Families live in limbo while a loved one is missing

Comment: Reassurance is not an effective way of helping people to cope

If you were to find yourself in the unthinkable position, as many families tragically do, where a loved one is missing, then it is likely to be one of the most difficult emotional challenges you may ever face.

Families who have been through this emotional roller coaster talk about how they live from day to day trying to precariously balance between fear of the worst, trying to cope with uncertainty and the “not knowing” while also desperately not wanting to lose hope.

Distress, confusion, anxiety, shock, powerlessness, irritability, anger. All powerful, potentially overwhelming emotions and many families of missing persons have reported experiencing all at once or rapidly fluctuating between them.

They carry all this emotional turmoil while desperately trying to find the emotional and physical strength to continue to search for their missing loved one.


Families have reported they felt like they were living in limbo; that it was a type of unnatural emotional torture; that they need answers to why their loved one was missing, while also fearing finding out the answer to their questions in the event of a tragic outcome.

If a loved one is missing for a prolonged period, an extended grief reaction can occur, which can be emotionally and physically draining for even the strongest of individuals, families or communities.

There is a natural human tendency, in trying to help someone who is overwhelmed by uncertainty and anxiety to try to reassure them that all will be okay. Unfortunately reassurance is not an effective method of helping people to cope with uncertainty because the person knows that the worst possible outcome is still possible.

Research tells us that what is important to families, friends and colleagues of those who are missing is to be available to support them through the myriad of confusing, upsetting but understandable emotions they are experiencing.

Most important is to listen in a non-judgmental way and to travel the emotional journey with them.

In recent times, media coverage and social media coverage in particular have been important in creating awareness of missing persons to aid in searches. However, we should also be mindful that speculative or negative or judgmental social media commentary can add further stress and distress on already overwhelmed families.

There is a responsibility on us all to try to ensure a balance between being empathic and supportive and being intrusive.

Valuable support and information can be found at www.missingpersons.ie or www.missingpeople.org.uk ">www.missingpeople.org.uk

Mark Smyth is a Senior Clinical Psychologist and member of the Psychological Society of Ireland.