Families try for balance of grief, hope

Without remains, expert says, sense of loss can often linger

Terrorism Strikes America

September 23, 2001|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Eighteen months after his older brother was reported missing on a glacier in Chile, Robert Weinman sometimes pretends James Weinman is living a playboy's life on an island in the South Pacific.

He carries on imaginary conversations by telephone.

He pictures James, an experienced climber and mountaineer, walking away from his solo attempt on Cerro San Francisco, a difficult glacier to climb in the Andes mountains.

Technically, Robert isn't in denial.

After all, his brother is "missing and presumed dead" - a semantic distinction that also encompasses thousands of employees, visitors and rescue workers lost in the World Trade Center crashes.

The terminology, and the hope it implies, can offer room in grieving for a loved one whose remains haven't been recovered.

Or it can be an avenue to open-ended mourning, said Debbie Jones, a bereavement counselor at Hospice of Baltimore whose job offers her a window into the aftermath of death by illness. Jones began studying traumatic loss after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

"Even in an anticipated death, there is a sense of denial," she said. "But when someone has died violently and there's no bodily remains, there is this total sense of disbelief. There's definitely a longer sense of shock, and it can go on for an extended period of time."

Robert Weinman, 32, has come to appreciate having a brother "who might just be on an extended vacation somewhere."

What he is sure about is that his brother decided to take a third, solo shot at a climb that had turned him back twice before.

He left behind a journal, with a terse, last entry that announced his plans to scale the "Pared Sur," or "southern wall," a 2,000-foot slope of rock and ice on June 3, 2000. He was not seen again.

"It's almost comforting because you do have that option to say, `Maybe he wasn't there,' " said Robert Weinman. "That maybe he walked away safely. Obviously that's not realistic, but it kind of helps."

Weinman, who relocated from Baltimore to Burlington, Vt., after his brother's disappearance, has been thinking a lot about the relatives of the New York terrorism victims.

About how it feels to want to find a body to bury. About people's expectations that you mourn and move on. About the illusion of closure, as if the hole created by the loss of a brother can be filled by anything else.

"We were going through the same thing," he said. "And nobody could understand."

Zulema Barnes-Chung, of Bayshore, Long Island, might understand.

Her mother, Sheila Barnes, named her after a 1970s rhythm and blues singer whose name, in Arabic, means "peace." But Zulema, 27, is not at peace.

Her sentiments have ricocheted from accepting that her mother died on the 102nd floor of Tower Two to near certainty that she is alive.

On Sept. 14, she felt hopeless, saying, "Other people are more hopeful than me. It's hard to stay positive.

"I can't find someone who saw my mom. If someone said, `Yes, I saw Sheila, she got hit with a brick on her head' - if I could, then I might have closure. With my mom, I can't find that one person who saw her and can say, `Yes, she's not coming home.' "

A week later, after praying with a Christian cousin, her hope was renewed.

"She read to me from the Bible, things about how God can work miracles. So I'm not going to give up hope until I get the final word. I've kind of left it in God's hands."

Practically, what that means is that Barnes' husband, Ricardo, isn't planning a funeral for his 55-year-old wife.

The family plans to attend a memorial tomorrow, at St. Patrick's Cathedral, for employees of Aon Aviation, where she worked as an administrative assistant for 20 years - though Zulema said she isn't ready to put her mother to rest.

She and her sister continue to make the rounds of area hospitals, preferring to believe that Barnes is among the 6,291 people injured in the attacks - even though all have been identified - rather than among the 6,333 reported missing as of Friday, or the 241 confirmed dead.

Weinman said his family also chose not to have a traditional funeral service for his missing brother. "We had a hope service, rather than a memorial service," he said, "a hope that he is in a better place now and that he's happy and that we can move forward and remember him as he was."

For Weinman, that means occasional "telephone calls," when he unplugs the phone, dials 1-800-HEAVEN, and pretends to speak to his brother.

"We talked to him two weeks ago, and he was at a naked Jell-O party in Tahiti," he said with a chuckle. "Since he's been gone, his social life has really improved."

Debbie Jones, the hospice counselor, said Barnes-Chung and Weinman are each coping in ways that work for them.

"For people with a great faith, there is the thought, `Maybe that miracle will happen.' How do you take it away from them? How do you say there is no hope?"

New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani won't say it, despite declaring the chance of recovering survivors as slim.

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