Dealing With Loss When Death Is Uncertain

For families of missing or disappeared persons, mourning the ambiguous loss of their loved ones is complex.

Daniel Pérez went missing Nov. 26, 2015, while attempting to cross the border into the United States. 

Photo from Norma Pérez

Since 2015, Norma Pérez has been searching for her younger brother Daniel, one of thousands of migrants who’ve gone missing attempting to cross the border into the United States.

“His name is Daniel; he’s my little brother. He disappeared on Nov. 26, 2015. It’s been four years, and we haven’t heard anything about him. We contacted everyone,” says Pérez, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. “We don’t have much hope that one day he will appear. We’ve tried everything.”

Daniel was 18 when he went missing in 2015, making him 21 today. Pérez and her family, originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, started searching for Daniel immediately after he went missing, she says. Her father traveled to the border at Tijuana to file a missing-person report.

“[Daniel] had returned to Mexico, but he couldn’t adapt. It was very difficult for him there,” Pérez says. “He couldn’t find work. He told me that he was going to try to cross the border that day. We didn’t know it would end like this with what happened to him.”

From the Fall 2019 Issue
The Death Issue
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Families whose loved ones have gone missing experience what is known as ambiguous loss, a complex and often misunderstood type of grieving where coping is difficult because of its uncertainty. There are two types: The first occurs when someone is physically missing, as is the case with missing persons; and the second occurs when someone is physically present but psychologically missing, as is the case with dementia or addiction.

“Unfortunately, people jump too quickly to call it depression. It may be depression in some cases, but in all cases, it’s sadness, and sadness is a normal reaction to an abnormal kind of loss,” says Pauline Boss, a researcher at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities who developed the theory of ambiguous loss.

Families experiencing it can get frozen in grief, especially if they are alone during the experience.

“Our society doesn’t know what to do with loss, and an ambiguous loss makes it even worse, so they stay away,” creating distance that becomes isolating for those experiencing it, Boss says.

Ambiguous loss is common for families whose relatives have disappeared while crossing the border. It’s also long been an issue in Indigenous communities, where women and girls go missing or are murdered at alarmingly high rates. In Canada, the crisis was declared a genocide after a two-year National Inquiry into the issue. In the U.S., Indigenous women experience violence at rates 10 times the national average, according to a 2018 report published by the Urban Indian Health Institute.

This violence isn’t new—it has occurred since colonization. As a result, Indigenous families have been experiencing ambiguous loss for generations.

“The thing that’s really important when we talk about Indigenous communities is that this kind of loss and grief isn’t just one or two generations old—it’s four, five, six, seven, eight generations old,” says Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute and co-author of the 2018 report. “When we think about the way that trauma is passed down from generation to generation, we absolutely have to be thinking about ambiguous loss and the grief that is perpetuating this generational trauma.”

Indigenous families face significantly more barriers that make the search for missing loved ones more difficult, including the indifference of law enforcement, which often fails to properly record or respond to missing-persons cases involving Indigenous women and girls. In 2016, 5,712 Indigenous women and girls were reported missing in the U.S., but only 116 of them were filed in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, known as NamUs.

“As a result of institutional and structural racism, the data has not been gathered on the race and ethnicities of these women,” Echo-Hawk says. “It allows for an epidemic like we have to continue, and to continue to be unseen.”

Resilience has been the best option. Families experiencing the crisis have been coming together, supporting each other, holding searches, and working to prevent this from happening to others. That’s important, Boss says, because spending time with others experiencing the same type of ambiguous loss and taking action are helpful ways to cope with the pain.

Deborah Maytubee started the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA Facebook page in 2015 after losing two close friends. Since then, the page has grown into a full-blown family support network.

“Last year we brought four families together; three of them had never talked to another MMIW family before,” Maytubee says. “That was a precious thing to watch. When it gets talked about, it is a lot easier for everyone. It makes all the difference.”

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The group helps Indigenous families across the U.S. search for missing loved ones and communicate with law enforcement. They also make sure families are able to meet their basic needs by helping with their heating and electric bills as they search and connect them with others experiencing the same situation.

After working with more than 300 families with missing loved ones, the Facebook group launched Staying Sacred, a self-defense and awareness program in the Pacific Northwest for Indigenous girls ages 10 to 18. The group meets every month for a self-defense class followed by cultural lessons and discussions on human trafficking and how best to avoid dangerous situations. Most of the girls’ mothers participate in discussions, too.

“What we noticed about two months in was that this was really healing us too, to be able to help the kids avoid these things,” Maytubee says.

Back in the Bay Area, Pérez says she finally found support for coping with her grief. After finding the website for the Tucson, Arizona-based Colibrí Center for Human Rights, she called and gave staff information about Daniel’s disappearance. They then connected Pérez with her local comité, or group of families searching for missing loved ones.

“It’s a daily struggle not to fall into sadness.”

“It’s a daily struggle not to fall into sadness,” Perez says. “Before Colibrí, the truth is that I did not know anyone well. There are many families experiencing this, but they’re not talking about it, I think mostly because of fear.”

The 17 members of her comité travel within the Bay Area to meet, share stories and coping strategies, make music, and seek justice. Colibrí has established four other comités in cities where they’ve received the highest number of reports: Tucson, Phoenix; Los Angeles; and New York City.

Family networks for relatives of desaparecidos have a long history in Latin America, especially in countries that have experienced the violence of civil wars, which often involve the U.S. government. But the groups Cofamide in El Salvador and Cofamipro in Honduras, both family networks created for and by families of disappeared migrants, were important models for Colibrí.

“In addition to the immense emotional difficulty [of ambiguous loss], each of these families is also navigating any number of forms of compounding disenfranchisement,” says Ben Clark, the family network director at Colibrí, “whether that’s documentation status, whether that’s socioeconomic, or these very logistical challenges like the inability to transfer property titles in Mexico for someone who’s disappeared but not confirmed deceased.”

The center launched the family network in 2016 and has created a space for families to be heard both within the network and by the public. And because they aren’t isolated in their suffering, many have been able to raise their voices together.

Colibrí sponsored Pérez and other families whose relatives have gone missing along the border to testify in Boulder, Colorado, before members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Other members started publishing a monthly zine.

“When I went to Boulder, I was able to meet families from Arizona. We could talk and support each other,” Pérez says, adding that there are plans for more networking between families in Latin America and the U.S.

“I’m sure it will be a very beautiful experience.”