It stormed that night, hiding any sounds that might be heard in a big house. Sometime late on Aug. 31, 1961, 8-year-old Ann Burr brought...
IT STORMED THAT NIGHT, hiding any sounds that might be heard in a big house.
Sometime late on Aug. 31, 1961, 8-year-old Ann Burr brought her younger sister to their parents’ bedroom. Mary was crying because she had gotten sand under the cast on her broken arm, and it itched. Beverly and Donald Burr reassured her and sent the girls back to bed.
The next morning, Beverly went to check on the children. Mary was asleep in her bed, but across the hall, Ann’s room was empty. Beverly found a living-room window ajar and the front door, usually locked from the inside with a deadbolt, standing open. A bench had been pulled up outside the window. Someone had climbed in, then left through the front door with Ann. The abduction of the blond girl with bangs and a ready smile was Tacoma’s biggest story of 1961. But months, then years, then decades passed. Beverly and Donald Burr had no body to bury, no cemetery to visit and no end to this devastating and complex grief. They suffered what psychotherapist and author Pauline Boss calls “ambiguous loss.”
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“Ambiguous loss is any kind of loss with no clear information on the status of a missing person,” Boss explains. “People are denied the symbolic rituals that ordinarily help us cope with a loss, such as a funeral.”
Ambiguous loss is not new — wars are especially cruel in creating it — but the study of it is. Boss calls it a grief that defies closure. It’s a grief shared by many of the families of the missing that capture our attention: six men still trapped deep inside a Utah mine; Steve Fossett, the millionaire adventurer who vanished on a solo flight; Natalee Holloway, the Alabama teenager who went missing in Aruba.
Keeping hope alive
Families of the missing are members of a unique brotherhood. Many are afraid to move in case their child, now grown, tries to find them. They keep phone numbers unchanged for decades. They preserve their child’s bedroom just as it was. They live as if their loved one might knock on the door any day.
That’s the way it has been for the family of Air Force Col. John Robertson, a father of four from Edmonds who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966.
“He was always kept alive in the family,” says his daughter, Shelby Quast, who was 4 when her father disappeared. Her mother, Barbara Robertson, still celebrates her wedding anniversary. She kept money set aside so she could buy her husband a new wardrobe and a Mercedes when he returned.
She encouraged her daughters to travel to Cambodia and Vietnam, investigating sightings of him in work camps.
After all these years, Quast, an attorney in Virginia, says if there were news of her father, she would pursue it, “But in a different way. I’d say, ‘Prove it to me.’ You can’t say, ‘Enough, I give up.’ I would never say that. We always thought he was alive.”
“I hate that closure thing”
“When I first saw that window open, I knew I would never see her again,” Beverly Burr says. “I knew I would never know what happened.”
In the faded newspaper clippings about Ann’s disappearance, Beverly is a pretty blonde of 33, mother of four photogenic children. Burr is 79 now, and her hair is gray, but her memories of that period remain sharp.
Near the television where she watches “Dancing With the Stars” are albums filled with faded newspaper clippings. There are the first stories about Ann’s disappearance, a missing-persons poster, stories about sightings of Ann in California, even the obituaries of the two lead detectives who had vowed to find Ann.
And there are more personal items: Ann’s second-grade report card with a note from a teacher about how well she expects the girl to do in third grade; a newspaper story about Beverly and Donald adopting a baby girl, Laura, two years after Ann disappeared; and a photo of an azalea sent by author Ann Rule, who mentioned the Burrs in her book about Ted Bundy. There is even a page of photos of the Puyallup woman who showed up in 1994 claiming to be Ann. DNA tests showed she wasn’t.
As time passed, the Burrs’ friends or acquaintances would suggest that it might be time to move on, time to not think about Ann so much. “I don’t pay any attention to that,” Beverly says with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I hate that closure thing.”
Criminal folklore has it that a 14-year-old named Ted Bundy was the Burrs’ paperboy; he wasn’t. But his uncle lived nearby, Ted visited and Ann passed the house on her way to and from piano lessons. Beverly doesn’t know if Ann and Ted knew each other.
In the 1980s, when Bundy was on death row, he admitted to 35 murders but hinted there were far more. Beverly Burr wrote to Bundy, and they began a correspondence. In one letter, Bundy wrote: “Again, and finally, I did not abduct your daughter. I had nothing to do with her disappearance. If there is still something you wish to ask me about this, please don’t hesitate to write again. God bless you and be with you. Peace, Ted.”
Learning to live with the loss is the key to moving forward, even if that means keeping hope alive for decades.
“The only way to survive is to keep two opposing thoughts, to straddle between hope and hopelessness,” according to Boss, psychotherapist and professor emeritus of the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota.
The author of two books on ambiguous loss, she has researched and worked with 4,000 families around the world — including families who lost a loved one on Sept. 11, wives of pilots missing in Vietnam and of husbands lost at sea, and families in Kosovo where thousands of people have been missing since ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. She has expanded the focus of her research to work with families coping with the psychological absence of a loved one; for example, the families of patients with Alzheimer’s.
If the ambiguous loss can’t be resolved — and often, it can’t — then the goal is to increase the resilience of those left behind. That happens by forming new attachments, and finding a new identity and new things to hope for. Those who don’t, or can’t, risk serious depression and broken relationships. Boss is convinced that unresolved grief is responsible for many personal problems.
Boss says it was a Minnesota couple, Elizabeth and Kenny Klein, who showed her how people with ambiguous grief go on.
In November 1951, three of the Kleins’ four young sons, ages 4, 6 and 8, disappeared while playing by the Mississippi River. Although two of their caps were found in the river, the family is convinced the boys didn’t drown, but were abducted. For a while the couple placed an ad in the newspaper — “Lost: Three Boys” — hoping one of the boys would see it and contact them.
Today, 56 years later, Elizabeth (Betty to her friends) continues to believe that one, or maybe all three, will someday walk through her door. Kenny Klein believed it too, to the day he died in 2005. “Course, they wouldn’t know me now,” Betty laughs, alluding to her age, 82. “And they would be in their 60s.”
To many, such a declaration 56 years later might seem unbearably sad. But Boss says what makes the Kleins good teachers is that they exhibit hope tempered with reality. “They found a way to balance hanging on with letting go.”
The power of a gesture
When there is no body to bury, symbolic gestures are important. After the search for the trapped miners in Utah was called off, families and friends stood on a hill and released a golden eagle into the sky. Boss has worked with families who have buried a favorite guitar in a coffin, or a husband’s bowling ball. After Sept. 11, families were offered a vial of dirt from Ground Zero, which many found helpful and meaningful. The Burrs finally held a memorial for Ann in 1999.
Beverly says that after Ann vanished, what sustained her were the other children, all younger than Ann. “They needed me very much, and I had to remember that.” Also helpful during a long police investigation: gardening and her Catholic faith. She made sure to add “And bless our little Ann” to any prayer.
During the 1999 memorial service, Ann’s younger sister Julie — who along with her brother Greg, slept soundly that night in 1961 — thanked her parents. “You probably wanted to crawl into bed and bury your head as each day and year passed with no answer,” she told them. “But instead you gathered strength and provided us with a wonderful childhood.”
Julie was right about her parents wanting to hide, Beverly says.
“I think the hardest thing is that it was in our minds every minute, but school was starting. We, Donald and I, couldn’t have cared less, but we had to pretend for the sake of the children. They were so young and they were terrified and would ask, ‘Will he come and get us, too?’ “
Donald Burr died four years ago. Since then Beverly has moved to a small, bright-blue house. Her son lives on Fox Island, and her daughters live in Bellingham; Seattle; and Albany, Ore.
Beverly thinks of Ann first thing, every day. But except for the albums, Ann has no more prominence in the house than Julie, Laura, Mary or Greg. Now there are pictures of grandchildren — about Ann’s age then — on Beverly’s refrigerator. In her den are photos of all the children. Ann, whether in her Blue Bird uniform, or with Santa Claus, or with her dog Barney, remains 8 years old.
There is only one other thing frozen in time. Beverly Burr’s phone number is the same one the family had in 1961. She has never changed it, just in case.
Rebecca Morris has been a broadcast and print journalist for 33 years. She teaches journalism at Bellevue Community College.