Families with missing loved ones face a lonely and challenging journey. For some, that journey ends quickly with reunification. But for many families, answers come slowly, if they come at all. This is a different kind of pain, challenging to manage and challenging to support. While 50 percent of missing children return home within one week, this leaves over 650,000 families still waiting. These families need help long after the headlines end, but the support for these families can fade over time.
For friends and neighbors, knowing how to support families of the missing is difficult. No one knows how best to provide support, what to say, how to act. Pina Arcamone, Director General of The Missing Children's Network, has been working with families of missing children for decades. Her advice, "Don't generalize or diminish their challenge or grief. Validate the pain that their feeling, making sure to never trivialize the situation or make false promises." The temptation to say, "Oh they'll be back soon" can be strong -- but Arcamone says that it is important to focus on concrete, small gestures instead.
Doug Lyall established The Center for Hope with his wife Mary after their daughter went missing. When asked for advice for helping families struggling, he suggested distraction. "Take your friend out for an activity that has nothing to do with the search. Remind them that it's healthy to do things beyond searching for the missing person."
But support from caring friends is often not enough. For many searching families, it takes talking to another searching family to feel truly understood.
"You know, sometimes, you wake up in the morning and you just feel a little empty," said Derrick Butler, whose sister Pamela has been missing since 2009. "Nobody knows what you're going through or really understands unless they're actually walking in your shoes."
"I don't wish this nightmare on anybody, not my worst enemy," Valencia Harris said. Her daughter, Unique has been missing since 2010. Harris continued, "But, you know, the person or persons who took my daughter, I don't wish this on their mom or their brother or their family because this is a horrible situation to be in."
To comfort each other, and other families in the Washington, D.C. area who are waiting for loved ones to return, Butler and Harris joined together with the Black and Missing Foundation to create the Between Grace and Grief support group for families with missing loved ones.
The Between Grace and Grief group meets from 6:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month at THEARC in Washington, D.C. Groups like Between Grace and Grief sprout up to help individual communities cope with the extraordinary stress and trauma of a missing family member.
"Coping with a missing loved one is traumatic and overwhelming," said Derrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson, founders of Black and Missing Foundation, Inc. "We want families to know that they are not alone."
The group was born out of frustration. Harris and Butler told Black and Missing that there are support groups if you are an alcoholic or if someone in your family has been murdered, but Harris and Butler could not find a similar group for families of the missing.
Harris thought something needed to be done about it.
"I didn't know how to go about doing it," she said. "And thank God, Natalie was there."
It's not a surprise that Black and Missing was there for Harris and Butler. The organization has been there for people of color going back to 2008. I came across the work of Black and Missing late in 2011 when I was involved in the search for a young teen and found them to be a tremendous asset and one of the most helpful organizations in the search for missing children.
Black and Missing has wonderful a website, rich in resources for searching parents: a checklist in case you suspect a loved one to be missing, a simple form for creating a missing persons flyers and link to Find Your Missing Child for help with social media.
The Between Grace and Grief support group is a physical extension of the exemplary work that Black and Missing does to help and support the families of the missing.
"My grandson still calls me," said Harris. " 'Grandma, I miss my mommy and I don't know what to do.' What am I supposed to tell my grandson?"
With the work these organizations are doing, people like Harris's grandson has a place to go to when the grief overwhelms them. He, and others like him, can find support from people understand better than anyone should.
The grief of a missing family member cannot be healed through the traditional grief process. But organizations like Black and Missing, The Missing Children Network and The Center for Hope are helping people cope with tragedy on a daily basis.
For more information about support groups for the families of the missing or tips on supporting the loved ones in your life coping with tragedy, visit www.amecoinc.org.
Pamela Butler: Missing
Unique Harris: Missing
Follow Tony Loftis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/FindYourKid