event can be traumatic in itself.” A lack of closure can place an individual at risk for developing trauma symptoms such as complicated grief, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders.

Related: The Role of PTSD In Memory After Trauma 

 “Closure is important, because people do not like uncertainty,” Art Markman, PhD., professor of psychology at the University of Texas, tells Yahoo Health, “It is hard to know what to do when you are not sure what has happened. When there is some possibility that a loss could be avoided, we hold out some hope that a situation will turn out well,” he says.

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Sarah Bajc with Philip Wood. (Photo: Sarah Bajc/Facebook)

All individuals experience grief in a unique manner, and the loved ones of those lost in these recent airline incidents face a special challenge. “The whole event has been very public. As a result, people will have to carve out some space for themselves to find ways to grieve that suit them,” says Markman.

And yet, the idea of closure is tenuous.

Even for the families of QZ8501, achieving true closure may not ever be fully attainable, Camille Wortman, PhD., a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University, tells Yahoo Health. Wortman is an expert on the topic of grief and bereavement, especially for those dealing with traumatic and sudden death. “I believe that for most people, closure is rarely attained following such a loss,” she notes. “Although feelings of distress may decline over time, it is common for survivors of a sudden, traumatic loss to experience painful symptoms for decades, typically for the rest of their lives.”

For the families of MH370, for which there is no formal, official resolution to the loss of their loved ones, “such distress is intensified,” Wortman says.

“Based on what they have heard about loss, people hope and expect that they will reach a state of closure,” continues Wortman, noting that these individuals tend to “become distraught when, despite their best efforts, they feel as though they are not making progress.” A unique challenge facing those dealing with these large-scale, public traumas is that their friends and acquaintances also believe in closure, and may become unsympathetic if the bereaved person is unable to reach a state of closure and move forward.

“There is no time limit for this process and individuals should be gentle with themselves and others in how they may or may not react,” says Michalopoulos.

Writing for the Today show, Sarah Bajc details her own lack of closure surrounding her partner’s disappearance on Malaysia Air Flight MH370: “It’s gotten harder, not easier, because the longer this goes on, the more convinced I am that the flight’s disappearance was not accidental. The story has never made sense to me, not since the very beginning, and we still don’t know anything that we didn’t know on March 8. It’s astounding to me. I continue to believe that something is being covered up by the Malaysian government, and perhaps others… I know everybody deals with things differently, but I’m not ready to admit it — I’m not ready to admit that he’s not ever coming back. I’m not ready to say goodbye to him. I hold on to that. I have his pictures all around me, and I try to maintain the life that I have here as if he were coming back.”

“Culturally, there are lots of movies and books in which people are found after a long period when people thought they were dead,” says Markman of those still waiting for answers about their loved ones’ disappearance, “These stories help to give hope to those who are dealing with an uncertain situation.”

“It’s important that individuals, families and communities are given time and space to heal from this tragic event,” adds Michalopoulos. Just as with other tragic events, many find it helpful to engage with their community and/or others who are going through the same experience—in this case, those who also had a family member on the flight. However, others may find it healing to engage in individual activities which allow them the opportunity to process the grief and remember the loved one.

Public traumas bring on a set of psychological issues that are not found in those who survive the death of a loved one from natural causes, such as “difficulty accepting the loss; inability to make sense of the loss; questioning one’s faith, or why God failed to protect their loved one; preoccupation with what caused the accident and who should be held accountable; and preoccupation with whether and how much the loved one suffered,” says Wortman.

“None of us are stupid and I do realize that with every day the likelihood that he’ll come back is getting smaller and smaller,” wrote Bajc. “But until there’s absolute proof, I’m not willing to write that small percentage point off. It’s the thread I hold onto, and for me, it’s working. Because my family life is ok and I feel like I’ve kept my balance, it’s working for me. And at some point it might not work anymore and then I’ll make another decision.”

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