New York State Funeral Directors Association

Unresolved Grief Without a Body Present

Going through the grief process can be a daunting journey. Support from friends and relatives can be enormously helpful when survivors are working through grief.


But after a disaster such as 9/11 or the 2010 Haitian earthquake has occurred, what happens to the grief process when a loved one's body has not been found? Psychologists tell us that denial is one of the steps in the grieving process. Until bereaved persons accept that death has happened, no progress can be made in resolving their grief. Research indicates that viewing the deceased or knowing that a body has been located helps to fulfill the psychological needs of those who are left behind. Most people need the experience of seeing a loved one's body because it makes the loss real and allows survivors to take the next step in the grieving process. This is one of the reasons why enormous efforts and expenditures of time and money are made to recover victims who perished in disasters, as well as our cultural respect for the dead. 

As shown by the awful aftermath of 9/11, sometimes body recovery is impossible even though herculean efforts are undertaken. On May 30, 2002, a solemn ceremony at Ground Zero marked the end of search and recovery efforts; only 291 bodies had been found intact and the remains of only 1,102 of the 2,823 victims had been identified. This horrific event has placed survivors in a state we cannot imagine. They are coping with a sudden and tragic loss coupled with the absence of a body. Struggling through their grief, many of these survivors have turned to their family funeral directors for solace and advice on memorialization.

An appropriate funeral service can help survivors to reach closure in accepting the fact that a death has occurred even though a body is not present. Funerals can aid the journey through the grief process by commemorating the life of the deceased and by providing a public occasion to celebrate the life that has been lived. One funeral director who helped many families victimized by 9/11 was impressed with the enormous community outpouring of support for the victims' families. He told us that regular funeral services were generally conducted, but with emphasis on unique ceremonies to memorialize the victim's life. For instance, basketballs played an important role in the services for a young man killed on 9/11 who had been a star basketball player.

Survivors in these tragic and overwhelming circumstances should seek help in resolving their grief by talking to a member of the clergy, getting advice from their funeral director and in some cases reaching out to one of the many local community hospices that offer bereavement counseling.