Monday, 19 September 2011

The language of loss

Sarah Wayland

A few weeks ago a significant Australian missing persons case came to a close, of sorts. The remains of a young boy who vanished almost eight years ago were discovered and the media went into overdrive about what this might mean for the family and for families in general.

Working in the field of missing persons for the last few years has given me the opportunity to explore unresolved loss – its complexity, its challenges and its language. We don’t tend think about the language of loss in our day to day lives but language can have such a powerful impact - for families to describe what has happened to them, for the media to report it and for the community to attempt to respond to it.

Look at any missing persons report in a news publication or social media site and the words hope, answers and closure are usually there – families are asked to hold onto hope, they plead for answers to a multitude of questions and the media attach the need for closure as if there is a way to tidy up such an ambiguous and unrelenting loss.

But the issue I keep coming back to is why, as a society, do we need to be so black and white about a loss that is neither. Families of missing people have told me that to have someone missing is to live in that space in between – not just in between life and death, but between hope and hopelessness, between answers and more questions and between closure and not being able to move on…

Regardless of the type of loss people rarely move on from it – it becomes part of their story, they carry it with them for the rest of their lives – just the same as families and friends of missing people. The language is just another way for our community to rationalise the unimaginable – as a community we don’t tend to cope well with not knowing and having someone missing is the ultimate not knowing – whether it be for short or long periods the place where families sit in-between is filled with so many unanswerable questions.

The location of remains is not good news (despite many media outlets and social media sites referring to it in such a way) it is just another step in the journey of living with an unresolved loss. The what if questions may still remain, the longing that things may have been different and the discovery of the person may signal that hope is over – the finality of the loss creates a whole new set of challenges for those left behind.

I stated in an article I wrote a few weeks ago that:

We know that in any person’s lifetime they will be faced with sudden and unexpected challenges. We lament at how bad things happen to good people. The loss of a person who is missing creates an additional complexity – it is no worse or better than any other loss but it is different. It is different because families of missing people are forced to live in that space between the possibility of life and death. A place where some days they imagine the return of a loved one and then other days they are hit with the stark reality that that person may not be coming back. Regardless of what they feel on any given day the ‘missing’ part does not allow them to speak with certainty about their loss.

Our new ways of connecting with each other via social media may have some benefits – it allows families of missing people to know that others are thinking and are supportive of them and it lifts the veil of silence that sometimes comes with such a complicated loss. As long as we try to keep supporting each other through whatever losses, the ambiguous and the more clear cut ones, we can only create a better community that is open to thinking realistically about loss and all of the complexities that come may come with it.

Sarah Wayland has been working as an Australian social worker in the missing persons field since 2003 and was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study the international approach to counseling and unresolved loss. She visited agencies, including Missing People UK, in 2006. She is currently completing postgraduate studies in the field of hope and loss at the University of New England, Australia and writes a blog about the challenges of loss at

1 comment:

  1. Dear Sarah
    Thanks so much for your words in this blog - I'd have replied earlier but have been away and not accessing a computer. What you wrote is so relevant and will have struck strong loud chords with those like me who are living with long-term missing loved ones.
    Heartfelt thanks again,
    Sarah Godwin


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