National missing persons coordination centre

Personal health and wellbeing

When a relative or friend is missing the emotional impact on families and friends can be considerable. There is no right or wrong way to feel or react when someone goes missing and each person’s experience is unique.

Families and friends of missing persons often talk about feelings including fear, anger, guilt, blame, frustration, helplessness, ambiguity and isolation. While people may not experience all of these emotions, it is important to recognise that any of these responses are ordinary reactions to an extraordinary situation.

When someone goes missing it is important to take time to care for yourself and your family. Research suggests that for every missing person, on average another twelve people are affected by their disappearance. It is important to acknowledge that each person may be affected in their own way.

In conjunction with the NSW  Family and Friends of Missing Persons Unit (FFMPU) we have developed a series of factsheets about supporting loved ones during their experience of a missing person.

The following information may also be helpful for families and friends of missing persons.

Physical needs

  • Ensure that you have some down time. Sleep may be difficult for some, but adequate time for rest will help prevent you from feeling burnt out.
  • Maintain a healthy diet and eat regularly. If you are unable to prepare meals, ask a friend or family member to assist.
  • Gentle exercise can help maintain mood and your ability to keep going physically.
  • Heightened emotional response to the situation may also bring on a physical reaction in some people. If any of your symptoms are serious contact a health professional to assist with treatment. Common responses to trauma include:
    • nausea
    • headaches
    • high blood pressure
    • tremors
    • chills
    • sweating
    • diarrhoea etc.
  • Be careful of using drugs or alcohol to alleviate pain. Research has shown that many drugs and alcohol can worsen mood and problem solving abilities.

Emotions

  • Many families describe the ‘emotional roller-coaster’ they experience when someone is missing. Rapid and unexpected emotional changes are not uncommon.
  • Crying, sleeplessness, bad dreams, moodiness, confusion, lack of appetite, loss of concentration, low tolerance and angry outbursts are just some of the descriptions provided by families and friends faced with the uncertainty that comes with having someone missing.
  • Acknowledging your feelings is important. This may include talking to someone you trust about what you are going through (for example: a friend, family member, counsellor, or your GP) or writing your thoughts and feelings in a journal.
  • Feeling distracted and stressed is normal, so take care with activities that require concentration, such as driving.
  • Be kind to yourself. Try not to blame yourself (or anyone else) for the missing persons disappearance.

Communicating with others

  • It may be beneficial for families and friends of missing persons to talk to someone about how they are feeling.
  • The experience of having a loved one missing can feel isolating. Reach out for, and accept, support from others (for example: friends, family, local community groups, and support agencies).
  • You may find that people close to you want to provide support but are unsure of how best to help. People outside the situation can sometimes feel more helpless if they don't know what is needed from them. Make a list of things that volunteers may do for you and your family such as child minding, meals, searching and contacting people.
  • Let others know what you need for support. Tell them what is helpful or not helpful to say or do.
  • People within the same family may react differently. Be understanding and give each person space and permission to cope in their own way.

Taking care of each other

  • Encourage children and teenagers to talk about their feelings; they can sometimes be afraid of upsetting their parents, especially if a sibling is missing.
  • Children often show feelings through their behaviour in times of stress. It is important to encourage young people to talk openly and if you need to address their behaviour consider that the cause may be a reaction to having someone missing.
  • Arranging activities with groups of friends, neighbours, relatives or colleagues may help keeping up with day-to-day activities.

One day at a time

  • Families and friends of missing persons should try to take one day at a time. Avoid making significant life changes. Personal judgment may be affected by having a loved one missing.
  • Try to re-establish routine as much as possible. Normal, everyday tasks can be grounding when faced with an unexpected situation.
  • Some families explore ways to stay connected emotionally with their missing loved one, for example through rituals such as marking their birthday or visiting a place special to them.

Personal checklist

  • Families and friends of missing people often mention that a personal checklist helps provide direction amongst the confusion they are facing. The practical matters section of our website provides a list of tasks to be considered.

Professional help

  • It is challenging to live with uncertainty and seeking professional help may provide additional strength.
  • If support is needed on an ongoing basis, families and friends should not hesitate in contacting a counsellor, doctor, natural therapy practitioner or other qualified professional. Sometimes taking time to speak in a safe environment about what is happening and how you are feeling, can give you the strength to keep going.
  • A list of support services is available and outlines some of the services available to the families and friends of missing persons. Other counselling services and providers may be referred by investigating police officers, General Practitioners or Community Health Centres.
  • If a loved one is located and returns home, families and friends may consider obtaining professional counselling, mediation or reconciliation support to help prevent the situation recurring. Additional support may also be useful if the person was a victim of a crime whilst they were missing. This might help you to understand their experience and provide them with support.
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