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The Missing Peace: When You Can’t Say Goodbye

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My husband was lost at sea. Sailing around the world was his lifelong dream. He bought the boat, retired, spent years preparing for the journey and set a date. I supported his dream but didn’t want to go with him. We both agreed that I would meet him at various ports, sharing in the experience that way. After six months cruising the Sea of Cortez (where I joined him several times) he took off solo for the South Pacific. He never completed his passage between Mexico and the Marquesas. Three weeks into his five-week crossing, he disappeared in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from any landmass in one of the most remote places on earth for search and rescue. I never got to say goodbye.

We exchanged satellite texts that final day. His messages were bizarre – the stuff of sleep deprivation: hallucinatory ramblings, terrifying paranoid delusions. He was intermittently coherent, but only responsive enough for me to get limited information to the Coast Guard. Then, toward evening, he sent a goodbye message, followed by radio silence. My heart sank. I hoped he had just fallen asleep and would wake in a more rational state. That never happened. The U.S. Coast Guard, in coordination with several other countries, sent ships and planes to look for him. They searched tirelessly for three weeks but never found anything. Then I had to wait nearly two months, to make sure he didn’t drift into port somewhere. That was over four years ago.

There are many reasons people never get to say goodbye. Any sudden, unexpected death leaves those left behind shocked and unprepared – an accident, a stroke or heart attack, an overdose, an illness that moves faster than expected, someone missing or killed in action, to name a few. Sometimes it is simply timing, and one is unable to be at the dying person’s bedside. Now, during the Covid 19 pandemic, finding ways to communicate from isolation has added new trauma to the experience of letting go.

Saying goodbye is an important part of accepting death, both for the person who is dying and for the one left behind. It allows both people to acknowledge the meaning and importance of the relationship and to convey any last wishes, or to absolve one another of old wounds. It is a painful but important process, limited by circumstances, and the nature of the connection. If the cognitive capacity of the dying person is such that engaging in heartfelt talk is impossible, expressing one’s feelings is still helpful. Assume your loved one can hear you, since hearing is the last sense to go in the process of dying. Also, admitting the loss paves the way for grieving to begin. When the opportunity to be present is missed, the griever might feel burdened with excessive guilt or regret. Fortunately, it is always possible to say goodbye later. Visualizing a final conversation with your loved one or writing a letter, for example, may open avenues for self-acceptance and self-forgiveness — a vital part of healing.

According to grief researcher William Worden, “The first task of grief is to accept the reality of the loss. It involves recognizing, both emotionally and intellectually, that the person is dead and will not return.” When someone disappears, there is an element of uncertainty about whether there has really been a death. Disbelief is part of loss under normal circumstances, but it is made more persistent by the lack of a body. Social rituals, such as funerals, help people move towards accepting the death as real. When those traditions are delayed or not possible (as is the case now during the pandemic), the loss may feel more ambiguous. Pauline Boss, Ph.D., coined the term “ambiguous loss,” which refers to situations where grief may be suspended or frozen, prolonging the healing process. For many months, I had daydreams that my husband showed up at my door, luggage in hand, dripping wet and covered in seaweed. “I made it,” he would say — the primal stuff old fantastical seafaring movies might include. My night dreams initially portrayed him sitting with his back to me or walking past, unable or unwilling to speak or look at me directly. He remained unresponsive to my queries, but I kept trying to talk to him – that was the important part. These repetitive dreams reflected my internal dilemma — expressing my yearning to understand what happened while faced with the unrelenting reality that I may never know.

Fortunately, when we can’t say goodbye, our unconscious mind may help us find other ways. For example, a year later, I went to the King Tut exhibit at the museum with a friend. The last part of the exhibit was in a semi-darkened room where his sarcophagus lay. A feeling of peace came over me that I couldn’t explain. I thought maybe it was the dim lighting and the quiet space, but it was such a dramatic change from the ongoing low-grade anxiety that had accompanied me since my loss, I kept thinking about it the entire day. Then it hit me, the boat was like a sarcophagus. In my mind’s eye I could see my husband lying there, just like Tut, snug in his boat, albeit at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Despite the grim location, I found that realization comforting because I was able to finally visualize his burial site, which helped me let go. Also, it brought home the remarkable adaptability of the psyche.

Social rituals are an important part of healing from loss, and that includes saying goodbye. “Our lives are full of chaos and uncertainty, especially when we are grieving,” says Julia Barnhill. Rituals provide structure, give us purpose and moments of peace. They have powerful symbolic meaning and connect us to others. I eventually held a “celebration of life” memorial and even the chapel I chose had significance. It was where my husband and I got married 39 years earlier and it overlooked the Pacific Ocean. Many of the guests had attended our wedding. Writing and reading my eulogy helped me say goodbye. Hearing friends and family tell stories about him allowed me to integrate the loss of our shared life and gave others opportunity to also say their farewells. We need to create meaningful narratives of a person’s life to be able to accept their death.

 Personal rituals are just as important. “Every ritual tells a story…” says artist Tamara Dean. After the passing of a friend, I was invited to a small memorial where we painted rocks in her honor to be placed in a memorial garden the host had created. Each rock represented that person’s unique relationship to her. It was beautiful. I made one for my husband too – a sailboat on the water with the sun shining and a small bird in flight. I put it in my garden. It brings me joy every time I see it. Recently, on what would have been our 43rd wedding anniversary, I wrote him a love letter and said all the things I would have said to him had I been given the chance to do so before he died. I sobbed all the way through. But at the end, I felt more complete, like I had found a missing piece.

Our family never got answers. We will never know exactly what happened. All I had was the latitude and longitude of his last location before his emergency transmitter fell silent, and the clues from the day-long stream of chaotic texts exchanged with the family. Little did I know that I would come to feel incredibly grateful for those, especially his final messages to me that said: “Good-Bye,” and “I luv you always.” It was a gift I am only now coming to appreciate. Some people who go missing simply vanish without a word.

By Martha Carr, Psy.D., LMFT