NANJING, CHINA – For the past year, Wang Zheng has been avoiding one place: the modest apartment in downtown Nanjing where his parents had been living for more 20 years until they disappeared along with the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
Scrolls of paintings by his father, Wang Linshi, are in piles in the living room, the guest bedroom, and the studio. Paintbrushes — their heads long dry — hang from a workstation in a row. In the kitchen, the floor and stove have collected a thin layer of dust.
Wang Zheng, the only son of Wang Linshi and Xiong Deming, said he only comes into the apartment in this eastern Chinese city when absolutely necessary.
“I spend as little time as possible,” the 30-year-old said. “It’s uncomfortable here. I always dream about my parents after coming here.”
Like other relatives of the 239 people that disappeared aboard MH370 in the early hours of March 8, 2014, Wang has gone through an emotional roller coaster that has hurled him through grief and hope, guilt and anger over the past year.
Apart from the rest of the world, the families have banded together in a desperate, continuing quest to find the plane and their loved ones. Many other people have long accepted the Malaysian government’s pronouncements that the passengers have almost certainly perished in the ocean.
The relatives continue to petition governments, pore over details of technical analyses, raise doubts and demand answers. They feel helpless most of the time, praying during day and sobbing at night.
“The public does not understand us, but we need to know the truth,” Wang said.
Losing loved ones who are unaccounted for is especially excruciating, said Pauline Boss, professor emeritus of family social science at University of Minnesota. She coined the phrase “ambiguous loss” and has spent her career studying how people cope with it.
“They are suffering the most difficult kind of loss that you could imagine,” Boss said, adding that the sufferings transcend wealth, education, culture and religion. “Your loved ones have vanished and you have no proof of death. But human beings need to have a body, they need to have proof or evidence, or they will forever hold onto the sliver of hope that their loved ones are still alive.”
Worried that authorities might end the search efforts, family members of MH370 passengers and crew members have urged them to continue scouring every possible place.
“It’s almost a year. There is no proof, no debris, not a single piece of evidence to tell us that they are really in the Indian Ocean,” said Jacquita Gomes, wife of in-flight supervisor Patrick Gomes, said at her home in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. “If this is really the end, show us something. Even if it’s just one finger, then we can say goodbye properly and send him to our Lord.”
“We cannot move on, we cannot let go because we don’t know what happened,” said Grace Subathirai Nathan, whose mother, Anne Daisy, was on the flight. “It’s impossible for us to write off someone we love so much.”
On Facebook and Twitter, the family members have banded together in a support group under the name “Cry for Truth.” Social media have made it easier for them to support each other, share information and make collective decisions when responding to authorities or the media.
In a statement issued Thursday, the group criticized the Malaysian government for saying there was no hope of survivors weeks after the disappearance, and for officially saying in January that everyone aboard was presumed dead.
“We do not accept this proclamation and will not give up hope until we have definitive proof of a crash and a determination of location — even if it is just one piece of the wreckage,” the statement said.
In China, the family members have joined a mobile phone group chat in which they take roll-call votes on how to respond to officials, so that they can present a united front. Authorities keep a wary eye on them to discourage activism.
In Beijing, a small group of wives, mothers and sisters have turned to Buddhism, making ritual treks to local temples to pray for their loved ones’ safe return.
Relatives also have personal ways to cope. Nathan has been wearing a pair of diamond heirloom earrings, sleeping with her mother’s photos and reading her Bible. Gomes often goes to the laundromat in the early hours of the morning, finding solace in the spinning of the machines.
In Nanjing, Wang’s grandmother is surviving on a glimmer of hope, his aunt Xiong Yunming said. “My mother is waiting for her daughter and son-in-law to return, though tears roll down her cheeks every time she raises a rice bowl,” the aunt said. “In a way, no news has been good news.”
The vacuum of concrete information has fed speculation. Though search officials say satellite data indicates the plane went down in a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean, Xiong believes the plane was hijacked and taken to a U.S. military base.
“We are in an age of high technology, and I think the truth has been covered up,” the retired businesswoman said.
“I think everything is possible,” Wang said after listening to his aunt’s analysis. “Nothing can be ruled out when nothing can be proved.”
Wang traveled to Beijing the day after the plane went missing and returned home nearly two months later, agonizingly, with no answer. “Life was wretched,” Wang recalled.
Realizing the fragility of life, Wang decided to have a child to keep the bloodline and to bring in some joy to disperse the gloom, although the new life that came in January brought both happiness and poignancy.
He has sought escape by spending time with his in-laws rather than his own family, and by immersing himself in his work as an information technology engineer.
“I started to work overtime often and long, hoping the work would dumb me,” Wang said.
But he is not broken.
“I have been trying to adjust myself. I cannot fall, because I don’t want my parents — upon their return — to see I am collapsing and languishing,” he said. “I must take care of myself, take care of my family, and I must stand tall and pursue the truth as we are waiting for them to return.”
For that same reason, he insists that his parents’ apartment remain untouched.
“Let’s decide what to do with it once they are back,” he said.