Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Grief for the Missing

by Donna Weaver

Sometimes when a perpetrator is apprehended for the abduction and murder of a child or adult it is reported that they are a suspect in the disappearances of other victims. What is it like for the families of these victims who have no answers? Their heartbreak is something I call “suspended grief.” Currently, there are few resources and little information available to assist families of missing persons in coping with the specific elements of their “suspended grief.” Traditional victim assistance services are frequently not available to these families.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Crime Information Center (NCIC), in the U.S., there are an estimated 58,200 child victims of non-family abductions; 50,930 active missing adult cases; and 6,218 active cases of unidentified persons. However, most investigators and law enforcement agencies agree that this represents a fraction of the true number of cases since it is not mandatory for local police agencies to enter adult missing person cases in NCIC. Many cold cases were never entered into the system simply because of the limits of technological resources at the time, and I have found in some instances that cases originally entered in a local agency’s system were subsequently purged to make room for new cases.

For example, as of 2004, more than half (51%) of the nation’s medical examiners' offices had no policy for retaining records—such as x-rays, DNA, or fingerprints—on unidentified human remains. Sadly, there are many such cases sitting in boxes covered by layers of dust in local police storerooms and warehouses—or worse yet—none exist at all.

In 2007, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) called the number of missing persons and unidentified human remains in our Country a crisis, labeling it a “a mass disaster over time.”

The nation’s legislators are beginning to understand the magnitude of the problem of missing persons and unidentified victims in the United States. Congress recently implemented legislative provisions allowing families of missing persons to submit DNA samples to the FBI’s national CODIS database, previously used solely for criminal DNA identification, and cases are being retrieved from many thousands of individual police jurisdictions across the country, moving toward a uniform national reporting and filing system.

In the spring of 2005, NIJ assembled federal, state, and local law enforcement officials, medical examiners and coroners, forensic scientists, key policymakers, and victim advocates and families from around the country for a national strategy meeting in Philadelphia. The meeting, called the “Identifying the Missing Summit,” defined major challenges in investigating and solving missing persons and unidentified decedent cases. The result was the formation of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System or NamUS.

NamUS was set to roll out in three phases culminating in two fully functional searchable databases: the Unidentified Decedents database and Missing Persons database in 2009. This is a huge advancement in the cause for the missing and unidentified.

However, statistics alone cannot capture the fear, horror, frustration, and pain felt by those who know and love a missing person. So what is it like living day-to-day for many of those left behind ?

According to the psychology books, there are four stages of grief: shock and denial; intense concern; despair and depression; and recovery. Rarely does this occur as progressive stages towards the resolution of grief when a loved one is missing and presumed dead. Grief becomes “suspended” and those left behind become victims themselves. The act of confronting and expressing the emotions generally associated with grief does not bring relief or enable a progression to the next stage towards resolution and recovery. Therefore, the emotional changes associated with the four stages of grief can be experienced, and re-experienced, for long periods, sometimes for the rest of one’s life.

I have found in my discussions with victims whose loved one is missing that they usually compare feelings they have experienced at the death of someone else close to them, as if in a desperate attempt to understand or gain a frame of reference in order to try to cope. Virtually all of these surviving victims have pointed out that the emotional changes they feel because their loved one is missing and presumed dead bears little resemblance to the grief they felt when someone else they love had died.

Emotional changes are commonly intensified and prolonged when a loved one is missing. Often these feelings are compounded by guilt—wondering if they did all that they could to find the person, or guilt related to going on with life, such as dating, re-marrying, or having more children because it is often perceived as giving up on the missing person before there is proof of death.

When missing person cases go cold, surviving loved ones frequently feel betrayed and abandoned by police and the justice system, which adds to their feelings of despair, helplessness, isolation, and anger. As the passing of time starts to be counted in years . . . hope, no matter how slight, often remains of finding a loved one alive, even as survivors struggle to balance this with the acceptance of the inevitable death of their missing loved one.

Prolonged intense concern also is often inevitable for many victims. The need to keep the memory of the missing person alive becomes an alternative to the overwhelming despair and depression caused by considering the reality of never finding their loved one, or knowing what their loved one experienced, or who is responsible for their disappearance and death. In many cases, “what if” and countless other questions are all survivors have in the absence of knowing the details of their loved one’s fate.

Dealing with and controlling thoughts of the missing person suffering similar horrifying fates known to have happened to other victims who were discovered months or years after they disappeared is very difficult. How can a person put such a terrible experience behind them when they do not have the barest of details to reconcile the event in their mind?

Currently, traditional victim resources related to missing persons cases generally serve victims of disaster, war, or genocide. In these types of situations, the cause of the disappearance is usually known to some degree, if not readily apparent, and large numbers of people have suffered a similar experience at once. Those left behind when a child is abducted by a stranger, or an adult disappears because they may be a victim of foul play, cannot relate to those circumstances or the emotional effects on their lives. Perhaps because in the case of war or disaster people come together as a group for support and recovery of a shared experience which is a result of something, the cause of their pain is an event shared by all, or a known, common enemy.

These are but a few of the particular issues that influence the emotions of these grieving survivors. And it is but one more consideration in determining the devastation to individuals, and the cost to society as a whole, when offenders are permitted to be free to offend again.


FleaStiff said...

Similar difficulties arise in Search And Rescue situations wherein officials have to decide what resources are to be committed and to what risks searchers will be subjected. Its hard on family members when official searches end and privately funded searches are often undertaken.

Some family members seem to always hold out hope no matter how illogical it is while other family members are more willing to accept a less optimistic and much more realistic view of events.

When a recreational hiker goes missing its bad enough, however, when a case arises with an abduction or an adult gone missing situation family members often polarize to certain extreme views.

There have been cases wherein parents spent years searching for missing teenagers who were later found to have been killed rather promptly. One mother never gave up hope even though it was obvious that her daughter had been lured onto a drug-boat wherein she was simply to be enroute entertainment. Alternatively, there have been situations wherein police have dismissed missing kids as runaways only to later discover a serial abductor-murderer in the area. Without a complete index of his victims, how are such cases to be handled administratively much less emotionally. Relatives often have different views than the police, particularly if the police are also subject to pressure regarding statistics, such as in a tourism-oriented area.

An expanded use of CODIS is fine, so too are formalized procedures for storage and retention of evidence although I fear that defense demands for extensive touch-dna testing will sorely tax space utilization at evidence rooms.
As long as storage is electronic its cheaper than retention of biological specimens but often there are still conversion and access costs involved.

At some time its often necessary to simply accept that doubt and uncertainty are a part of life and also a part of death as well as a part of being missing.

Anonymous said...

One of my relatives disappeared in 1979. I found a new listing that showed a body found that described him (hippy style clothing, right age, blond hair, right area, found in 1979 and most telling, surgical scars on his skull that would have been appropriate for him). I contacted the coroner by email as shown on the listing. I got back a lot of information pretty much telling me that CSI was not like real life, families had a rough time getting ID's etc. etc. No real helpful information and no statement like "we will look into it". I contacted another county that may have been able to provide some information about a lawsuit that might have helped to ID the body and never heard from them. I feel I gave the coroner appropriate information and I think my cousin is still unidentified even tho that body they found is probably him.

Donna Weaver said...

Dear Anonymous,

I'm so sorry for your loss. With a little more information I can direct you to the right person/s to get the potential match looked at properly. I would need to know your cousin's name, specifically where the original missing person report was filed (with what Law Enforcement agency), and the name and location of the Coroner's office where you saw the unidentified remains listing. If you are not comfortable giving this information out here, you may e-mail it to me at and please put to my attention in the subject line.

Again, I'm sorry for all you and your family have gone through.