National Missing Persons Week is underway — the annual campaign that puts the spotlight on a handful of specific cases and highlights the plight of the families left behind.
- National Missing Persons week is running August 2-8
- About 38,000 people go missing every year
- Families and experts say the feelings of a lack of control and hopelessness are similar to the widespread sentiments caused by coronavirus
More than 38,000 people go missing in Australia each year and, although the vast majority return, there are many families permanently left without answers.
There are about 2,600 long-term missing cases, defined as missing for 90 days or more, and evidence has shown that each case directly affects at least 12 close contacts.
Experts and those with first-hand experience say it’s more important than ever to understand the emotional trauma of families in missing persons cases, because many parallels can be drawn with the collective experience of the coronavirus era.
Loren O’Keeffe is founder and chief executive of the Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MPAN), which offers resources to families in the early and long-term stages of a disappearance.
She says the ambiguity of coronavirus and the sense of hopelessness and helplessness is very similar to the unrelenting plight of families of missing loved ones.
“It’s different, no doubt, but the themes of fear, frustration, disruption, isolation, the sense of stuck-ness and the lack of an end-date can definitely give the public an insight into what it’s like to live with that, day-in, day-out,” she says.
In the shorter-term, the impact on a practical level is harsh due to coronavirus restrictions: help from volunteers for physical searches or even gestures as simple as neighbours offering home-cooked meals are limited.
In the longer-term, people are simply not programmed to deal with the kind of “ambiguous loss”, she says, the most traumatic kind of loss.
“I definitely do feel and hope that people will now be able to empathise a bit more with families of long-term missing people, who’ve lived with the uncertainties, the disruptions, the stress, panic and worry for years on end,” she says.
“It’s a brutal, devastating journey and one they typically feel very isolated on.”
‘We expected answers’
Sevak Simonian was last seen on October 20, 2014.
His family — parents Massis and Rosik, and brothers Sasoon and Areen, with whom Sevak lived in Belrose, north-east Sydney — raised the alarm two days later after no one had heard from him and he had failed to turn up for work.
Sevak, who was 21 at the time, was usually reliable and Sasoon says he wasn’t particularly worried, confident that there would be a simple explanation, maybe a problem with Sevak’s car, or that the keen bushwalker had got lost or maybe even injured.
On October 24, Sevak’s car was found in a car park in the Kanangra-Boyd National Park in the Greater Blue Mountains and a 16-day police search of the area commenced.
The search was called off on November 10; no body had been found, not even an item of clothing or any DNA.
“It was just nothing at all,” says Sevak.
“I wasn’t worried at the time but after the search finished, that’s when I was like, OK, this might be years of the unknown — because, by then, we expected answers.”
‘A community issue’
In May 2019, an inquest into Sevak’s disappearance ruled he had “likely perished in bushland” but it is an assertion that could not be established to the “requisite standard”.
Sasoon says the inquest was an “anti-climax” because it just didn’t offer anything new.
He says the experience of families of missing persons needs to be better understood, so there is better support, particularly given the number of people affected.
“It’s a huge issue that most people don’t know much about,” he says.
“It’s usually seen as a police issue, you know, the blue and white, posters and all that, but in reality, it should be a community issue.”
Dr Sarah Wayland, from the faculty of Health Sciences from the University of Sydney, is one of Australia’s leading researchers into missing persons families and has been overseeing a pilot program of counselling training run by MPAN.
She says for families and loved ones, it’s very much a roller-coaster with competing forces of fear and optimism.
“It very much parallels that unknown fear of COVID and that lack of power to be able to work out what the end of the story is, or being able to have your own power to decide what it is that you do with your day, or how you feel about the universe,” she says.
Dr Wayland has been working with 19 counsellors nationally on understanding the singular experiences of those linked to missing persons.
She says traditional models of bereavement support just do not work for missing persons’ families because of the sense of unending, among other factors.
“That’s what we’re all starting to recognise with COVID-19 — as much as we want things to end and go back to normal, perhaps what was there before won’t ever be there again, [so] let’s try and focus on what will be there and what do we have control over.
“[It’s] taught really important lessons of, all you can do is deal with what’s happening for you today and really go gently with yourself,” she says.
It’s a sentiment shared by Sasoon.
“One of the hardest things to accept is your lack of control and, similar to COVID-19, people feel like they don’t have control over their lives, or they don’t have control over their situations,” he says.
“People are losing work, losing jobs, they can’t see family, they can’t go to ceremonies and weddings and funerals and all that.
“I’ve been here before, this is easier to kind of swallow, but other people who may not have been in this kind of situation are definitely going to have those feelings.”
With Sevak, in the early stages, all focus and energy was directed towards the case, Sasoon says.
“But as time goes on, you come to realise that if you want to actually stay in the game and keep advocating and trying to find answers, the only way is to actually start taking control, start taking care of yourself, prioritising yourself and your needs, rather than neglecting yourself.
“Just think of it as a marathon in the long-term, because it could be decades that you have no answers, which is a horrible thing to think about, but it’s just it is what it is. Like, ‘I can’t control it, so I have to be prepared for the worst’.
“That’s the mentality that I feel is useful, once you can accept it.”