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Ambiguous Loss and Complicated Grief: The Plight of Families of Victims of Enforced Disappearances

Eugene de Kock Eugene de Kock File photo.

The Role of Eugene De Kock in Helping Affected Family Members of Death Squad Victims Deal with their Loss and Continuing Grief.

The continuing sense of the injustice around a De Kock taking the fall for a vast network of security agents and agencies in Apartheid South Africa is well-described in the recent Business Day article of Professor Mia Swart, Free De Kock as tribute to legacy of Mandela, published on July 16 2014.

De Kock is one person who has been able to offer families of victims of the C1 Unit that he led in carrying out targeted assassinations, first-hand information about the circumstances of the killing of their loved ones. The questions to which family members seek answers in order to deal with their grief include, 'Did my son / husband die a brave man? What was he doing at the time that you / one of your operatives killed him? What did you do with his / her body? How did you come to be involved in these terrible activities?

Getting answers to these questions is very important for family members of victims of politically-motivated extrajudicial killings because the nature of the atrocities perpetrated against victims leaves their family members with what has been called ambiguous loss or complicated grief.

Ambiguous loss is defined as loss that occurs without finality or understanding. It is compounded by grief caused by ongoing unresolved loss. Affected persons may become stuck in an emotional no-man's land leading to complicated grief which may continue for many years and sometimes for an entire lifetime as the person continually re-experiences the loss. Affected individuals may develop a capacity to tolerate this unresolved grief and this may lead to a strengthening of their resilience. But the trauma of not knowing continues, until a 'De Kock' leads the way in revealing the truth he carries to affected family members.

Khulumani appreciates De Kock's contribution to relieving the unrelenting pain of family members of the targets of politically-motivated crimes. If the hundreds of other operatives who still carry the secrets about their activities in their psyches, would approach Khulumani Support Group, a process of facilitating the sharing of information with affected family members could be organised to contribute to easing the unresolved grief of so many family members affected by these criminal activities.

Khulumani understands that "With ambiguous loss there is no closure; the challenge is to learn to live with the ambiguity" (Pauline Bosse). Much relief could, however, be afforded to affected persons. It is this reality that we believe informed the decision of Minister Masutha to postpone the granting of parole to Mr Eugene de Kock once again.

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