ARUN RATH, HOST:
Now to the mystery that has captured the world's attention, Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which has been missing for a week now. Today, there are new details, but even more mystery. Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak said evidence now indicates the plane was intentionally diverted, and its communications system switched off.
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RATH: A deliberate action, not an accident. But he says there are still many unanswered questions.
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RATH: Authorities are now investigating passengers and crew. And the search for flight 370 continues but in a new and much larger area. Two hundred and thirty-nine people were onboard that flight. Their families and friends are trapped in a state of suspense unable to answer that crucial question: Could my loved one still be alive?
Dr. Pauline Boss works with people who have a missing loved one. She's the author of "Loss, Trauma and Resilience," and a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. When we spoke this week, she had just talked with therapists in Malaysia working with the families of the missing. I asked Dr. Boss about her advice.
DR. PAULINE BOSS: One of the first things you want to tell families like this is that what you're experiencing is an ambiguous loss. And it's the most painful kind of loss there is right now because you have no assurance of the fate of your loved one. And then I add this: It's not your fault. And I add that line because most people who suffer from this kind of loss tend to blame themselves. I should not have told her to go on this flight. I should've gone on this flight myself instead of her. All of these kinds of things go through the minds of the people left behind. And so it's very important to tell them repeatedly it's not your fault.
RATH: But when you have that degree of uncertainty, how do you know how to move forward with coping with that loss?
BOSS: They aren't going to move forward right now. Right now, they're in a survival mode. Eventually, we will hope with family and community support systems that they can move forward. But the only way I found that families of the missing move forward is if you allow them to hold the paradox that ambiguity causes. At one moment, they'll say, I think they're at the bottom of the sea. At another moment, they'll say, I think perhaps they're alive on an island somewhere. That is normal. That is natural and typical reactions from ambiguous loss, from not knowing.
RATH: How does that last over time? Does - do the feelings change? Can the ambiguity persist?
BOSS: Well, the ambiguity persists sometimes for a lifetime, even across generations. The problem is that those of us from very can-do cultures, from very mastery-oriented cultures, are used to having answers to all problems. And this is a case where you'll never have an answer. You might have an answer, but you might not ever have an answer.
If that is the case that you never have an answer, the only option left is to learn to live with the ambiguity. And that's quite a challenge for people who live in a very mastery-oriented culture. However, I've seen it happen over and over again. And what happens when people do learn to embrace the not knowing, they become more resilient and stronger for it.
RATH: What can people do to support those who are going through this kind of ambiguous loss?
BOSS: Oh, I'm glad you asked that question because society is really rough on the families of the missing. They don't understand quite what to do. And unfortunately, what people tend to do, therefore, is stay away. Please don't stay away from these families, but there isn't much you have to say to them. Your presence will be support enough in many cases. Our validation, the validation of society for ambiguous loss is essential for people to move forward.
RATH: That's Pauline Boss. She's a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, and she joined us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Dr. Boss, thank you so much.
BOSS: You're welcome.
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