Supporting someone who has a missing loved one

When someone goes missing, it can personally impact a number of people around them. Everyone affected by the disappearance could experience strong emotions such as worry, despair and frustration. At times like these, family, friends and close communities can look after each other and support each other.

But, it can be difficult to know what to do, particularly if you are outside of the immediate family and wanting to help. You may want to support with practical tasks, or just want to be supportive and listen. But perhaps you are worried that you will get it wrong, or say the wrong thing. You might feel that you don’t want to intrude, at what must be a difficult time. It is likely that you will have your own worries and concerns about the missing person.

Family members with missing loved ones tell us they they need others to take an interest, and that the best thing you can do it to reach out and offer your help.

Finding out

Hearing that someone you know has just gone missing can feel shocking, particularly if it is the first time it has happened. You will likely have lots of questions, and possibly some suggestions on how to search for them. Be aware that there may not be answers to your questions straight away, or that the family might not know how to answer you. If you want to support them, try not to ask too many questions, and instead ask what you can do to help.

You will likely be experiencing many of your own emotions. Think about who you could talk things through with; someone who can support you and is outside of the community of people also affected by that person going missing.

What to say

“I will come over after work. What can I get you? We can have some time to chat.”

– Family member with a missing loved one

The most important things to say or do, are things that show you care and are there to listen and help. This will go a long way to ensure the family know they have your support. People often worry about saying the wrong thing. It is a unique and challenging situation, so you may well say the wrong thing, but you can’t always know what is right. Experience tells us that, much like other types of loss and worry, feeling ignored or avoided can be worse for the family. Sending a message via text or social media, or a note through the post, is kind and thoughtful.

When someone goes missing, it can be difficult to deal with the sudden spotlight that families experience. People knowing their business, and speculating on what might have happened. Once people are aware that you know the person, or are in contact with the family, you may start to receive intrusive questions. Try not to gossip, or talk with others about things you know or have been told private. To be the best support you can be, the person or family needs to feel they can trust you. Try to find a way of encouraging people to join the search, rather than speculate or share unhelpful opinions.

Practical help

Ask what you can do to help. It might be shopping, cooking, ordering in food, walking the dog, or caring for the children. Depending on how close you are to the person or family, you’ll know what sort of thing you would both be comfortable with.

Sometimes, they may just want some company. But be mindful, that they may also prefer privacy, or be too busy to invite you, so don’t feel offended if you aren’t welcomed in. These aren’t normal days for them or for you.

Some families will struggle with the desire to stay at home and wait for news, whilst also wanting to go out searching. Perhaps you could help with the search, but if you do, make sure you do so safely; you can read more about this here.

There may be other ways to help with the investigation, such as talking to the police, informing mutual friends, or helping with publicity and social media. Always ask before you decide to take this on; it is important not to duplicate efforts, or do things that could harm the investigation.

Other areas of help that family members have told us they appreciate are:

“Having someone to act as a spokesperson with the media, or police, if the family aren’t able to.”

“Friends to help pull ideas together, because they are more able to think straight.”

“Having someone to talk with, to help me navigate what needs to be done. Someone to help me make a poster/flyer and distribute.”

“We need to phone friends to discuss events prior to them going missing, to try to work together and draw some kind of thread.”

Offering support and listening

Listening while someone shares their worries is one of the most useful things you could do. Try not to offer solutions or make judgements. In such an uncertain time, when things seem so confusing, your questions or suggestions may not be helpful. The likelihood is that the family don’t know where their missing person is, or why they left, and will struggle with speculations. Intrusive questions could make them distressed, and they may reject your attempts to help.

It is okay if you’re not sure what to say. Listening is actually the best thing you can do.

Be aware that the family may show strong emotions, or cry. This might make you feel uncomfortable, or make you upset and tearful yourself. It is okay to be sad. If you can sit with someone whilst they cry or feel angry or emotional, this is still an amazing way of supporting them.

It’s good to have the opportunity to talk through what’s happened, and what developments are taking place. Not trying to ignore it.”

– Family member with a missing loved one

Supporting yourself

If you were very close to the person who has gone missing, or the family, it will likely have an impact on you. If you are able to help practically or provide a lot of support, make sure you are aware of your own energy levels and how well you are managing. It is likely to put a strain on you emotionally, and you may need someone to talk to. It’s ok to take a step back, and focus on other aspects of your life. It’s also important to keep up things like eating and sleeping, so that you don’t exhaust yourself. Try not to burden the person you are trying to support with your needs. But do find somebody else to talk to about your worries. It might be a trusted friend, or a helpline. We are here for you.

Keeping on caring

” We still need to talk about the loved one and share memories so they are not forgotten.”

– Family member with a missing loved one

Sadly for some people, their loved one doesn’t return home quickly and they are left wondering and worrying about them. The emotional and practical impacts of this experience are far reaching, and can be described as ‘ambiguous loss’. Some people feel a deep sense of hope, and will continue to actively search and wait for their family member, whilst others will grieve. Each person will experience missing someone very differently, and the right thing to do is to listen, and not assume you understand what the person is thinking.

Families tell us that the feelings and emotions do not get easier with time. Time does not heal in the same way that it can do with other types of loss. Families will likely still need caring friends and supportive company. People to talk to, to live with, and to keep the hope alive with them.

Be aware of your own curiosity. Asking about what has happened to their loved one, or where they are, could be painful and hard for the family to talk about. It may also appear insensitive. Instead, ask them to share positive memories of their loved one, and give them the space to talk about them. If the family do wish to talk about the missing incident, or about how they are feeling, you have provided this opportunity by taking an interest.

For some, significant dates such as birthdays, or the date when the person went missing, are particularly hard. Remembering these dates, and sending a note to say you are thinking of them, is very kind and could make them feel supported and cared for.

“I have found that it changes over time. I have found that I still need help in certain areas from family and friends. But people drift back to their own lives, and you are still stuck in the same place. I have had to learn to stand up and ask for help when I need it now, rather than think people will understand and know.”

– Family member with a missing loved one

Talk to us

We are here for anyone affected by a disappearance, whether you are close family or not. Our team are here to listen and support, for free and in confidence.

Talk to us

Sign up to be a Digital Search Hero

We have launched a regular email so that you can be aware of new missing person appeals and share them far and wide! We are also calling on all Heroes to be the eyes and ears for Missing People on the ground. Your sighting of a missing person could make a difference in a crucial time.