Social media provides an instant platform for people wanting to respond to tragedy and trauma. No matter what type of loss we might be witnessing the same words tend to swirl round and around – we rally at the injustice of ‘bad’ happening to ‘good’ people, we tell each other to hold our babies tighter to remind ourselves to be grateful for what we have and we commonly fall prey to the word closure….closure for the losses we experience, closure for the packaging up of unimaginable traumas into a neat little box and, my personal favourite, closure as a way of signaling that people need to move on.
Watching the world of Facebook, Twitter and a plethora of sites respond to the news that a man had been arrested for the murder of Daniel Morcombe over the weekend it was clear to see that the community wanted to respond by declaring that closure may have been in sight for the family. As a society we don’t cope well with loss but responding to an ambiguous loss may be even more challenging for us to comprehend. The counselling world (and their love of labels…) use the term ‘ambiguous loss’ to define those losses where there is no finality or certainty that a loss has occurred, which is what happens when someone is missing. Images of missing people are part of our history; we grow up remembering the faces of those that are lost. We have our theories as to what has happened to them, we wonder about the grief, the lack of closure these families may be struggling with and then when we hear news that confirms the finality of their loss and we tend to fall quickly into the clichéd responses.
In my experience of supporting families the news of the location of a missing person does not create closure. It just creates another tragic layer within a complex web of loss that families have to contend with.
Each year in Australia about 35,000 reports are received by the police regarding a missing person and 1600 people remain missing long term. I’ve had the privilege of meeting and getting to know Bruce and Denise Morcombe along with many other families whose lives have been frozen by that moment in time when someone they love vanishes – some are the victim of a crime, some disappear after struggling to live with a mental illness, some choose to walk away and some just leave – we don’t know why. Of those 1600 people the publicity that surrounds certain cases varies. The photos that the families choose as their missing persons picture becomes symbolic and is emblazoned in our minds, inviting us to ‘know’ the person being searched for. The pictures are powerful reminders of who was lost and possibly who may be found.
Grief has no hierarchy; we know that in any person’s lifetime they will be faced with sudden and unexpected challenges. We lament how bad things happen to good people. The loss of a person who is missing creates an additional complexity – it is no worse or better than any other loss but it is different. It is different because families of missing people are forced to live in that space between the possibility of life and death. A place where some days they imagine the return of a loved one and then other days they are hit with the stark reality that that person may not be coming back. Regardless of what they feel on any given day the ‘missing’ part does not allow them to speak with certainty about their loss. They can’t bury their loved one with dignity, they don’t have access to all of those rituals like funerals, death notices or even permission to talk openly about what’s happened as others do when they are faced with the stark finality of death.
So whatever the outcome the Morcombe’s are faced with it is clear that as a community we want answers for them. Closure may never come for those who endure ambiguous losses. The loss may be extended over months or years with little hope that one day the truth may be revealed.
Social media can provide some answers – I did hold my kids a little tighter tonight when I put them to bed and I was reminded that the world is an incredibly unfair place. As long as we try to keep supporting each other through whatever losses, the ambiguous and the more clear cut ones, we can only create a better community that is open to thinking realistically about loss and all of the complexities that come with life.
Sarah Wayland has been working as a social worker in the missing persons field since 2003 and was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study the international approach to counseling and unresolved loss. She is a mum of two and is currently completing postgraduate studies in the field of hope and loss at the University of New England.