Grief without the body

Nearly two weeks after the Grenfell Tower fire, police announced that the final fire toll will not be known until at least the end of the year. Whilst the toll may be confirmed sometime in 2018, there is little guarantee that it will be possible to identify all the bodies. Det Supt McCormack of the Met Police recently stated that officers will have to break the tragic news to some families that it may not be possible to recover the remains of their loved ones.


“Without remains, even when faced with a certain knowledge of death, those left behind cling to theories and hope…- amnesia, kindapping, wanderings.” (T. McVeigh)

Most people need the experience of seeing the body of a loved one who has passed away as it renders the loss real. Without being able to view the body, touch it, or prepare it for burial it becomes very difficult to accept that the person has actually died. People are left in a limbo and any reports of sightings or news of survivors resurfacing at a later date, rekindles the hopes of the bereaved that their loved one may still be alive somewhere. As to live means to hope, it becomes difficult to move on from the loss in the way that we might do following a burial. As well as being linked to hope, the struggle in coming to terms with the loss in the absence of a body is fuelled by the fear of how one might react if our loved one was to reappear years after we have moved on with our life.

Having a body to bury also means that a funeral can be held, which enables the community to share in the ritual of mourning. In the aftermath of 9/11 Counsellors and Psychologists encouraged the bereaved family members to hold funerals in spite of the lack of a body. Whilst this provides a much needed focal point for grief, the lack of certainty surrounding the death of their loved one remains. A lack of definite answers brought on by the absence of a body leads to a situation of ambiguity i.e. a situation where there is no clarity. Many feel relieved to learn that there is actually such a thing as ambiguous loss.


“Loss wasn’t – musn’t be, couldn’t be – and end in itself. It had to mean something. But finding out its meaning was like scaling a gigantic wall. Was it there just so I could overcome it?”

S.Tamaro – Follow your Heart (Boss, 1999)

As ambiguous loss is a very different type of loss to what we are normally used to, it is easy to start blaming ourselves for failing to make sense of our inability to find closure. Acknowledging this type of loss for what it is, is often the very first step towards healing. Appreciating the fact that, in the face of uncertainty, people cling to the status quo, helps to normalise your response and this is yet another step forward. Mental health professionals, churches and the community at large are not used to supporting people who face an unclear loss so the bereaved are often left to find their own way to overcome the ambiguity.

I am reminded of the case of an American woman whose husband went missing in action during the Vietnam war. When interviewed by US family therapist Pauline Boss about her ability to cope with the loss, this extroardinary widow explained that she was raised in an Indian reservation where it was customary to keep the deceased person “present” for a while to ease the shock of a sudden death. By being true to that custom, this lady was able to feel the support of her husband as if he were still by her side. His presence and comfort felt so real to her that she actually described how her husband visited her on two occasions. The first time he offered her guidance on making decisions about the family. A year later he appeared again. This time he told her how much he loved her and how proud he was of her and the decisions she had taken. He then said it was now time for him to say goodbye. It is at this point that she knew that her husband had definitely left her. These encounters helped her to find her strength to take decisions she would never before been able to take on her own and, ultimately, helped her find closure.

The experience of this widow, highlights a key point in coming to terms with grief when there is no body: the ability to redefine the relationship with the person who is missing. Opening up to the idea of redefining this relationship by looking for customs across cultures or by drawing on the power of our imagination, sets us free from the expectation to find the perfect solution to overcome a loss that falls outside of the norm.

The most daunting, and last step in trying to overcome ambiguous loss, is to find meaning. The goal is to find, gently and in your own time, a way to make changes even though the ambiguity might persist. This can help people to feel hopeful about their ambiguous loss as energy of hope shifts from waiting for the missing person to return, to a wider cause outside of oneself. In the case of the Grenfell Tower fire, survivors are pressing hard to see justice done for the victims and to prevent the same tragedy occurring in the future. If they succeed, they will see justice prevail and give meaning to the suffering they are enduring in the aftermath of a loss which is leaving many to grief without a body.



Boss, P, 2000. Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief. 1. Harvard University Press.

Somini Sengupta With Al Baker. 2017. A NATION CHALLENGED: THE MEMORIALS; Rites of Grief, Without a Body to Cry Over – The New York Times

“NO BODY” Funerals | Missing Persons | Grief on Hold | Cremation Solutions. 2017. “NO BODY” Funerals | Missing Persons | Grief on Hold | Cremation Solutions.

The Guardian. 2017. It’s hard to grieve without a body | World news | The Guardian

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