Living in limbo: Grieving gets tougher when there's no body to bury

Donna Carnes and husband Jim Gray shared a love of the outdoors. He disappeared sailing off Northern California in 2007.

Story highlights

  • Computer scientist Jim Gray went missing on a sailing trip in 2007
  • His wife, Donna Carnes, has lived with not knowing what happened
  • She knows the agony of the families of those aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
  • Without evidence of death, there will likely be no closure for them either
Seven years after it happened, Donna Carnes can finally sleep through the night, except when a similar trauma occurs, like the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
Then those dreams come again, 1,000 different visions in which she sees her husband in the cream-colored sweater and blue jeans he was wearing the day he vanished. She dreams of searching for him in her ancestral Norway or other places that mattered in her life: at a circus in Edinburgh, or on a North Dakota prairie.
The dreams make her think he is right there beside her when she wakes up.
But he is not.
She knows her husband, Jim Gray, is probably dead, his body under the vast frigid waters of the Pacific somewhere. Unless he was kidnapped by a rogue government, or simply sailed away to spend the rest of his days fishing in Fiji.
She carries this ambiguity. She learned to live with it; it never goes away.
The sea always played an important part in the couple's lives, and the two enjoyed sailing on their boat, Tenacious.
She knows the anguish of the families of Flight 370.
"I can almost speak their words before they speak them," she says.
When the plane was first reported missing, she followed the story on the news. At one point, she thought the plane might be found. She filled with envy.
"Someone was absolutely certain they were alive somewhere," Carnes says. "I thought momentarily: 'Wouldn't that be nice? What if they were on some island and Jim were with them?' "
She watched the frenzy of the search for Flight 370. One day, it will end, just as it ended for Carnes' husband. But the pain of ambiguous loss is inherently open-ended.
Hu Xianqun, the wife of a Flight 370 passenger, cited an old Chinese saying. "If a person is alive, we need to see him as proof. If a person is dead, we need to see the body. We relatives haven't seen anything yet, so how can we give up hope?"
No trace of Gray was ever found, and the computer scientist was declared legally dead five years after he disappeared.
But there may never be a body to bury. Carnes, 64, has learned that all you can do is manage the not knowing.
The human brain doesn't like ambiguity. People don't like being kept in limbo. That's what psychologist Pauline Boss, who studies this kind of loss, says. It's against human nature not to know, especially when we live in a society that culturally values the ability to master challenges and solve mysteries.
"Not knowing? That's exactly what you get to live with," Carnes says to the grieving families. "Understand, that it's a turning point."
Understand, she says to the people surrounding them, there is likely no closure. So, stop trying to force an ending for those left behind.
* * *
I carry you like
My own personal
Time Machine,
As I put on
My lipstick, smile
And head out to
The party.
-- Donna Carnes, "Walk On"
The hurly-burly
The last normal day of Carnes' life was January 28, 2007.
She was on an annual ski trip in northern Wisconsin with her girlfriends. Her husband called her from the San Francisco Marina Yacht Harbor to tell her he was taking their sailboat 28 miles from the California coastline to the Farallon Islands. He planned to scatter the ashes of his mother, who died three months earlier.
He was an experienced sailor and had taken stock of the weather. It was a perfect day to sail in the couple's scarlet 40-foot fiberglass cruiser, Tenacious.
Carnes sought comfort in her mother after her husband went missing, but dementia has changed the older woman.
He navigated out of San Francisco Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean. He called Carnes one more time and also left a voice mail for his daughter. "I'm surrounded by dolphins," he said. "It's a little cloudy but pleasant out here."
That was the last communication anyone had with him. Shortly afterward, he and the boat disappeared.
Carnes' husband, Gray, was a computer wizard. He pioneered database technology in the 1970s -- his work eased bank transactions and online shopping. In 1998, he won the A.M. Turing Award, the most prestigious prize given out by the Association for Computing Machinery. A veteran of IBM, he was working as an engineer for Microsoft when he went missing.
Carnes met Gray in 1984 and instantly fell in love. He was lean, rugged, statuesque. And fiercely smart. To Carnes, Gray was the most elegant nerd on the planet. He loved sailing just as she did. They both had intense personalities. They read Tolkien out loud to each other. She called him Mr. Database. He'd come home every night and greet her by saying: "Hello, Donna Lee. I'm home, you lucky person."
He proposed to her on a boat. In their house on San Francisco's Telegraph Hill, the bedroom had a nautical theme. The sea was so much a part of their lives that when Carnes didn't hear from her husband later on that January day, at first she thought little of it.
But she became concerned as the hours went by and Gray did not check in as planned. He was not answering his cell phone. At about 8:30 p.m., Carnes called the harbor master, who alerted the Coast Guard.
It was a calm, moonlit night. "My surface feeling was that he was all right," Carnes said.
The night got quieter and quieter as no news came. She tried to sleep and dreamed her husband was floating on water.
"So, it was already a mixed message," she says.
Gray and Carnes on a trip to Norway. She considered moving to her ancestral homeland after he disappeared.
Just as Carnes made her way back to California, she got a call informing her that a red boat had been spotted in the vicinity where Gray went sailing. She boarded her plane relieved. She was certain she'd have a message from her husband waiting in her voice mail when she landed in San Francisco.
There was no such message. Instead, Carnes returned home to news spreading about Gray's disappearance. Within a matter of hours, she went from being an extremely private person to someone whose grief was in the public spotlight.
"That was when everything changed," she says. "The hurly-burly began."
The Coast Guard sent aircraft and boats to scour 132,000 square miles of ocean that stretched from the Channel Islands in Southern California to the Oregon border. At the same time, Gray's many friends in the high-tech world supplemented the search with what they knew best: computer expertise. Employees of Google, Amazon, Oracle and NASA got involved and expanded the private search into Mexico. One Coast Guard official commented that it was the largest privately sponsored search he'd ever seen.
Carnes began sleeping less than three hours every night. She was already a thin woman but dropped another dress size to a 2. She sequestered herself, hunkered down with close friends and family.
Speculation about what might have happened was in her face every day. Maybe Gray's boat struck debris that holed the hull. Or hit another vessel or a whale even. Maybe Gray took ill and fell off the boat. Or it caught fire. Maybe pirates attacked, or there was some other foul play. Or did Gray simply sail away purposefully to abandon the life he knew?
On February 8, Carnes recalled, 11 days into her nightmare, the model and actress Anna Nicole Smith died from a drug overdose. Carnes felt relief when that tragedy took the media focus off her own.
After days of scouring the waters, the official search for Gray was suspended on February 16.
Carnes kept having terrible dreams in which her husband would emerge from the sea. "I was out there for a long time," he would say. "Why didn't you come find me?"
Carnes woke up in dread every morning. The above-water search yielded not a trace. So she hired an offshore surveying company to look underwater for three months.
She wanted the searchers to find something, and she wanted them to find nothing. The latter would mean she could still hope.
Nothing turned up on the seabed. The search was halted that May 31.
Gray's friends who had joined the search felt like failures. Many people wanted an ending. They wanted to have a funeral. But Carnes couldn't do that. There was no evidence her husband was dead.
"It was very difficult to be in missing person land with people around you who wanted you to find closure," she said.
People wanted to call her a widow, which made her angry.
"To call myself a widow was diminishing my life experience," Carnes wrote later in a 2012 article about the myth of closure. "It was another way of tucking away what happened under the cultural veneer of a closure word."
* * *
I'd rather fall
Through airy sky
And be seen,
Than into the sea
Of lingering loss
-- Donna Carnes, "Density (Petition to Establish Death)"
Weeks turned into months and years.
Sometimes, when she went up and down the hills of San Francisco and caught a glimpse of the shimmering bay, she would see Tenacious under the water. That's why she stopped sailing there. She had what she calls an irrational fear that she would sail over her husband's watery grave and not know it.
When planes went missing, when children were lost, Carnes cringed. She wondered for days about what happened to businessman and adventurist Steve Fossett, whose plane went missing just months after her husband's boat. She felt sadness but relief for his widow when his plane was found.
"My sense of safety and natural balance in my world disappeared."
She was constantly searching; scanning crowds; straining to see the man across the street whose head was the same shape as her husband's. What if it were him? One time, a friend followed a man on a bicycle. He resembled Gray so much.
"I was caught in time. I couldn't move on. I felt frozen."
She calls it "sticky time." The whole world is going on with their lives. But she feels caught because she is forever searching.
Carnes says her sadness lingers after seven years, but she has learned to live with the "not knowing."
Slowly, Carnes learned how to cope with the ambiguity of her loss.
She started running twice every day. Six, maybe, eight miles. She began cooking again. She wrote down her many dreams. Eventually, they formed the basis for her poetry.
She thought about moving to Norway, even bought land there. She wanted to get as far away as she possibly could from the Pacific. But her elderly mother lived in Wisconsin. Carnes felt the need to be with her.
She thought she could go to her mom, put her head in her lap, find comfort. But dementia was changing her mother, and Carnes experienced another kind of ambiguous loss when her mother stopped looking up and recognizing her. Or when she blurted out unintentionally hurtful sentences.
One time, when Carnes told her mother that she was sad about her husband, her mother paused.
"Oh, yes, Donna," she said, after it clicked. "That is just horrible. ... If only you knew what happened to him, you could get some peace. He is probably at the bottom of the sea, being eaten by fish."
The words stung. Carnes realized that her normally kind and nurturing mother could no longer consistently comfort her or provide hope for the future. Her mother was there in body, but not always in mind, and some of her tact was eroded by the dementia.
But in those unfiltered words was another realization. Carnes had wanted her family and friends to honor her right to question whether her husband was dead.
"My mother was telling me what many people thought."
Gray's status was that of a missing person, presumed alive. But California law allows for a change in that status if a missing person has not been heard from for five continuous years.
Carnes understood that the law was designed to help protect the material world of a missing person. Who knows? A person could come back to his or her old life. The law also gave her time to think about her husband.
Five years after Gray disappeared, Carnes petitioned a California court to declare him dead.
"The legal process doesn't give you psychological closure, but it does give you time," she said. "Whatever happened, we now move forward."
Moving forward. The families of missing people don't like to say they've moved on. That implies that they've closed the door. They haven't.
For Carnes, the declaration of death came with its own peculiarities. Her husband was 63 when he disappeared. But Gray's death certificate was dated January 28, 2012, making him 68.
Officially, that made her a widow. It made her life less complicated in terms of bureaucracy and legal wrangling.
And, it helped her make progress on healing. She'd begun that journey even before she petitioned the court, prompted by personal crises.
She broke her left arm in a bike accident. She leaned on the company of her rescued greyhound, Galileo, to get through. But Galileo died suddenly, unexpectedly, and two days later, she walked in on a burglary at her house in San Francisco.
All that triggered something in Carnes that helped her move forward. She wanted to lead the kind of rich and full life she once had with Gray and not live sequestered as she had been doing since he was gone. But it wasn't easy.
"You want to do so many things in your life," she said. "But there is always such a sadness."
In December 2012, she sent out Christmas cards for the first time since Gray went missing. The card featured several photographs of Carnes and her family and included a goodbye to her husband.
* * *
I found him walking barefoot in a snow wood, wearing a white wolf fleece,
He was holding a piece of my puzzled mind, and motioned me over to look ~
And when I awake, the days of my life will hold me.
-- Donna Carnes, "The Lost Man"
These days, Carnes mostly thinks her husband is gone forever. The families of those aboard the Malaysia Airlines plane will perhaps one day reach that same painful place.
"I think something bad happened to Jim," she says. "I don't know what that is."
She looks out at the wild and beautiful and dangerous sea and marvels at its vastness. Beneath the surface it's even larger. She knows. She is a sailor, after all.
She leans heavily on the things that give her joy: cooking, running, her greyhounds and her poetry, which she says has helped her process the dual ambiguity of her husband's unknown ending and her mother's diminishing persona. An exhibit of her poetry opens May 2 at the Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton, Wisconsin.
Her sadness lingers, but Carnes counters it with an intense joy she finds in life. They are always side by side.