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Not knowing loved one's fate adds to the trauma
When a weary Kevin Bardsley vowed earlier this week to keep searching for his son until the snow flies in the High Uintas, it was an impulse as human and healing as it is exhausting.
As a species, say psychologists and others who deal with grieving people, we want and need to know that the body of a loved one who is missing and presumed dead has finally been found. To not have closure, Murray funeral director Kurt Soffe says, "is like reading a wonderful novel and not being able to read the last chapter. It's always hanging there, never complete."
Lori Hacking, Garrett BardsleySo, Kevin Bardsley continues to comb the Uintas for 12-year-old Garrett, who disappeared Aug. 20 on a Scouting trip.
At the same time, cadaver dogs continued to sniff through thousands of tons of garbage at the Salt Lake landfill this weekend for Lori Hacking, presumed murdered by her husband Mark on July 19 and then placed in a Dumpster. In the Hacking case, of course, Lori's body could also supply a crucial piece of evidence.
"There's no substitute for seeing with our own eyes" the body of a loved one who has died, says funeral director Soffe. "One of the hardest things in life is when we have to live with our own imaginations." In Kevin Bardsley's case that means wondering what actually happened to his son: whether an animal killed him, or he fell, or froze to death after getting lost in the woods. Or whether, somehow, he might still be alive, kidnapped perhaps.
A recovered body lets us know, as Soffe says, "beyond a shadow of a doubt that the loss has actually occurred." Or, as Sandy psychologist Rob Pramann of Shepherd's Staff Christian Counseling Center puts it, "the irreversibility factor." Otherwise, therapist Lindy Burton adds, the human tendency is to let some part of our brain deny that it really happened. And when that happens, the person left behind can't really get on with his life.
No wonder, then, that as a society we put so much effort into finding something, anything, at a mass but vague gravesite like the World Trade Center. "To label the teeth, to find the bones; something that says, 'This person is gone,' " says Burton, a licensed clinical social worker with Aspen Grove Counseling.
That's why, in every culture, there are so many ceremonies at the time of a death, she says. "We put it in the paper, we have a gathering, we have a ceremony when we put the body in the ground. None of that is necessary. But for the survivors it's important," not just as a way of honoring the dead, but "to have it constantly put in their face: This person is dead, and they're not coming back."
The very hardest losses, she says, are the ambiguous ones. Kidnappings, for example, or people who go missing. Funeral director Soffe recalls the story of a Utah teenager who disappeared while deer hunting and whose bones and wallet weren't found for 28 years.
"There's always that little sliver of hope that maybe they're not dead," says Soffe, who adds that for the boy's mother the eventual funeral service let that hope finally be put to rest.
For the parents of Garrett Bardsley and Lori Hacking and others whose bodies have been left in what might be hard to classify as a "final resting place"—the landfill, perhaps, or a harsh mountainside with winter coming on—there is also the sense that leaving the body behind, even though it's already dead, would be cruel.
"You wouldn't want to be left by the side of the road," says Marty Merz, whose son, Adam, was buried by an avalanche while snowboarding the day after Christmas 2003. To search for a body and bring it home is the "honorable thing," he says.
The Merzes, as well as the parents of snowboarders Rod Newbury and Mike Hebert, had to wait till the following spring to find their sons. The difference, Merz says, was that they knew exactly what had befallen the young men. "I wasn't in the anguish stage these folks are," he says about the Bardsleys.
Adam Merz, Rod Newbury, Mike Hebert, Carole Wetherton, Kimberly BeverlyLt. Dave Bennett, head of the Utah County Sheriff's emergency services division, says that on average there is one missing-and-presumed-dead case a year in Utah County canyons. Only one of those people has never eventually been found, he says. "There's speculation that person went to Canada."
In July, the remains of two hikers missing since last September—Carole Wetherton of Panacea, Fla., and her daughter, Kimberly Beverly of Tucker, Ga.—were found in the High Uintas. It is believed the pair most likely died of hypothermia following a severe thunderstorm and early snowfall. A family friend told the Deseret Morning News that knowing that Beverly and her mother were finally found gave her some comfort, especially knowing that Beverly had died doing something she loved.
In both the Hacking and Bardsley cases, says LDS Family Services director Dennis Ashton, a missing body is just one of several "complicating factors." For both families, he says, there is the feeling that the losses could have been prevented. Kevin Bardsley may feel he's "the responsible party," notes Ashton, a licensed clinical social worker, and the Hackings may ask "Why didn't we see it coming; how did we miss all of this?"
Both families, he says, "haven't even hit the low point yet" of their grieving. That will come, he says, after public attention wanes and "people pull back into their own lives." Well-meaning people, he adds, will have a tendency to tell both families phrases like "God needed them" and "you are being tested," and the families themselves may wonder why their prayers of finding Garrett and Lori weren't answered. The Bible verse that applies here, Ashton says, is "it rains on the just and the unjust."
He reminds family and friends of people who lose a loved one to focus not on why these losses happened but on what they can do to help. Mow their lawn, Ashton suggests. "And if you do engage in conversation, remember that you have one set of lips but two ears," so listen twice as much as you talk.
For some, there are religious considerations as well in the desire to bring a body home. Any Christian church that recites the Nicene Creed every week, Utah Episcopal Diocese spokesman Dan Webster notes, says, "We believe in the resurrection of the body." That doesn't mean that, absent a body for burial, God won't figure out "how to put it all back together again" in whatever form God chooses, Webster says. Still, "there's a respect for the physical form where the spirit of God has resided."
And that, too, makes finding a body an impetus to keep searching.