It’s incomprehensible the grief a family must feel when one of its members has gone missing.
But often we forget that the justice professionals who work a missing persons case — from the law enforcement officers to the courtroom staff, etc — also are exposed to a sense of “ambiguous loss.”
- defining ambiguous loss and understanding how it differs from loss due to death.
- identifying behaviors and characteristics that result from experiencing ambiguous loss.
- recognizing the unique impact that this type of loss may have on the larger system involved.
- discussing ways to provide support for those impacted by ambiguous loss.
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Many of our members might not have heard of this unique type of loss. Help us understand this term, ambiguous loss. Why is it unique and so challenging?
Duane Bowers: One definition of ambiguous loss is – a situation where the person is psychologically present but physically missing (such as a missing person) or physically present but psychologically missing (such as someone with Alzheimer’s). When a person goes missing, the left behind folks are unable to grieve this type of loss as the loved one may well be alive. There is not an accepted set of feelings, behaviors, rituals or social norms for a situation where a loved one has gone missing. Because there is no way to resolve this type of loss, for law enforcement, advocates and other personnel, it cannot easily be filed away in their brain; it remains ‘that one case.’ And as we have seen in some cases, new information may surface at any time, even decades later.
JCH: It’s understandable that the family of a missing person would experience ambiguous loss, and perhaps even the immediate first responders who become so personally involved in their case. But share with us why that expands to court workers or other justice system personnel?
Duane: Due to the nature of an ambiguous loss, and that there is no appropriate response, people working with the case and beyond see the extent to which this affects the family; financially, psychologically, spiritually, and in health to name a few. The family utilizes many resources in the system, and the system cannot provide a resolution, so the case can never be closed. The effects are multi-generational, which may repeatedly involve the ‘system’. It also makes us all face our own vulnerability; that this can happen to any family.
Because there is no way to resolve this type of loss,
for law enforcement, advocates and other personnel,
it cannot easily be filed away in their brain; it remains ‘that one case.’
JCH: What’s the biggest myth or misconception people might have about ambiguous loss?
Duane: One misconception is that after a period of time, the family should just be able to move on. And, in some cases it is suggested that the family needs to accept that the loved one is probably deceased. Often, the folks who try to place this attitude on the family are doing it out of their own discomfort about the situation, or their discomfort in seeing how this is affecting the family. A missing loved one is a traumatic event that does not end and each day, each life event is a reminder that they are not present. Dispelling these notions is difficult, for the people suggesting moving on are actively working to not feel empathy, and are trying to create a more tolerable situation for themselves.
A missing loved one is a traumatic event that does not end and each day,
each life event is a reminder that they are not present.
JCH: Knowing that you’re not speaking to counselors or therapists, how can justice professionals help support their colleagues who may be experiencing ambiguous loss?
Duane: The best support for folks who are experiencing ambiguous loss are:
- to not refer to the missing in a way that may be interpreted that you believe they are deceased, and
- to understand this is an on-going traumatic event.
Focusing on what will help this individual cope with today rather than trying to ‘fix’ or ‘bring resolution’ to the situation is helpful as well. Finally, validating whatever the person is feeling in the moment, and not making statements like ‘you shouldn’t feel that way’ or ‘don’t let yourself think like that’ allows them to feel safe and non-judged.
Click Here to Watch “Ambiguous Loss: The Impact of Missing Persons on Victims, Advocates and Justice System Personnel.”