Search for missing plane ends but a grieving husband's journey goes on

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Story highlights

  • K.S. Narendran's wife, Chandrika Sharma, was one of 239 people aboard MH370
  • He's deeply disappointed the search for the plane was suspended
  • He struggles to go on with life without knowing what happened

(CNN)This time, the terrible news came in an email.

At least it wasn't a text, like the hasty, solitary line that exploded K.S. Narendran's world almost three years ago: "We deeply regret that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived."
His wife of 25 years, Chandrika Sharma, was one of the 239 people aboard the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing on March 8, 2014.
    On Tuesday, Narendran learned the search for the missing plane had been suspended. He saw the email a little before noon at his home in the southeastern Indian city of Chennai.
    "An email is an improvement over an SMS message," he posted on Facebook. "So, small mercies in an otherwise difficult period."
    K.S. Narendran is no closer to knowing what happened to his wife, a passenger on MH370.
    Then came the media requests for interviews. India Today, BBC, The Guardian, Deutsche Welle, NPR. He had become a spokesman for the MH370 families. After a group statement on the search suspension was made public, every journalist wanted to know Narendran's reaction.
    He expressed deep disappointment that the search was over. Anger that the governments of Malaysia, China and Australia had not followed a recent recommendation to search another 25,000 square kilometers north of the last search area. And betrayal: Those governments, he said, had made a commitment to the families of the lost passengers, and now they were reneging.
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    "I sensed my faith in the search and investigation erode precipitously, indeed faith in the entire gamut of institutional arrangements in place globally to keep us safe and secure, reassured that the journeys we undertake will indeed take us to our chosen destinations," he wrote on Facebook.
    "MH370 didn't make it to Beijing. And we may never know why it didn't. We can never be sure that there will not be another tragedy."
    The day seemed not to end. A flurry of emotions led to many moments of futility. Suspending the search was in part a message that the world was asking him to move on. As though he could.
    The next morning, he boarded a plane for a business trip to Mumbai on India's west coast. After MH370, Narendran developed a dread for planes. Sometimes in his seat, he role-plays and goes to a dark place. What was the experience like for his wife?
    Narendran met his wife in college and the two were married for 25 years.
    The question consumes him to the point where he, an articulate man with considerable language skills, finds himself at a loss for words. He has to virtually kick himself out of that state and force himself to sleep. It's his only way out.
    "I don't even wait for the plane's doors to close," he tells me. "I just try to sleep."
    I first spoke with Narendran a few days after MH370 vanished from the skies. I reached out to him after a mutual friend showed me his Facebook posts, and we have been in touch ever since.
    This time, we talk two days after he learned of the decision to stop the search. I want to ask him many things, but first he analyzes the mystery of the missing plane. He doesn't understand why the search was called off when debris -- confirmed to be from MH370 -- had been found off the coast of southern Africa.
    "Common sense would suggest they would be hurrying to go and look there," he says. "It is really puzzling. I have wracked my brain all this time on why then have been such a laggard on this front."
    That leaves him wondering whether there is truth to conspiracy theories that suggest a cover-up.
    "Maybe they know more than what was said and they want a closure to this investigation," he says.
    I can hear the frustration in his voice. I can hear the exhaustion.
    I ask him about a difficult question a radio interviewer posed the day before: "Have you been able to have any kind of ceremony for her -- funeral?"
    He attempted to answer: "We have had no ceremony. It's hard to think of one when you don't know ... when was the end? Where was the end?"
    Narendran and I have discussed this several times in our many conversations via phone, Skype, email and even in person at a Bangalore coffee house. He said in the past that his family and friends suggested some sort of memorial to help him let go, move forward, bring closure and all those clichéd things we say after loss.
    The truth is he doesn't take kindly to rituals and besides, he wouldn't even know how to begin planning such a ceremony. It would drain his energy, he tells me. And for what?
    How do you say goodbye to the person you loved most -- without knowing?
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    In the summer of 2015, he initiated the process of obtaining a death certificate for Chandrika. The pragmatic part of him said it was needed to settle insurance policies, bank accounts, property matters and other assets his wife held.
    All he really had was a message from Malaysia Airlines confirming Chandrika was a passenger on the missing plane. A death certificate would provide documentation.
    But it has to be issued by a court in Kuala Lumpur, and he is still waiting. One of his unsavory chores is to keep writing to ask about the status, and it adds to a host of other reminders.
    They include the daily walks he used to take with Chandrika. After she was gone, he often imagined conversations with the woman he met in college and had shared life's joys and disappointments with.
    Where have you been, Chandrika?
    Oh, many places. All at the same time. Can you believe that?

    When will you be back?
    Your guess is as good as mine.

    For good. That is.
    What if I am gone for good?
    He fantasized about new facts being unearthed that might provide incontrovertible evidence. Then he could say: Case closed, like the ending of a Sherlock Holmes story. Time to move on.
    But those facts never came, and for almost three years now, Narendran has lived life with crushing uncertainty. There were days that were more jarring than others: when the missing plane was in the news, when debris was found, when the first anniversary came and then the second. And now, the end of the search.
    But to him, day 364 was the same as day 365. It was another day without her.
    I sense that perhaps Narendran has begun to move on, however slow the progress. I ask him if he still speaks with his wife.
    "My conversations lately have been with myself," he says. "What I wish to do with my life. And I don't think I have answers yet."
    Nor has the uncertainty abated as much as he would have liked.
    One reason, he surmises, is his role as spokesman for Voice 370, the support group for families of the missing.
    "That role travels with me 24 hours a day," he says. "It has a way of keeping alive the questions and continues the agonizing. I think the questions about finding answers, finding an explanation that is credible enough, sufficiently substantiated, remains very important.
    "Why? I have often asked myself the same question. And I don't think I have a very clear answer. The sense of incredulity about all that's happened doesn't just go away. That something like this should ever have happened where there is neither a trace nor understanding or explanation of how this might have happened is very deeply disturbing."
    Then there all the relatives and friends who constantly ask him questions or want an update. "Tell me what is happening," they say.
    "There is always this underlying assumption that the families know something more than the rest of the world. And we don't," he says.
    So it remains unfinished business.
    "I also frankly believe there are larger questions of fairness, justice, accountability that can't be so easily put away," he says. "There are levels of agitation and I tell myself: I can't just let this pass. I can't get on with life. I have not flushed my system of MH370."
    These are the sorts of things Narendran is often not asked about in the myriad interviews he gives. How do you even begin in a 5-minute radio or TV segment? But I have learned about him over the course of our acquaintance.
    From the beginning, I felt his strength in the quietness of his voice and the power of his words. He is someone who doesn't always emote outwardly -- I've never heard him cry, although on several occasions he has brought tears to my eyes.
    He tells me that writing about MH370 and his life without Chandrika has helped him enormously. It has forced him to learn about himself.
    People who suffer great pain or sorrow often find refuge in prayer and hope. Many of the families of MH370 held onto the hope that everyone on that plane was still alive. That included some of Narendan's relatives.
    But Narendran was not one of them. He found comfort in his writing. It helps him gain insight on how he has been dealing with life after tragedy.
    The eye cannot see itself, he tells me, quoting Shakespeare. "I need to hear from others on how they see me and then reflect back on what resonates with me."
    We end our conversation there. What I don't tell him is that I can see he has already done a lot of reflection; that he's already come a long way in his recovery. The search for the missing plane may have ended Tuesday, but what continues is Narendran's quest to find himself again.