July 23, 2016Back

The cost of ‘moving forward’ too quickly in transitioning democracies.

At a recent conference I spoke at on ‘Accompanying missing person’s families through ambiguous loss’, one participant asked, how can you get someone to move forward with their grief over a missing loved one even if they don’t want to?

Created by Pauline Boss, the theory of ambiguous loss is helpful in thinking about the phenomena of enforced disappearance in societies that must endure impossible, irresolvable and protracted mourning and loss in the wake of mass violence. Disappearance is a form of repression has been used in many countries and in many political situations. The term has been used to describe political repression in Guatemala from 1966, in Chile from 1973 and in Argentina from 1976.

In Argentina, there are more than 12,000 individuals officially registered as disappeared in the aftermath of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Many thousands of those who were disappeared by Argentine security forces ended their lives on the infamous ‘death flights’, where they were drugged, loaded onto military planes and thrown naked into the sea. The Argentine military refuses to tell the families of those they disappeared what happened to each and every one of their loved ones.

As a result, for decades, the families of the disappeared have been left with the uncertainty of whether their loved ones will ever return. The families remain in limbo as a persistent ambiguity arises because of their inability to officially certify loved ones’ bodily remains. This blocks or freezes the grief process. One of the women I interviewed in Argentina told me that the uncertainty about what happened to her disappeared husband will never leave her. She tells me that she cannot accept the grief that normally accompanies death because she has never seen a body. She has never been able to go through a process of grieving as a result.

Now, what happens… you can’t put the past behind you, you keep doing things, but you can’t put the past behind you… the pain doesn’t live, it doesn’t hurt because you’ve never seen a body… pain comes with death… burying it. But we were never able to do this, so we live with this uncertainty until death… it’s that we’ve never had the luck to identify remains.” (Graciela)

I believe that our own desire to see individuals ‘move on’ with their grief, stops us from hearing important stories about the ways in which countless individuals continue to live with, and be defined by, their experiences of violence and loss within transitioning democracies. While survivors of state violence, not only in Argentina but in many other contexts, bear witness to the traumatic consequences of disappearance in their lives, we—the international community—as listeners can be at pains to recast their memories as wounds to be healed, and as deaths to be overcome. When so much pain and vulnerability exist and when we set limits on how long survivors can grieve because they become obstructions to our own march towards turning the page on history, are we not at risk of plunging them again, alone, back into the original trauma?



Photo by Jill Stockwell