What Happens After A Loved One Goes Missing?Back to Discuss »
A child’s face on a milk carton. Helicopters hovering over search and rescue crews. Family members tearfully recounting a loved one’s last whereabouts for news media. These are the images that come to mind when a person goes missing. We pull our loved one’s in close, hug our friends a little tighter, and feel thankful it isn’t happening to our family. Most of us are far removed from the devastating experience of losing a loved one under mysterious circumstances, but it happens more often than we realize.
The legal definition of a missing person is “a person 18 years or older whose disappearance is possibly not voluntary, or a child whose whereabouts are unknown to the child’s legal custodian.” At any given time, there are, on average, 90,000 active missing persons cases in the United States. Around 60% of those missing are adults over the age of 18, while juveniles make up the remaining 40%.
The highest number of disappearances in one year occurred in 1997, when one million people were reported missing in the United States. That number has dropped significantly in subsequent years with the development of newer technologies like cell phones, cameras, and social media. In 2015, The National Crime Information Center reported a total of 634,908 missing person records were entered into Missing Person File. A 2012 report on NPR’s All Things Considered noted that the majority of missing persons cases are ultimately resolved. But what about cases that aren’t?
Much like the aftermath of a natural disaster, the media who cover missing person stories are present during the crisis but often move on after the searches are called off. Families and friends of the missing are left with lingering questions, unresolved frustrations, and a debilitating new reality characterized by fear, numbness, and heartbreak. How do the loved ones of those who have gone missing cope?
The trauma one experiences after a family member or close friend inexplicably goes missing is different from the loss we experience when someone dies. While working closely with families of soldiers missing in action during the 1970’s, Dr. Pauline Boss developed the term “ambiguous loss” to describe when a person is physically absent but psychologically present in the minds of family. It is a uniquely stressful type of loss in that there is no opportunity for closure. Other examples of ambiguous loss include divorce, adoption, and kidnap.
Navigating the waters of ambiguous loss can be overwhelming. It is common for those left behind to feel trapped in a constant state of not knowing, and many families are not equipped with the coping skills to process the fluctuating emotions of anger, fear, and guilt. Some family members of missing people report remaining in a constant state of hypervigilance – the high state of alert and hope for an individual’s return – years after their loved one has disappeared. Additionally, families impacted by missing persons may find it difficult to ask for help or think about the future. In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered Boss notes, “Society is really rough on the families of the missing. They don't understand quite what to do, and unfortunately what people tend to do therefore is stay away.”
The stories of those who have gone missing are, over time, often forgotten by the unaffected. Families of the disappeared remain trapped in an isolating limbo of the unknown, while the communities to which they belong move forward. But in communities where the dialogue around missing persons is kept alive, things look a little different. There isn’t much you can say to a person struggling to reconcile the ambiguous loss of a loved one but, according to Boss, in many cases to simply be present is enough.
For the people who know and love Chillicothe it is nearly impossible to move on after six women vanished in their tight knit community. In addition to family-led vigils and marches, there are now community Facebook groups flooded with support. Rather than avoiding tough conversations about the drug addiction plaguing their town, people are working together to prevent tragedy from happening again. A communal demand for action inspired law enforcement to create a task force dedicated to the case, and local news’ continued coverage has sprung a small town mystery to the national forefront.
While there is no singular method for coping with ambiguous loss, Boss’s research uncovers a few strategies which can help people understand how to support those who are grieving. For example, one of the most important revelations of her work revolves around the concept of closure – or lack thereof. “The problem is that those from very can-do cultures, from very mastery-oriented cultures, are used to having answers to all problems,” says Boss. But because many of these cases will never yield answers, Boss suggests those affected by ambiguous loss let go of the term “closure” and instead hold space for ambiguity. She also encourages members of the community to avoid mentioning the idea of closure in conversation with the grieving, as it can cause feelings of anger and remorse. For people suffering an ambiguous loss, another coping strategy urges loved ones to resist isolation by reaching out to their community. A family therapist can teach those left behind how to ask for help and begin to move forward – with or without closure.
If you are struggling to cope with ambiguous loss, you’re not alone. There are multiple resources available at www.ambiguousloss.com, including books, interviews, and upcoming events.
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