MH370: after six months relatives still suffer in 'emotional limbo'

Uncertainty surrounding the fate of their loved ones makes dealing with loss much harder for the families

For Wang Le, it's glimpsing the clock at noon; the time when he would ring his mum for a chat. For Dai Shuqin, it's the battered black bag that her sister gave her years ago, which she now carries everywhere and hugs as though it were a child. For Jiang Hui, it's remembering the little gifts his mother used to bring for her grandchild.

"She was a very ordinary person. She didn't have many achievements. But as a mother, she was extraordinary," he said.

"It's something money can't buy. A toy, a piece of candy – it's a feeling of family love. It is irreplaceable. I really regret that I didn't treasure this before."

Six months after Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished on 8 March, the relatives of those on board are struggling with both loss and uncertainty. They know they must continue earning money to pay bills, taking care of their families. But Monday's anniversary will be one more blow.

"You are in emotional limbo. Even though we know it is a 0.001% chance – there's still that 0.001% chance," said Sarah Bajc, whose boyfriend Philip Wood was on the flight.

"I lost one of my children in infancy; my dad died a couple of weeks before Philip went missing. Loss is a hard thing and we miss those people, but in the end, it is a normal part of life.

"How do you have a memorial service for someone who's missing if there's no proof of death? You can't."

Families struggle to imagine how long they may have to go on this way, said Jack Song, 50. He wiped away tears as he explained that his sister should have been on a later flight, but agreed to help out another traveller by swapping tickets.

"A minute's decision totally changes your whole life," he said.

"It's a miserable story – but there are many, many that are worse."

He ticks them off: the wife who lost her husband just a few weeks into their marriage; the parents who have lost their children; the households who have lost their main breadwinner.

Five members of Dai's family are missing: her sister and brother-in-law were returning from a holiday with their daughter, son-in-law and grandchild. When her sister had called her from Malaysia, they spoke only briefly.

"As you grow older you become gentler in dealing with people, but somehow I felt, because we were very close, that I could show her my true feelings; if I was not happy I'd show it," said Dai, 61.

"I really regret that. I should have cherished our relationship, because you never know what will happen next day. If she comes back, I will really change."

Some have gradually come to terms with the idea they will not see their loved ones again.

"At the beginning, we were hoping for a miracle – that our families are alive and will return safely. Now, most have accepted the fact that our families won't come back. We only hope that the search can yield results as soon as possible," said Wang, 27.

Yet for others, like Jiang: "As time goes by, the feeling that our relatives are still alive gets stronger and stronger."

In the chaos of the first few weeks, as conflicting information raised and dashed hopes: "It felt as if our families had died many times," he said.

"It was the first time in my 41 years that I truly understood the word 'torment'."

When Malaysia announced it believed the plane had crashed into the ocean, with all lives lost, families demanded proof.

Now some have become convinced its absence is a positive sign: if half a year of intensive searching has turned up no wreckage, surely there cannot have been a crash at all, they argue.

They have become acutely sensitive to other people's traumas: "After MH370, I weep for disasters," said Jiang. When Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down they sent a letter of advice and support to relatives; when an earthquake struck southern China they banded together to send cash.

Meanwhile they are struggling to keep businesses running and pay mortgages. Although Malaysia Airlines distributed interim compensation payments of $50,000 in June, many have refused them, unwilling to accept that their relatives are dead, or fearing – despite assurances – that it may jeopardise future payouts.

"You can't close bank accounts; you can't claim on insurance … I have got heart-wrenching, intellectual trauma – and financial pressures. I'm just so exhausted," said Bajc.

Relatives welcomed the extraordinary public attention to the case, saying it gave them confidence that the search for the plane – and for answers to its disappearance – will not be given up lightly.

The problem, said Bajc, is that the interest has brought them no closer to the truth: "We still don't know anything. And I don't know that we will ever know."


Tania Branigan in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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