N E W Y O R K, Sept. 28, 2001 -- As the search mission at ground zero goes on, some families face a cruel reality — they may never find the bodies of their loved ones.
Many families of victims in the World Trade Center attack may never get to go through the traditional rituals of death.
To date, authorities have identified only 238 bodies from the scene, and there are 5,960 people still missing. Although forensic scientists expect that DNA tests will identify most of the bodies and remains that are recovered, it is likely that many of the victims' families will never have any physical confirmation of their loved one's death.
Without a body to mourn over, it can be more difficult to move past the pain, according to family therapist Pauline Boss, author of Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief.
Boss created the term "ambiguous loss" to describe the inability to move forward that occurs when there is no verification of a missing person's status. Unresolved loss can make it harder for families to get closure, she said.
"It becomes a loss without comprehension," Boss said on Good Morning America. "It's hard for the mind and the heart to accept death without a body and some of the ceremonies that go along with it."
Boss, a family social science professor at the University of Minnesota, said that it takes longer to get over an unresolved death. "Family and friends have to realize that this kind of loss will be slower toward grieving and moving on than other kinds of loss — so we need to be more patient and tolerant."
Religious Rituals Without a Body
Religious rituals are an important part of the grieving process for many families. The body generally plays a central part in funeral rites, but most religions make allowances for situations where no body is found.
Although they cannot hold a wake with an open casket, Roman Catholics can celebrate a memorial Mass. While it is customary in Islam to ritually wash the body and cover it with a white shroud, Muslim funeral prayers, janazah, can proceed without a body.
Jews are supposed to bury the body as soon as possible after death, as a sign of respect, then hold a seven-day mourning period, known as shiva, at the mourners' home. Families can still sit shiva when a burial is impossible.
Hindu funerals are usually held within 24 hours of a death. When cremation or burial is impossible, families can proceed with mourning rites only after a formal declaration of death. The rites include prayers and offerings for the soul of the departed, as well as a purifying bath for the mourners.
Formalities of Death
During the grieving period, families must also concern themselves with practical matters such as finances. Financial institutions normally require a death certificate before they allow access to bank accounts or death benefits. And in cases where there is no body, it can take as long as long as three years to get official certification.
To minimize families' suffering in the Sept. 11 attacks, insurers are waiving the requirement for a death certificate. They are accepting other documentation — such as passenger manifests, employer lists and published obituaries — to release life insurance benefits.
In New York, authorities last week began issuing expedited death certificates to families who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center.
Boss said the official record of death would help families with their finances, but would not necessarily change the way the families deal with the loss. "For some people they will see that as a pragmatic issue, and in their mind they still aren't ready to shut the door. That's normal," she said.
Something to Remember
For many families it is important to have something tangible to remember their loved ones by.
On Wednesday, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said that recovery workers gathering mementos from the wreckage to give to bereaved relatives. He promised that every family would have something: "We hope that we can recover remains, but we will give every family something from the World Trade Center, from the soil, from the ground, so that they can take it with them."
It is likely that many of the bodies will never be found. "It will be a burial ground for a lot of people," Giuliani said.
In a news conference today, Giuliani estimated it would take between nine months and a year to clear the site.