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.