Thomas Hand tearfully told a CNN reporter that “death was a blessing” upon learning that his 8-year-old daughter Emily had been killed by Hamas. He had spent a tortuous two days waiting to hear news about his daughter after Hamas terrorists stormed their kibbutz, massacring at least 100 people.

“That was the best, possibly, that I was hoping for. She was either dead or in Gaza. And if you know anything about what they do to people in Gaza, that is worse than death,” he said. “So, death was a blessing, an absolute blessing.”

For families who do not know if their loved ones are dead or taken hostage or lying in a hospital somewhere, the anguish of not knowing keeps them stuck in a cycle of pain and numbness, hope and despair.

American Hersh Goldberg-Polin, age 23, was last seen being loaded into a pickup with other hostages abducted by the Hamas militants from the Tribe of Nova music festival. Witnesses said he lost part of an arm in a grenade attack, reports The Associated Press.

Rachel Goldberg, his mother, received two WhatsApp messages from Hersh at 8:11 a.m. on Oct. 7. One said “I love you” and the other “I’m sorry.” 

“I don’t know what will be,” she said. “So in the meantime, I just keep walking through hell, because if I stop, then I’m just in hell.”

Relatives of U.S. citizens that are missing since Saturday’s surprise attack by Hamas militants near the Gaza border, in Tel Aviv, Israel attend a news conference on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Seated from left: Jonathan Dekel-Chen, father of Sagui Dekel-Chen, 35, from Nahal Oz; Ruby Chen, father of Itay Chen, 19, a soldier in the armored corps; Ayala Neta, daughter, and Nahal Neta, son of Adrienne Neta, 66, a nurse living in Kibbitz Be’eri; Rachel Goldberg, mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, who was attending the music festival, and Jonathan Polin, Hersh’s father. | Maya Alleruzzo, Associated Press

Ambiguous loss

Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” in the 1970s to explain losses where there is no certainty or closure about the loss. Boss says ambiguous loss can be among the most stressful — there’s often no burial and no neighbors dropping off food after the funeral. The ambiguity freezes the grief process, blocking coping and decision-making abilities, Boss wrote in a 1999 paper.

Less than three weeks after the attacks of 9/11, The New York Times published an article on ambiguous loss and grieving when the lost are never found.

For many of the thousands of people who lost loved ones in the massacre of Sept. 11, the continuing search-and-rescue effort leaves a fragment of hope — either that the missing will somehow be found alive or that their bodies will be recovered so the process of mourning can begin. For some, even a declaration that no more victims will be found alive is difficult or impossible to accept.  

This year, in early September, two more victims of 9/11 were identified — more than 20 years after the attack. More than 1,000 remains have yet to be identified.

In the Mediterranean, at least 28,000 migrants are missing, presumably drowned, since 2014. Only 13% of the bodies are ever recovered, reports The Washington Post. The vast majority are never identified, and European governments don’t make a concerted effort to identify the dead unless the numbers are so large that the media pays attention.

After February’s 7.8 earthquake in Turkey, more than 50,000 people died. After rescue efforts ceased, and then recovery efforts shifted to cleaning up debris, many victims remained unidentified. Relatives of Zeyna Aslan were sure they knew where she was when the earthquake struck, reported The Wall Street Journal. They were unable to find her. “I prefer to have her body and a grave,” said one friend. “Now, I don’t have anything.”

Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean activist based in Uganda, works to identify the dead. A mother whose son went missing in 2005 has been calling Estefanos for 18 years. “I wish I could give you an answer, but I can’t,” the activist tells her. The woman always counters the same way: “So why can’t you tell me he’s dead?”

Supporting those with ambiguous loss

For anyone who knows someone slogging through an open-ended loss, there are ways to help. Some of them are playing out in Israel right now, with friends and neighbors who are bringing food and sitting with survivors in their uncertainty.

When the crisis is immediate, there are several steps supportive family and friends can take, according to the National Center for PTSD:

  • Attend to basic needs like shelter, food and safety.
  • Listen, listen, listen.
  • Be free of judgments.
  • Show respect for their reactions to the crisis and their way of coping. There are many different normal responses.
  • Help them with the potentially overwhelming amount of information, or conversely, with a frustrating lack of information.

If the loss is current, as it is in Israel, it’s too early to “find meaning.” That can come down the road. For now, it can be enough to sit with them in their shock and grief.

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.