Saturday, November 21, 2009

Gail Schoening Found After 12 Years: The End or the Beginning?

Gail Schoening was just shy of 36 in 1997 when she vanished on the way from her home in Plantation, Florida to the airport to fly to a job interview.  She had struggled with depression, and her parents wondered if she might have driven off the road, on purpose or by accident.  Despite repeated attempts to search nearby lakes, her body was never found.  Never, that is, until August 18, when investigators using new technology located her car at the bottom of a lake about a football field away from her house.  Her body was inside.  It appears she drove through a narrow space between two cars and out into the lake.  Her car flipped on the way into the water, trapping her inside.

We still don't really know what happened to Schoening.  The original investigation didn't turn up any sign that a car had gone off the road where it did. Family and investigators are staying quiet on the question of whether this was an accident or a suicide.  It's not clear if they know.  Her family released a statement saying they were glad to know what happened but sad about the circumstances.  A memorial service is planned for Christmas.

When a family member is missing and presumed dead, it can be very hard for the family to heal.  No one wants to give up hope, but no one wants to deny reality, either.  It seems like Gail Schoening's parents had made their peace with the idea that she was dead long before her body was found, to the extent that that is possible.

When a family suffers a traumatic loss, each new piece of information can compound a trauma when they come in rapid succession.  In a case like this one, the discovery of the body could  be a brand new trauma of its own.  To the extent that Schoening's family had dealt with the idea that she was dead, they did not, until August, confront how she died.  Before the discovery, they did not know they had driven around the lake where her body was numerous times, never knowing she was right there.  If there are other details of the accident that the family has, those may be traumatic as well.

Everyone is there to support a family when something has just happened.  I'm sure Schoening's family had friends surrounding them when she first disappeared, and hopefully they also got some early crisis intervention.  The trouble with situations like this one is that those same, well-intentioned people, may expect them to feel "closure" with the finding of her remains.  It's hard to believe you could be traumatized and grieving all over again after all these years, but you can, and if they are this family needs all the support they can get.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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