Remembering Ireland's missing persons

EVERY year thousands of people go missing in Ireland, causing much anguish and loneliness amongst their loved ones. It is difficult to imagine the scale of such pain.

Everyone is touched by grief at some stage in their lives but when a loved one disappears, so many questions go unanswered. Before we know it, the days turn to weeks and the weeks to years. Everyone seems to be able to get on with their lives after the reports on our television screens and in the newspapers move to the next story. Everybody, that is, except those that are most affected by it — family and close friends.

It’s difficult to comprehend; but a glance at the Missing Persons Helpline website, tells us that more than 4,000 people go missing in Ireland every year. The majority of these people are found safe and sound but over the years there have been many high-profile cases of people who have one day left their home and never returned.

With Christmas being a time where people unite and families celebrate, it can be a joyous occasion for many — emigrants return to their roots and the festive season becomes a period where families reminisce together.

However, with the unknown whereabouts of a loved one every year, this period can be a painful and difficult experience for those affected by missing people.

When someone vanishes without trace, it can be difficult for those concerned to know how to react. Why me/us? Who do I turn to? Why has he/she gone? Years ago, expressing these and other unanswered questions were difficult due to the dearth of properly- developed counselling services.

Thankfully, emotional support groups have evolved significantly in the last decade or so and those affected by the disappeared, like anyone suffering difficulty, can express their feelings to others.

Missing in Ireland Support Service (MISS) was established by Wexford man, Dermot Browne, in Nov 2003 to address the lack of organised support and information available to family and friends of missing people. As a non-denominational, non-political, non-profit making voluntary organisation and a registered charity, our primary aim is to support families and individuals who have a relative, colleague, or friend who is officially classified as missing.

In 2008 the organisation re-launched the National Missing Persons Helpline, focussing on providing information, improving media and public awareness and supporting those who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

The helpline has trained volunteers from the community who offer a valuable support service throughout the period when the missing person is being sought. Friends, neighbours, and the community at large are unsure of how to deal with the issues that arise once a person is reported missing and frequently have to resort to their own resources in dealing with the traumatic situation in which they find themselves.

The helpline also relies totally on the goodwill and donations of the public in order to fund services.

As helpline co-ordinator for the Missing Persons Helpline, Ciaran Casey has been in contact with many relatives of people who have gone missing, establishing relationships that give him an insight into every aspect of the ordeal. “The challenge facing the families of the missing is reaching a point where they can maintain, tolerate, and manage their lives — even in the presence of this ambiguous loss.

“One thing we’re told time and time again of the long-term missing is that even if their loved ones found out they had died — as terrible as that would be — it’s preferable to not knowing.”

There are many issues that impact on the kind of support the helpline provides: not only the circumstances of the disappearance and the relationship with the missing person, the emotional turmoil, the reactions of others, taking part in searches and the practical implications should the missing person be the family breadwinner.

“It’s a real burden on families — with mental and physical health declining over time when a loved one goes missing,” Ciaran says.

“It’s important to have hope as a method of coping. There is a very real possibility that the person will show up. It does happen.”

Following many years of campaigning, a National Missing Persons Day will be held annually commencing with an event today at Farmleigh House in Dublin. The marking of this special day has been welcomed by the Missing Persons Helpline as an opportunity each year to remember those who have gone missing and acknowledge the difficulties experienced by their families and friends

In the run-up to Christmas, and indeed particularly today, take a moment to remember all those missing and the families left behind who are still searching for answers. Over the last 10 years, more than 40,000 people have gone missing. Even though the majority of these people have been found safely, it is worth considering those who haven’t and those family members who have been left behind. They are left carrying a burden, and they are left wondering.

* Cian Ó Raghallaigh is a volunteer with MISS

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