Faces in places


One of the reasons why I started blogging was to practice my writing skills and to give me some respite from the essays I was finishing for uni in the first year of my masters. The research coordinator suggested I try out some real life writing as a way of making my research meaningful to a wider audience. Make it relevant.

Eden posted a story last week about the use of social media and small people. She talked about how invasive it is in our lives now and wrestled against the idea of how it might be for our kids given the speed in which its moving. My stepdaughter has started taking selfies for her Facebook page now that she is 13. I suggested she take some shelfies – pics of books on her shelf as a way of protesting against the use of all our pretty little faces to identify us on social media. She wasn’t impressed. I thought it was funny.

Eden mentioned in the opening line that social media has some legitimate uses with one being the locating of missing children. Sitting square in the missing persons world Ive seen in the few years Ive been working with families that the use of the humble missing persons poster hastily taped up on telegraph poles has been fazed out. It used to be that they went up everywhere – on community notice boards or even on peoples windscreens was the way people spread the word, for the lucky few (or as Carole Moore calls it ‘pretty white woman syndrome’) media attention is offered to the newsworthy cases and for others they just had to wait and see what the Police could drum up. In the early days one of the families I worked with started a blog to keep families and friends updated about the disappearance of her son, it was the first blog I ever read, I dont think I completely got it back then. In the last handful of years social media and missing people seem to have been a match made in heaven. It takes a second to set up a page, a twitter account, heck there are even pinterest pages with peoples images splashed across them. There isnt a lot of data that tells us if people are found using these mediums, they do help in spreading the word, in raising awareness about the reasons why people go missing but the result of actually sharing, finding and them bringing them home is still a little grey.

There was a story floating around the new sites last night that I remember seeing a couple of years back – some remains were located in the Belanglo forest in NSW in 2010 but no one knew who the young girl was. I immediately looked at the image, thinking that it looked like a young girl whose family I knew had been looking for her for so long, but the DNA tests said it wasn’t her and still to this day no one knows who she is.

The images we use in the media, the little snapshots taken that are used to tell us that someone is missing are always taken at happier times. No one could have predicted that in taking that shot it would have been used to tell us all that someone was lost but what is even sadder is the idea that an image of a young girl who was probably traveling far from home is lost but no one knows who she is. No one can take her back to where she belongs.

The key to being missing is that you have to be missed. How could it be that she isn’t?

What I cant un-see.

There is an image of a lady floating around FaceBook at the moment. She is missing after a night out in Melbourne and people are desperately sharing her picture in the hope that it will bring her home.

A few months back a friend wrote this. She spoke about the ways in which the careers we chose shape the way in which we see the world. When I was 19 I worked in a rehabilitation hospital on a social work prac, I did a visit one day to the Department of Forensic Medicine as part of the learning about the ways that social workers can work together. Its the place thats also home to the morgue. As part of our tour we were taken into that space where people are brought when they die suddenly and without reason. The group of students I was with shuffled into a room only to be asked to move to the left as a trolley was wheeled past with a person on it. A deceased person. A person who had been someones parent, or sibling, or lover or friend but a person I had no way of knowing. I saw no part of that person only the outline of their body under a large sheet, it was the body that no longer housed their soul. I caught my breath, I backed back against the wall and I felt a surging heat rise up my chest, along my neck as if someone was tightening their hold on me.

When your old friend anxiety comes to visit for the first time you don’t realise who they are until well after they have left. I remember mumbling something to the lovely social worker that was taking us on this tour – I turned and ran up the long and winding stairs and pushed a door open and ran out into the street. I remember standing for a moment and feeling blinded by a sunshine that I hadn’t noticed before. I smoothed down my hair, took a deep breath and wandered back to my car. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened because I didnt really understand it myself.

Ive been back to that same building umpteen times over the years, for meetings, for court cases, to have coffee with old colleagues who have became friends and despite glancing around corners I never saw that door again. The one that allowed me to escape from what lay below.

I think part of the reason I embrace the world of the space in between, about losses that aren’t quite clear to us, about the world of missing is that it signifies hope  – it might be false hope, it might be positive hope but it still leaves that door open a crack to provide the possibility that we all live happily ever after.

I hope the lady is found, I hope she just took a wrong turn and that someone reveals the door to her.

Does seeing the image of a missing person fill you with hope for a good outcome?



All those odd socks.

The Morcombe’s released a statement this morning about the frustration of, one year after their son’s remains were discovered, there is still no access for the family to his body and their need to have a funeral – a send off for their boy.

During National Missing Persons Week last month I attempted to explain what it might mean to try to find rituals for people that live with losses that we don’t know how to, or want to, acknowledge. Miscarriage, stillbirth, suicide, homicide, missing people…they all sit in spaces that are hard to quantify because they don’t fit with our black and white concept that we are born, we live to an old age and then we die. The funeral industry doesn’t have alternate website where we can find out what to do in these circumstances. I’m sure there needs to be a space in the white pages but I don’t even know what we would call it.I explained it like this:

I began to ask families, in the early days of working with them, what they did to acknowledge their loss. Some found that a ritual, like a memorial service, was not useful as it was an outward sign that the family had given up hope of a return. For others they focused on providing chances to come together, some held picnics and some found that just sharing in an activity that the missing person had enjoyed provided them with the space to reconnect with the person that was not here. One of the ideas we shared was to introduce the concept of a celebration, so far.

By signaling so far the pressure was not placed on the family to concede anything – to concede hopefulness or hopelessness – it just provided the space between loss and remembering and it was a way to come together and share what the person had offered without labeling them just as missing. While death and its finality provides the chance to follow a clearly worn path both in spirituality and practicality the process of missing is far more ambiguous. In allowing people the space to create their own rituals of remembering the concept of an ambiguous or unresolved loss might be far better understood by the wider community and in turn create better opportunities for support for those enduring such losses.

I was supposed to meet a woman this morning who finds a space for rituals where others have failed. She looks at creative ways of honouring the person that isn’t here. I was reading an interview that she did a while back and I was struck by how passionate she was to just listen to what her purpose in life was. She text me the wee hours of the morning to say she had to be with a family who had lost someone. Selfless people end up in spaces like these.

All I keep hearing, all the murmurs that keep finding their way to my inbox or to my phone say that someone needs to create a space where missing, and the other misplaced socks of our life, can be honoured and looked after and embraced.

I’m just not sure how to do it alone. Does anyone have any ideas?

I type it loud.

When I worked in London just after the millennium bug didn’t hit, I worked in a time-warp. There was only one computer to share between 4 people. We would fight each other for who got a chance to tap out a court report or a care plan for a small person or a letter to a school imploring them not to expel someone.

On the off chance that I did get to use the machine Id sit down and punch out as many words as my small fat fingers could manage. Neatly presented chronological explorations of children ready for adoption and words of respect for those little ones ready to go home. The guy next to me used to laugh like a big old bear, a Scottish bear, he told me I was like a meerkat…Id put my head down and get busy with my hands and then pop my head up occasionally. Staring out into the middle distance for inspiration and then burrow back into my world again. I still type loud, its my fingers trying to catch up with my thoughts. They come thick and fast.

I was working from home on Tuesday watching the live streaming of the Azaria Chamberlain disappearance. Its part of most Australian families history to have had a chat, or 11, over the dinner table about a little girl who was no longer here. I cried watching the Coroner deliver her respectful findings to the family, taking care to look right at them, giving a space to acknowledge Azaria as someone other than a missing child. She spoke of the child as their daughter, not a newspaper heading.

Sometimes in the world of caring people think that you had to have gone through the same experience as another to be able to reach out the right hand to them (right as in helpful not right as in left and right). I disagree. I have been through little blips in my life where the world hasn’t been fair, where Ive sat alone in the living room trying to cry silently without waking anyone but I dont have to be traumatised to understand trauma. I don’t have to lose to understand loss.

Lindy Chamberlains interview explored not only why the findings were not cause for celebration (Im always perplexed as to how this can ever be viewed as good news, the truth about the death of a child) but her thoughts that the Coroner may have had her own experience of loss, to have reacted with such personal thoughts, didnt make me nod.

Ive never walked the path of any of the families I’ve worked with. I don’t have my own experiences of trauma at that scale. The thing is, I don’t think that everyone wants to yell ‘same same’ when they need help. If you’re someone that cares about the people you love then its easy to care about what other people have lost.

You think?

The transparent space

The question of who we really are, the truths we seek from others and the reality of what we know was tested last night when I went along with some mates to see Transparency….as much as the subject matter was heavy the underlying questions of how well we truly know each other, or even how much we really should know about others in our lives was so well portrayed that it had us all talking over a long coffee and a slow drive home….as a social worker and as someone who is invested in understanding people’s narratives my pursuit of the truth sometimes takes me to places I dont want to go to. Even in my personal life I’ve often found myself asking questions and then bracing myself in preparation of the answer – the more I ask, the harder it is to stay silent. For me the space in between truth and trust is about being prepared to hear the answers and I must admit that sometimes not knowing is better than knowing.

This all might sound a little like gobbledigook….the play looks at the unravelling of a man’s life after the disapearance of a small boy in his community, it looks at the impact of the loss on the uncovering of key truths from a man’s past that in turn unravel the lives of those around him…I sat still for the whole performance, tightly gripping my hands, arms folded almost to protect myself from where I could see it all heading. It reminded me that in life the keeping of secrets always leads to confusion and a more complex web that over time gets harder to escape…

What do you think about truth – is it overrated or should it be embraced at all costs??

Closure…is there ever such a thing?

A couple of weeks ago I had my first freelance piece published at Mamamia. Click here if you’d like to read the comments from Mamamia readers if not here is the article…

Social media provides an instant platform for people wanting to respond to tragedy and trauma. No matter what type of loss we might be witnessing the same words tend to swirl round and around – we rally at the injustice of ‘bad’ happening to ‘good’ people, we tell each other to hold our babies tighter to remind ourselves to be grateful for what we have and we commonly fall prey to the word closure….closure for the losses we experience, closure for the packaging up of unimaginable traumas into a neat little box and, my personal favourite, closure as a way of signaling that people need to move on.

Watching the world of Facebook, Twitter and a plethora of sites respond to the news that a man had been arrested for the murder of Daniel Morcombe over the weekend it was clear to see that the community wanted to respond by declaring that closure may have been in sight for the family. As a society we don’t cope well with loss but responding to an ambiguous loss may be even more challenging for us to comprehend. The counselling world (and their love of labels…) use the term ‘ambiguous loss’ to define those losses where there is no finality or certainty that a loss has occurred, which is what happens when someone is missing. Images of missing people are part of our history; we grow up remembering the faces of those that are lost. We have our theories as to what has happened to them, we wonder about the grief, the lack of closure these families may be struggling with and then when we hear news that confirms the finality of their loss and we tend to fall quickly into the clichéd responses.

In my experience of supporting families the news of the location of a missing person does not create closure. It just creates another tragic layer within a complex web of loss that families have to contend with.

Each year in Australia about 35,000 reports are received by the police regarding a missing person and 1600 people remain missing long term. I’ve had the privilege of meeting and getting to know Bruce and Denise Morcombe along with many other families whose lives have been frozen by that moment in time when someone they love vanishes – some are the victim of a crime, some disappear after struggling to live with a mental illness, some choose to walk away and some just leave – we don’t know why. Of those 1600 people the publicity that surrounds certain cases varies. The photos that the families choose as their missing persons picture becomes symbolic and is emblazoned in our minds, inviting us to ‘know’ the person being searched for. The pictures are powerful reminders of who was lost and possibly who may be found.

Grief has no hierarchy; we know that in any person’s lifetime they will be faced with sudden and unexpected challenges. We lament 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. They can’t bury their loved one with dignity, they don’t have access to all of those rituals like funerals, death notices or even permission to talk openly about what’s happened as others do when they are faced with the stark finality of death.

So whatever the outcome the Morcombe’s are faced with it is clear that as a community we want answers for them. Closure may never come for those who endure ambiguous losses. The loss may be extended over months or years with little hope that one day the truth may be revealed.

Social media can provide some answers – I did hold my kids a little tighter tonight when I put them to bed and I was reminded that the world is an incredibly unfair place. 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 with life.