I discovered that there is a term for what my family is experiencing. It is called ambiguous grief - grief that is unresolved for various reasons, including not having a body to bury or cremate. It is said that ambiguous loss is the most stressful loss people can face.
While searching for more information on the Internet, I came across several articles on the subject. These excerpts describe some of the torment my family is going through.
“This is a grieving process that’s different than anything I’ve ever seen before. There’s an actual term for it: ambiguous grief. It is when there is no body present. When there are no visible remains… to focus the family’s grief…”
“Getting closure [without a body] is extraordinarily difficult. Any pastor will tell you that coming to grips with reality after a death often happens at the graveside.”
“Normally, when one thinks of grief it is in the context of the loss of a loved one through a ‘known’ death. A known death is when a person dies and there is a body that gives physical testimony to that individual's death. For the bereaved, the grieving cycle can begin as the body confirms, against deepest wishes, that the deceased no longer lives in the physical world. Therefore, when one thinks of a loss it is usually equated with a documented death and a physical body to mourn over. The ‘missing’ status is unique in that the loss is not final. There is no certainty of death, no ‘physical body’ to identify or mourn over, and no official documentation of the person's death.”
“The living are left in limbo. Sufferers often describe feeling that they are without the "whole story," and missing a vital component. Not only are they missing their loved one, they're missing the story that explains why their loved one is gone.”
“A recovered body lets us know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the loss has actually occurred. It’s the irreversibility factor. Otherwise, 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.”
“Not having a body to bury, or to say good-bye to, constitutes a loss beyond human comprehension.”
“People who experience loss need time and our patience. And clearly, those with an ambiguous loss such as no body or verification of death need even more time and patience. The least we can do is give them our attention and listen to them, for in the telling and retelling of the story of their incomprehensible loss, healing will begin.”
“There can be no such thing as closure or even resolution when a body remains missing. Rather, we must aim for learning to live with two opposing ideas in our minds at the same time: The person is dead; the person might not be dead. Giving this confusing situation a name — ambiguous loss — appears to quiet some of the turmoil of the bereaved. Naming the ambiguity as the culprit diminishes their tendency to blame themselves for feeling so confused and helpless.”
“People become frozen and their lives grind to a near halt because they cannot properly mourn."
All of the above is so true for all of us. We DO feel confused and helpless. We don’t know what to do, so we don’t do anything. We are completely immobilized.
Typically, when the bereaved learn of the death of a loved one, they begin a process of grief and, after a while, achieve grief resolution. We need the process to begin.