The legacy of disappearances

Dr Ruby Osorio

Thirty years after the military coup in Chile, one of its principal "humanitarian legacies" continues to be the task of working out the pain of the unforgettable memories left by the merciless disappearances. Much has been written and is known about the devastating impact that someone's disappearance can have on an individual, a family and a community.

There is also a known impact on those who are not seen as involved. For some of them, the horror of these deeds is so hard to contemplate that they debate between not wanting to know and accepting the idea that what happened to so-and-so must have been done for a reason.The disappearance of an individual leaves a vacuum impossible to fill and a grief very difficult to express. The lack of the physical body of the disappeared deprives the survivors of the ritual of leave-taking, of the funeral, the burial, and the possibility of expressing the loss through the offer of a final ceremony in which to pay the last respects to the body that represents a loved being in the desire of mitigating the pain of parting. It is this process that permits grieving, the healing of the wound and loss. Because of the necessity of this process, the ritual of funeral and wake remains prevalent despite social changes.

Aborting this grief through the lack of a body leaves the mind and soul of the individual survivors in a state of limbo: the person who has disappeared is not here, but neither has he or she gone. In seeking emotional healing over the lack of the object, the mind and the psyche grasp at the intangible. This is limited to speaking of memories of unfinished situations, at times even related to the last moments shared with the one who disappeared. It is this combination of attempts and feelings that serves as fuel for the genesis and maintenance of psychiatric states such as depression, general anxiety and attacks of panic, among others. It is this same fuel that complicates the treatment and makes recovery difficult for those who that seek counselling. It is not the lack of medicaments or varieties of therapy, but rather the difficulty of establishing a state of pain without a body. On the other hand, the accounts of the experience of horrors in the cases of disappeared people who have reappeared, frequently adds guilt fantasies and self-recrimination, making a little harder the process of healing. Fortunately, human beings have inner resources and find strengths in their own frailty and in the support offered by others to seek alternatives that permit a recovery, if not complete, sufficient to reduce the suffering and to continue living. Some of these alternatives are ceremonies of remembrance, be they personal, family or community, with physical memorials commemorating the disappeared. As symbols, these memorials are an act of farewell. This allows the individual, family or community to open the way to the possibility of reparation, although not perfect, a grieving at last.
Dr Ruby Osorio is a Chilean psychiatrist living in London