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Why the Search for Malaysian Flight 370 Is So Crucial

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May 1, 2014
by Helen Engelhardt Malaysian-airlines-777"I've been thinking about you," my friends have hesitantly said to me over the past month. "It must be very difficult for you to hear about this missing plane every day." It is. My husband was a passenger on Pan Am Flight 103, the airplane that was bombed out of the sky by Libyan terrorists over Lockerbie, Scotland twenty five years ago. I didn't think it was possible for another set of circumstances to be worse than the one we went through, but I think that Malaysian Flight 370's mysterious disappearance is causing suffering in ways we were spared. We knew immediately that no one had survived Pan Am 103. We just didn't know who would not have a body to bury. Seventeen people had been vaporized by the fireball. Every one of the other 253 bodies were meticulously located and respectfully brought to a morgue established in the town's ice rink. However, when an American expert on bombs identified explosive remains in the wreckage, the bodies were treated as evidence along with luggage and plane parts in the largest mass murder on British soil and withheld indefinitely from the families. Social workers confronted the police and did their best to convince them that it was essential to release the bodies to the families as soon as possible because, as one put it, "It is vital for these people to see their dead." Every religion offers guidance for getting through the emotional and physical upheaval of grieving. These traditions have had thousands of years to create and polish the rituals that comfort, the rituals that speak to the psychological and spiritual needs of the newly bereaved, who have been plunged into an emotional and existential earthquake. Rituals provide a bridge back to an altered world in which it is still possible to continue living. What they all have in common is to encourage the viewing of the dead. Grief is grounded in the body, not the mind. The body has to accept the reality of the death; until then the mind is untethered and wanders freely into magical thinking and denial of facts. Twenty-five years ago, I sought to fling myself into my tradition and let it carry me through those frightening days, even if it meant altering those traditions to fit my emotional needs and the needs of family and friends. In the Jewish tradition, a funeral should be held as soon after death as possible, and the week of formal grieving, or shiva, should begin only after burial. I didn't know if I would ever be given my husband's body to bury. Five days after his death, I held a memorial service for him. I wanted to begin to grieve as soon as possible. Two days later, the phone rang and someone from Pan Am called to tell me that my husband's body had been found. I sobbed from my entire intestines. I sobbed from a well of grief uncapped and available to me for the first time. I literally felt grounded. Physically, it was almost as though I had been told he had been found alive. I never did view his body, but someone else had — indeed, several people had. When it was returned to me three weeks later, it was in a sealed coffin. The funeral director gave me a death certificate naming the place and day and hour his body had been found. I fully accepted the reality of his death. There are many circumstances — and the fate of Malaysian flight 370 seems to be one — in which bodies are never found, or if found, can never be identified. Those circumstances usually involve mass violence: wars, genocide, other horrors, not a commercial flight with the latest communication technology on board. Being able to see one's dead and bury them with respect is, in fact, a privilege. When I hear the latest update of the multinational effort to locate and recover the remains of the plane and its passengers, including the desperate hunt to find that "black box" before its pings went silent forever, I think, "Whatever it takes, do it." Security is very important, yes. Learning what caused this plane to go so disastrously off course, yes. But first and foremost, do your best to give each and every mourner a rock of irrefutable fact to stand on to begin their difficult work of grieving. Nothing is more important than that merciful act. Nothing. Helen Engelhardt, a regular contributor to our magazine, is the author of The Longest Night: A Personal History of Pan Am 103, published by Blue Thread, our book imprint.