This guest post is by Australia Counselling member Sarah Wayland

Every year in Australia 35000 missing persons reports are made about the safety and wellbeing of an individual. More than 95% will be located (or return of their own volition) within a month but the loss experienced by those left behind can be difficult to conceptualise. At present there are 1600 cases that remain unsolved. The sense of not knowing can make the task of surviving that loss a challenge.

There is much that is missing when a person vanishes that extends beyond the physical loss. There is the oscillation between absence and presence and more profoundly there is a lack of ritual that provides people with a chance to speak openly about what their grief might look like. When someone is missing there isn’t a section in the newspaper that allows for people to share their loss, to share what it meant to not have that person in their lives or to even publicly notify others that a loss had occurred. Their loss becomes disenfranchised.

I began to ask families, when I began working in the missing persons sector ten years ago, what they did to acknowledge their loss. What I found was that there was a significant dearth of literature about the type of support that was beneficial for people existing in the space between the missing person being both here and gone (Boss, 1999).

Some families found that a ritual, like a memorial service, was not useful as it was an outward sign that the family had given up hope of a return. For others they focused on providing chances to come together, some held picnics and some found that just sharing in an activity that the missing person had enjoyed provided them with the space to reconnect with the person that was not here.

One of the ideas we shared was to introduce the concept of a celebration, so far. By signaling so far the pressure was not placed on the family to concede anything – to concede hopefulness or hopelessness – it just provided the space between loss and remembering and it was a way to come together and share what the person had offered without labeling them just as missing.

While death and its finality provides the chance to follow a clearly worn path both in religiosity and practicality the process of missing is far more ambiguous. In allowing people in the counseling space to create their own rituals of remembering might create new opportunities to support those enduring such losses.

It’s National Missing Persons Week here in Australia, so for more information about providing counselling to people who have someone missing click here or for an exploration of the lived experience listen here. 

Have you ever thought about the impact of the loss when a loved one is missing? Please leave your comments below.


Sarah Wayland is a Sydney based counsellor and writer. She is currently completing her PhD on the social constructions of hope when a person is missing. You can follow her on twitter @thatspaceinbtwn


Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous loss : Learning to live with Unresolved Grief. USA: Harvard University Press.


 photo credit: ul_Marga

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