The images of Madeline McCann’s face have flashed across our television screens since that night in Portugal in 2007 when she vanished from her holiday apartment at the tender age of three. In that time the images of her grief stricken parents, of her siblings that have now grown to be older than their sister at the time she vanished, have also been played out for the world to see. There is no news that offers the family and the hopeful community with answers. There is no resolution, yet.
Last week British media broke the story about the biggest breakthrough for the McCann case. They are searching for two men who they believe have information about what happened that night in Prada De Luz. When a child or adult is missing the sense that someone, somewhere must know something is the loop of hope and hopelessness that keeps families on tenterhooks. That keeps them waiting for that last piece of the puzzle.
Sarah Godwin watched this news unfolding from her home in England. She moved there not long ago from New Zealand. From the place where her own son, Quentin, vanished over 21 years ago. Despite her continual media involvement her son hasn’t yet been found.
"I think one of the hardest things to accept with long-term missing is the absolute loss of control, not being able to do anything to change the situation. Other family cases being in the news like the McCanns obviously raises a huge amount of emotion, hoping for their sakes that something definite is found out, whether Madeleine is alive or not – where is she? I know that is what Kate and Gerry want to know above all else – just where is she? All the other questions come after that main point. They will be on an emotional knife-edge right now. What you see in public is the tip of the iceberg for them," she said.
So what is the experience for families like Sarah - like Kate and Gerry - the ones left behind when someone vanishes? The experience of loss when a person vanishes is unlike any grief people are likely to experience simply because their is no finality to that sense of ‘not knowing'. There isn’t those customary markers of loss that allow us to let the community know that we are grieving - no funerals, no notices in the paper, no bereavement leave from work. From the moment the disappearance happens the waiting begins, it might flex and change over time but the waiting is a constant. Without the news to know when the person you search for might return, or if they ever will, families exist in a limbo. They exist in a space in between the idea that their loved one could be both alive and dead.
Loren, the founder of the Missing Persons Advocacy Network, and the sister of missing Victorian man Dan O’Keeffe, explains what impact this ‘new’ life after a loved one vanishes looks like:
"Waiting is exhausting. I go through such a vast range of possible scenarios every single day. It's frustrating, confusing, tiring. Some of them allow me to smile and get on with my work but most of them terrify me. Every day moments now upset me - if it rains, if it's cold, if I'm hungry, when I pass a homeless person, when I hear the words depression, anxiety ... I'm surrounded by thoughts of Dan. The only thing I used to worry about if it rained was if my laundry was outside.
"The lack of anything-finite means we can still dream. Without knowing, we can allow ourselves to indulge in the dream that he might actually just walk back into our lives. Hope is the only thing I've got to cling onto while I wait to hear from Dan, so I'm using it as best I can."
For the family of Madeline and every other family member left behind, there is a sense that in sharing details we can continue to hold out for good news. The comments on social media tell a story of hope but also of the reality of what new information might reveal - that one day we might discover what happened to that little girl. We can all hope for a good outcome for Madeline’s family but in the time where the unknown still exists all we can do is take a moment to hug our children tighter, to be grateful for what we have and to hope for news for all the families that wait, for all those families that are waiting for someone to be found.
Sarah Wayland is a Sydney based counsellor and academic currently researching the experience of hope for families of missing people. You can follow her here on twitter.