When the missing never ends

Published 09 August 2018

One hundred Australians go missing every day. While most are found within four weeks, hundreds remain missing long-term. The toll this takes on their family and friends can be devastating.

This week, National Missing Persons Week, University of New England (UNE) researcher Sarah Wayland is preparing to offer valuable support to those left behind in the form of a practical e-book. It contains insights, by way of survey data, from up to 75 families, and builds on what Sarah learned as a counsellor and manager of the NSW Families and Friends of Missing Persons Unit - a position she held before moving into academia.

"Often, when people came for counselling, they'd say they were traumatised not just by the fact that their loved one was missing but also by people's uncertainty about the support they might need, purely because they had never faced such a loss before," Sarah said. "Families felt they couldn't speak openly about what it meant to have someone go missing, to hover between hope and hopelessness, and to begin to learn to live with grief that may never be resolved."

The e-book is funded by the National Missing Persons Coordination Centre, within the Australian Federal Police, and combines international research findings with practical advice for counsellors, police and others that might support families. By outlining what typically happens when someone goes missing and how that impacts families and friends, Sarah hopes it will guide those who rally around them as to what helps most.

"Families are the experts and need to be included in the conversation, working as part of a team to search for the person who is lost," Sarah said. "They may need help negotiating with police, using social media, time off work, financial or legal assistance. Alongside this practical support is the information about how to offer emotional support, which is a key focus of the e-book.

"The survey data shows us that some counsellors can introduce ideas of closure, or accepting the loss. The e-book highlights how important it is for professionals to not have all the answers; that to simply support families through the waiting is enough. The e-book book describes the actual experience and what it means to live with an unresolved loss.

"What I understand from my own research, and from reviewing what has been shared internationally, is that over time the support becomes less about the missing person and more about what the family and friends can do to make sure that the 'not knowing' does not completely destroy them. What we know is that it never really goes away. It's a grief like no other."

The number of reports of missing Australians to police increased from 35,000 to 38,000 in the decadeto 2017.

Loren O'Keeffe, who established the Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MPAN) after her brother Dan went missing in 2011, said the new e-book will offer invaluable insights for those people supporting families with missing loved ones. It complements the 'missing person's guide' available on the MPAN website.

“This type of grief is so unique – very few professionals in this space have such a profound grasp of the emotional journey families take when a loved one is missing," Loren said. "We are so fortunate to have Sarah create this resource; it will be of huge benefit to counsellors, police, the media as well as those close to people experiencing ambiguous loss. This is an important step in making sure families and friends of missing Australians receive the kind of support they need.”

The e-book will be available online in coming months.