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Relatives of Passengers on Missing Jet Face Different Stages of Grief

As relatives crave information, they deal with denial, anger and mistrust.
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The families of the passengers who went missing aboard the Malaysia Airlines jet are likely to experience different stages of grief at different times, especially given the variety of their cultural backgrounds, a mental health expert said Friday.

“Different people will cope differently,” Dr. Sue Varma, a clinical psychologist, told NBC News Friday.

“For some people, the anxiety of not knowing is too difficult for them to bear,” Varma said.

Some have reached the angry stage of grieving, Varma said.

On Wednesday, two female relatives had to be removed from a news conference when they protested by unfurling a banner. “I want my son back,” sobbed one of the women.

Varma said this form of grieving can be beneficial because the frustration urges families to unite as some of the relatives have done by forming a committee to “unify our voices.”

“Having that solidarity sends the message that the families cannot be ignored,” Varma said, adding, “For some people, getting together is a form of support.”

But Greg Feith, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said these types of outbursts can be difficult for officials because they put “a lot of pressure on investigators to try to develop information so that it can be passed on.”

Still, it’s important for investigators to relay information to family members "in a more personal way," Feith added.

The challenge, Feith said, is that investigators need to keep families informed but should only pass along credible and confirmed information.

“The problem is that once the rumor mills get started … there’s a lot of emotion tied to it,” he said.

Varma explained that the fluctuating and lacking information can cause another stage of grief that surfaces as mistrust and denial.

“For some people, the anxiety of not knowing is too difficult for them to bear.”

Psychologist and author Pauline Boss has coined the phrase "ambiguous loss," which results from something like an unsolved plane disappearance or missing person’s case. “This is the kind of loss that creates suffering without closure,” Boss told NBC News five days after the plane vanished.

“It’s actually difficult for the brain to process this loss because there is no information about it,” Boss said.

But denial is a “useful coping mechanism for many people,” Varma said.

As a result, many family members have expressed unwavering hope that passengers of the missing plane will be found safe.

"My son is still alive. My son is still alive," cried one passenger’s father, Wen Wancheng, after receiving news that an Australian satellite spotted debris that could be part of the plane.

Some would not accept the revelation of possible debris because, “certain minority groups may have a tendency to have more mistrust,” Varma said.

"I don't want to hear from anyone other than my family," one distraught Chinese relative said at the news conference.

The day the announcement about the debris was made, American passenger Philip Wood’s family posted a statement on Facebook that read, “We are not giving up hope until proven otherwise. Our wish is for ALL the Passengers of MH370 to come home alive and safe and to be reunited with their families and friends.”

“My feeling is that they’re still alive. I've had that feeling the whole way through," Wood’s girlfriend, Sarah Bajc, told NBC News before news of the debris had been shared.

But on Thursday, Bajc revealed on TODAY that she hadn’t “stopped shaking” since her friend told her that debris of the plane might have been spotted in the ocean, signaling that the jet didn’t safely land.

But Bajc also said she was “going back to normal sleeping cycles,” which Varma said is imperative for the families, regardless of their coping strategies or cultural tendencies.

"I cannot sleep. I cannot eat," one passenger’s father told NBC News Sunday.

Varma said that while relatives crave information, their health relies on their ability to “disconnect” and “rest,” as difficult as it may be. While camaraderie can be therapeutic, “if you find that the reactions of other people are hurting you, separate yourself,” Varma advised.

Lastly, Varma said anybody in any country can help those who are facing this tragedy by showing support on social media, by sending letters and by holding vigils.

While each individual related to the 239 different people on board the missing jet will react and grieve differently to the unimaginable situation, they can all be comforted by knowing “that there are people thinking about them,” Varma said.

Image: People writing messages for the passengers aboard missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at the international airport in Kuala Lumpur.
People wrote messages on March 21, 2014 for the passengers aboard missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at the international airport in Kuala Lumpur.Simon Balmer / NBC News