Frozen Grief

Excerpted from War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love, and Resilience, by Kenneth E. Miller, from Larson Publications.

MY COLLEAGUE Martín was an intense and animated guy who loved to tell stories. He was a great storyteller, always pausing just long enough at key moments to build the suspense, then finishing with an ending that left you laughing, or in tears, or simply bewildered by the crazy things that happened in this place.

He came in one morning, dressed in his usual jeans and button down shirt, looking agitated.

“Man”, he said, “you won’t believe this one, Ken.”

“Go on.”

He’d just heard about a woman, I’ll call her Maria, maybe fifty years old, a Mayan Indian who lived in a small village near Lake Atitlan. The deepest lake in Central America, Atitlan is ringed by steep mountains on all sides, which were thought to be home to armed guerrillas during the war. That made the villages surrounding the lake hot targets for the army, whose strategy was to terrorize the villagers into submission and destroy any real or potential support they might be inclined to offer the guerrillas.

Guatemalan kidsAnyway, Maria’s teenage son disappeared during the height of the army’s scorched earth campaign. Soldiers took him away at gunpoint one night, along with several other young men from the community. Neither he nor any of the others who were abducted that night were ever seen or heard from again.

“That was ten years ago,” Martín said.

He paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts, then said, “The thing is, every week she cleans his room. Dusts it, wipes it down, sweeps it, keeps everything just as it was the day he was taken away. Just in case, you know, he comes back.”

“Ten years, man,” he continued. “And she’s still waiting for him to come home.”

“That’s a long time,” I said. “No way that kid’s still alive.”

“Right. No way.” Martín paused a moment.

“Imagine that,” he said. “Ten years and she’s still waiting.”

I saw the sadness in his face as he finished speaking. Martín and I both knew what Maria couldn’t bear to admit: that her son was never coming back. He’d probably been dead for most of the past decade. It’s a familiar story, lived out by thousands of families. People didn’t just disappear in Guatemala, they got disappeared. It’s something you did to someone, a transitive verb. El fue desaparecido, someone might say, “He was disappeared.” There’s no corresponding verb for reappearing, because people rarely reappeared. Sure, sometimes the disappeared did show up again, usually as a corpse on the side of a road, bearing signs of torture. But there was no need to invent a word for that.

Mostly, though, the disappeared remained that way.

That left families in a terrible state. What Maria was going through, cleaning her son’s room, holding on to hope despite the almost certain reality that he was no longer alive—it’s a familiar syndrome in Latin America. Argentines lived through it so often that psychologists coined the term “frozen grief” to describe the syndrome they saw among families of the disappeared. It’s the painful uncertainty of not knowing a loved one’s fate, the anguish and guilt if they give up hope and finally let go. It can feel like an abandonment. You don’t want to imagine your child or parent or cousin being tortured in some dark and lonely prison cell, but you also can’t let go of the possibility that they might still be alive, and could somehow find their way home.

So people hold on, in a perpetual state of hope, even as they know, somewhere just below consciousness, that they’re holding on to an illusion. As a result, they never really grieve. Healing gets put on hold indefinitely. A body would provide closure, however painful it might be. Whatever signs of violence it might bear, a corpse would end the uncertainty and help people move on with their lives. But it doesn’t happen that way with disappearances; that’s their particularly cruel legacy: you don’t get to know.

I knew Martín had heard stories like this before, hundreds of them. Hell, he lived through the worst years of the war, never left the country like a lot of his peers did. Just kept his head down at the university where he was finishing his degree, and hoped he wouldn’t get targeted by the army like so many of his classmates and professors. He knew the stories, but for whatever reason, Maria’s experience, the way she still cleaned her son’s room in anticipation of his possible return, really got to him.

“He’s never coming back, you know,” Martín said.

“Right. I know. He’s not. There’s no way.”

“And she can’t see that,” he continued. “Can’t allow herself to see that.” He shook his head, as if trying to clear the story from his mind, then poured himself some coffee and sat down at his desk.

Morning in Guatemala.

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