The vanished

National Missing Person Week seeks to raise awareness of the many unsolved cases of people missing in Australia, and for those still hoping for information about loved ones.

Each year, police receive more than 38,000 reports of missing persons. In Western Australia, there are 342 families waiting for loved ones to return.

When a disappearance occurs, the media often highlight the victim’s last known movements. Family members are interviewed, police and community searches are organised. The tragedy becomes the leading story across news outlets.

But what happens after the media attention fades?

Former social worker Kanthi Perera says family members of missing people are often left with significant trauma.

She says family members often experience what is known as ambiguous loss, a term used to explain when a person is physically absent yet psychologically present.

The term ambiguous loss was first coined by Professor Pauline Boss, a pioneer in the field of interdisciplinary study of family stress. She says family members often describe the loss as ‘leaving without a goodbye.’

Dr Perera says family members of missing persons live with uncertainty as they are unable to process their grief. According to Missing Persons UK, this limits their ability to cope and impacts the way families handle the loss.

“The loss doesn’t just affect the individual. It affects the whole family and community as well,” she says.

When Dr Perera was awarded the Winston Churchill Fellowship in 2005, her research on ambiguous loss sent her overseas, including a stint in the United States.

She witnessed ambiguous loss first-hand in New York, after working in communities affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“People went missing, and the family members didn’t know whether they had died because there was nobody to mourn the dead,” she says.

She believes the community experienced ambiguous loss post-attack, with some family members turning to alcohol to cope with trauma.

Founding member of K9 Trackers Perth Sonya Bowditch says ambiguous loss is present during search and rescue missions.

Her volunteer-based organisation helps family members find their lost loved ones through search and rescue missions. They use motorbikes, drones, horses and dogs to track missing people.

Listen to more from Sonya Bowditch.

Ms Bowditch says over the years, she has formed close friendships with several missing persons’ family members.

She explains while K9 Trackers are usually involved in the initial search of missing persons, family members often reach out when the official search and rescue groups are called off.

Ms Bowditch says they try to accommodate every request, even when they have repeatedly looked for the same missing person.

“We have never said no to a family,” she says.

“We’re in the background working with families to support them, even with little things like telling them to get a new phone as a search mobile.”

K9 Trackers Perth provide more than just search support, they also assist families in setting up social media pages.

She says the families of missing persons often need help navigating the media, as emotions are often running high.

Australian Missing Persons Register founder Nicole Morris knows how emotional the whole ordeal can be.

She started the register over 18 years ago, after watching a missing persons documentary. When the film ended, she was surprised to find no register exists on missing persons nationwide.

Ms Morris says she initially put details from open cases she found in newspapers on a website. Family members of missing persons soon began contacting her for help.

She believes many people often forget about what victim’s families experience.

“They go through a lot, not just with grief process but also having to take on the practical responsibility of looking after their missing loved one’s financial affairs.”

Ms Morris explains how families deal with grief differently, but ultimately many yearn for closure.

She says families such as Matthew Leveson‘s were forced to make a “deal with the devil” to forgo prosecuting their son’s killer in exchange for his burial location.

She says others, like Daniel Morcombe’s family, use their platform to advocate and create awareness to ensure all other Australian children are safe.

“But then you’ve got other families who, you know, it’s sometimes just a bit too hard.”

Ms Morris says there needs to be compassion when dealing with missing persons’ family members.

She says people need to be more sensitive to what they are going through, especially on social media.

“How can you sit back in your home safe, happy with your family around you and judge someone whose life is taken?”

Sonya Bowditch knows it can be hard for families as well as those who work with them.

“Ultimately, the outcome that we want is for missing loves ones to come home.”