Each year, more than 250,000 missing person reports are made to the police in the UK alone. The loss can have a profound emotional effect on the families left behind, but their experiences are relatively little understood.
The majority of missing people return fairly quickly, but around 1% don’t. Their cases remain open for a year of more – and some for much longer. In the meantime, their friends and relatives must live with the uncertainty and hope of finding what happended to their loved ones, sometimes for many years.
In interviews with 12 relatives of missing people, they described going through different stages of guilt, regret and anger. For example, Sandra Flintoft, mother of Craig, who went missing in February 2003 said:
When Craig first went missing I was so worried and sad. Where had I gone so wrong, what had I done to let him down so much … what more could or should I have to help him sort himself out? … after the first year my feelings changed. I felt sorry for myself … I was distraught with worry … I was angry with him. I wondered why he did not care that I was so unhappy.
The emotional impact is significant. The term “living in limbo” is often used to describe how families can’t move on while a loved one is missing. They often fluctuate between hope and hopelessness.
For example, Valerie Nettles, whose son Damien has been missing since November 1996, describes her sorrow as “the beast within”:
It began to be, in my head, possible that he was dead; though I found it odd that a mother wouldn’t know by instinct if her son was dead … I tried to be calm and philosophical and tell myself this is just a mistake … this is not happening and stop panicking, there is a logical explanation and he will come waltzing through the door. But all the time deep down I knew, something was terribly wrong and it was terrifying.
In cases where a person is missing for a prolonged period, this process is described as ambiguous loss. There is no resolution or closure to enable a person to move on. This is further intensified by the person holding on to hope of a happy reunion with their loved one or even simply learning what had happened and why the person went missing in the first place.
Relatives also spoke about differing views or thinking within a family as to whether the missing person is alive or dead. That can also be an additional cause of distress and conflict and put immense pressure on a relationship, particularly if it is perceived that a family member could have “contributed to” someone going missing.
Families may also face legal and financial problems following a disappearance. They often need to manage and protect the missing person’s affairs while they are away, which can be hugely distressing, as they can feel duty bound to protect the life they hope their missing loved one will return to.
If a missing person does turn up – be it alive or dead – their families then encounter a whole new range of emotions. It is rarely as straightforward as joy in a reunion.
As well as relief that the person has been found, many families experience frustration. They often have questions that have not been answered and there may be fear that the person will disappear again. One interviewee said it could be like having a stranger in your house and reported feeling unsure of whether it was OK to talk about what had happened.
Other families experience acute rejection, worry and frustration if the person has chosen not to get back in touch with them. That’s especially true when a police investigation has been closed without their family member returning.
Even successful reconnection may present significant challenges. There is relatively little support for families and missing people who have returned. Young missing people may receive a referral to local social services, which may result in ongoing support for them and their family, but when missing adults return, there is no guarantee of support after the police have played their part.
Given the complexity of the needs of families of people who go missing, more should be done to support them. Support services could be provided for families following a disappearance, explaining the legal and financial issues they may encounter. While such support won’t make the pain of losing a loved one any easier, it might help lessen the unexpected burdens that come with this experience.