Grieving the Loss of Certainty
By John T. Schwiebert, MDiv
I’ve been thinking about the grief faced by the relatives and friends of the persons on the Malaysian Airline Flight that has been missing now for several weeks. It occurs to me that their grief is complicated because they must deal with several real and/or potential losses at the same time. They may or may not be experiencing anticipatory grief over the loss that bears the name “death,” as the prospect of a loved one being found alive diminishes a little more each day. Some people are not able to begin to grieve such a loss as long as there is still some hope of survival and until the actual death is confirmed. And just not being able to communicate with their friends can also be regarded as an ancillary loss—the loss of contact.
But the loss that is probably even more devastating in this particular situation is the loss of certainty itself—the loss of any ability to know whether the friend who boarded the missing flight is alive or dead. I suspect that this uncertainty accounts for most of the grief that shows on the faces of the “survivors” we see on news reports of the disappearance.
Quite by coincidence as I watched the continuing coverage of the disappearance of Flight 720, I was also reading a novel in which we learn that the wife of one of the main characters has been missing without a trace for more than three years. In a similar way his grief is in not knowing whether he is feeling grief because of the death of his spouse or merely grieving because of her unexplained absence, because for him the larger grief is over the loss of certainty.
Most of us too have been thinking about those still missing and unaccounted for following the mudslide in Washington State. Are they really dead, entombed under tons of debris? Probably, but maybe not. For others thought to have been buried in the mud have checked in to report that they were out of town when the slide occurred and that they are doing fine. This only adds to the loss of certainty for the families of those still unaccounted for.
I have personally found it helpful to identify and name the separate and individual losses that I am experiencing at any given time, so that I can understand and deal with them separately.
The loss of certainty is a good example of such a loss.
But how does one deal with the loss of certainty? What path does grief take for those who are burdened by the weight of not knowing? I do not have an answer that I can presume would work for everyone. But I can tell you how I have met such grief, and how I hope to deal with such grief in the future. And I can invite others to consider this as a possibility.
As with all grief I remind myself that I cannot avoid the grief. I must go through it, as difficult as it will be. But I know I will eventually get through the worst part of not knowing, even though some occasional feelings of uncertainty may never go away completely.
But, in the midst of my uncertainty, as I grieve because of the uncertainty, I will think about the things I am certain about. And for me the thing I am most certain about is God’s unfailing love and care for everyone—alive or dead, lost or found, suffering or beyond suffering. This is something I can trust because I know through the miracle of faith that this unfailing love and care never fades no matter what my circumstances. It is the kind of trust to which the Apostle Paul refers when he writes, “whether we live or whether we die we belong to God.” (Romans 14: 8). Such assurance allows us to grieve freely but not “as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4: 13)
I don’t expect that such trust will take away the pain I feel in times of uncertainty. But, for me, it makes the pain easier to bear. May it be so for all who face the loss of uncertainty.