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4 August 2016

By Emma Ewin

When we experience a loss, such as a death in the family, the loss of a job or a relationship, it is natural to grieve. Something has ended. It is final. It is painful, but with time comes healing.

But when someone close to us is missing, the grief is prolonged, confusing and, at times, all consuming.

Working in the missing persons industry, for The Salvation Army’s Family Tracing Service, we use the term "ambiguous loss" to describe the type of grief experienced by those who simply do not know where or even ‘who’ a family member is.

Are they dead? What is happening to them? Do they want to come back? What did we do to deserve this? What does my dad look like? These are the types of questions we’re asked on a daily basis.

Even if the family member who is missing does not want contact, knowing that fact means the family left behind is able to accept it over time. If the person has died, knowing this means the family left behind is not always looking around them, wondering if they might see their loved one in the street one day.

The Salvation Army’s Family Tracing Service offers the opportunity for reconnection and reconciliation. We offer the opportunity for people suffering with ‘ambiguous loss’ to finally get answers. As one of my clients once said, “the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle is now in place.”

If we find the person who is "missing" and they want to stay that way, we can convey a message on their behalf to their family. Sometimes people take up our offer to exchange letters via our service, thereby being able to maintain their privacy until they feel safe enough to share their address with someone they have not had contact with for a long time, or sometimes ever, before.

One such case is the story of Jessica* and Steve.*

Jessica wanted to make contact with her dad Steve. Jessica was in her mid-20s, and had not had any contact with her dad or his family since she was 10. In March this year I made contact with Steve’s mother. She was hopeful the person seeking reconnection with Steve was Jessica, but without Jessica’s permission I was not able to confirm this until I had spoken to Jessica. Steve’s mother was keen to be reunited with her grand-daughter too. Jessica was informed, and her dad was contacted (he was in jail, so a letter from Jessica was forwarded to him there.) He was delighted to hear from her, and a couple of weeks later, a letter arrived, with a photo included, from Steve. This was forwarded to Jessica.

Over the past couple of months, the letters have continued. Twenty-two letters have been exchanged via The Salvation Army’s Family Tracing Service, allowing Jessica to get to know her dad a little, without the need for her to risk giving him her address, in case it does not work out the way she hopes. Jessica has now met her father’s family, including cousins and, of course, her grandmother. She has even visited her dad in jail. The most recent letter, which arrived this week, is from Steve informing Jessica that he is due to be released in a matter of days! 

Father and daughter are both very excited that they will soon be able to continue getting to know each other in a more conventional way. What a great privilege it has been to be able to offer this service to support them in their journey of reconnection and reconciliation.

As a case worker in this industry, I have heard many stories of hurt, guilt and shame being suffered by the family left behind, and the person who has disconnected from family.

If you’re disconnected from your family, for whatever reason, no matter how bad you think that reason is, it is nowhere near as bad as the hurt felt by your family left with a missing family member.

Reach out, before it is too late.  

To find out about The Salvation Army’s Family Tracing Service please visit the website salvos.org.au/familytracing or call 02 9466 3479 in NSW/ACT and 07 3222 6661 in QLD.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

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