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For families of missing persons, even bad news can be good. Now they can begin . . . : Closing Doors

July 28, 1994|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dennis and Ione Huber had been searching for their missing daughter, 23-year-old Denise, for three years. This month, her body was found in a freezer, and a suspect arrested in her slaying. Despite that heartbreaking news, some of the Hubers' tears were tears of relief.

"Now we will be able to close this chapter and move on," Ione Huber of Newport Beach told a reporter. "This will help us to have a fresh start."

That anyone would envy this family seems implausible. But for the growing number of people who must cope with the unexplained disappearance of a loved one, even a horrifying answer may be better than none at all.

Each year in this country, thousands of kidnapings by strangers are reported, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Another 130,000 reports are filed on runaway children.

Beyond our borders, the fate of more than 200 U.S. soldiers missing in action in the Vietnam War remains unknown. And tens of thousands of people worldwide continue to track loved ones seemingly lost to World War II, according to the International Tracing Service in Arolsen, Germany. The number of children wrenched from their parents by ongoing conflicts in Africa, Haiti, Bosnia and El Salvador has yet to be calculated.

"It's a terrible problem, all kinds of people are affected," says Louis West, a psychiatry professor at UCLA School of Medicine who specializes in such traumas and has worked with Holocaust survivors and MIA families.

"Not knowing what happened to someone you love is the hardest sort of loss," he says. "It keeps hope alive, or it keeps you from getting on with your life. There's never, really, closure."

In therapist-speak, closure can refer to any unresolved loss. In modern times, though, it often implies separation by random violence, West says. Among the debilitating effects are chronic depression, hastened physical aging, a fixation on searching for the missing person and divorce.

But the push for closure can also yield positive results. Activist groups formed by the families of kidnap victims and MIAs are examples of anger and pain turned to constructive energy.

Lula Redmond, a Tampa, Fla., family counselor, directs the Center for Crime Victims and Survivors. She and co-workers treated 2,300 people in 1993, she says. Their best hope of recovery starts with physical evidence of a death, however gruesome.

"There is a terrible need to see something--a finger, a lock of hair," Redmond says. "Seeing the physical body, there's no way of denying that the person is really dead."

Without that proof, people tend to live with false hope, a form of denial that postpones grieving, Redmond explains. "The Hubers will be able to see their daughter's body," she says. "That will make their recovery so much easier."

When a loved one's fate is unknown, Redmond's counseling sessions may involve looking with patients at photos of the missing person and encouraging them to record their memories.

The next step may be more difficult. "I try to help them visualize the person as dead," she says. "I say, for example, 'What if the MIA's plane crashed, and he did not walk away?' "

ABC News correspondent Cokie Roberts lives with a version of that scenario. Her father, Hale Boggs, was House majority leader (D-La.) when his plane was lost over Alaska in 1972.

"My father would be 80 years old now," Roberts says. "For years I had visions of him with a long white beard coming out of the Alaska mountains. Part of you never gives up the theory that maybe he's out there."

Roberts' family held a memorial service instead of a funeral mass.

"There is no substitute for burying a body," she says. "But without that, it becomes terribly important to create your own ritual. Something is better than nothing."

Boggs' disappearance had a particularly strong effect on one family member. "When my sister was dying, she insisted on an open casket at her wake," Roberts says. "She told me, 'I want people to know I'm in there.' "

Sometimes, the need to know can became an obsession that pays off. Nina Hoeger and Wera Thorp were separated in 1941 from their brother, Victor Muzyka. He was sent to Poland with his grandmother while Nina and Wera went to a work camp in Germany. After the war, the sisters came to America.

"I used to dream I was in a cemetery looking for him," says Hoeger, who lives in Maryland. "I couldn't find him but I knew he was there."

After 51 years and ongoing inquiries, the American Red Cross finally reunited the family. Until that happened, Hoeger recalls, "I used to think even finding his skeleton would help me accept it. It's not knowing what happened that is so bad."

The Hubers are religious people who turned to their pastor, the Rev. Walter Shepherd of Aliso Creek Presbyterian Church in Aliso Viejo, for support during the search for Denise.

"This is the first time we've had anything like this," says Shepherd, who has also counseled the families of MIAs. "It was some comfort for Dennis and Ione, treating Denise as if she were missing in action," he says. "We prayed, 'Lord, is Denise alive or dead? We need to know.' "

A few weeks ago, the Hubers finally got their answer. "So much was left in suspense for so long," Shepherd says. "Now Dennis and Ione can be released."

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