For Flight 370 Families, Loved Ones Forever Missing

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Sarah Nor, 55, the mother of 34-year-old Norliakmar Hamid, a passenger on a missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 plane, talks on a mobile phone at her house in Kuala Lumpur on March 8, 2014.
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It was a journey that began in Kuala Lumpur and was supposed to have ended in Beijing more than two weeks ago. But today Malaysian authorities announced what they believe is finally the end of the journey for Flight 370.

Based on an analysis of satellite data, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said there was no longer any doubt about Malaysian Airlines Flight 370—the plane flew south into remote waters in the Indian Ocean and could not have landed safely.

"With deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, Flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean," he said this morning at a news conference. "We share this information out of a commitment to openness and respect for the families—two principles that have guided this investigation."

Alongside the ongoing coverage of the search for Malaysian Flight 370, there's been the deeply saddening portraits of the families of the missing passengers. In the days and weeks before today's announcement, images of relatives and loved ones dominated the media, as they clutched their heads in their hands.

For the families, these new details may solve no mysteries about the fate of their loved ones. While flight safety officials now try to sketch out what happened aboard the Boeing 777 jetliner, the journey that the families of Flight 370 are on is an all too familiar one.

For the families, their loved ones will simply remain "missing."

Joining The Takeaway to explore how to cope with an ambiguous loss is Pauline Boss, professor of psychology at University of Minnesota and author of "Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief."

"With my over 30 years of experience with families of missing people, my assumption is that these families, too, will not accept the fact of death at this point in time," says Professor Boss. "In fact, with ambiguous loss, which this is, there's never any closure."

Professor Boss says people that experience ambiguous loss are always teetering in a world of uncertainty. They know on some level that their loved one is dead, but since a body is usually never recovered, there is always a nagging "what if" feeling. 

"This sort of thinking is not what I call magical thinking at all," says Professor Boss. "It's actually realistic thinking when you don't have the facts, when you don't have a body to bury, and when you don't have DNA evidence. It is typical to say, 'They're probably dead—but maybe not.'"

Professor Boss adds that the families of Flight 370 are likely experiencing a double traumatization because of the heightened media coverage these events have received. 

"They need to be in a private place—talking with each other, talking with counselors," says Professor Boss, who has already been in contact with counselors in Kuala Lumpur. "Only the people who want to talk with the press should talk with the press. The press should realize that we need more patience with people who have no body to bury and no evidence yet. In the absence of facts, all theories are probable. When the families say, 'My loved one might be on top of an airplane wing in the middle of the Indian Ocean,' I don't contradict that—I think we should just listen patiently."

Professor Boss says that in the case of ambiguous loss, some individuals have an easier time accepting the death of their loved ones—in this case, they may acknowledge that the plane went down and that their loved one has passed. Many others, however, may acknowledge the plane crash but will not accept that their relative is gone—they may introduce alternative theories, like their relative floated to an island and is awaiting rescue.

"At first, I just don't challenge that thinking—it is the way that the brain tries to cope with an unfathomable loss that has no absolute fact about it," she says. "Truth is elusive here. You can surmise the truth, but because the loss is so unresolved, the grief is unresolved. Years later, people with ambiguous loss will say things like, 'I think I saw him on a crowded street the other day.'"

Even if bits and pieces of the wreckage of Flight 370 emerge, Professor Boss says that those things still do not present a clear answer for the families—even if they have been told that their family members are at the bottom of the sea.

"The families will say, 'We don't have evidence in front of us, we don't have a body to bury.' That is everyone's worst nightmare," she says. "It is a rough kind of loss. It is more difficult than a clear cut death because of the not knowing. In the eyes of the family, the loss won't be a fact until they see the body. Up until that time, they have to make meaning out of a nonsensical situation."