The Heartbreaking Reality Of Grieving A Missing Loved One With No Closure
Naz Woldemichael turned 23 this week but instead of celebrating, his family are dealing with an intense lack of closure three years on from his disappearance.
Naz hasn't been seen since October 9, 2016, when he left his apartment in North Hobart, Tasmania and disappeared without a trace.
He is one of the 38,000 people reported missing in Australia every year.
While every day without him is difficult for Naz's family, his birthday is hardest.
In previous years Naz’s mother Hirut would wake her son up early in the morning with presents. His sister, Sofi, would take him out shopping and the pair would have lunch before the family had dinner wherever Naz chose.
This year, Hirut said Naz’s friends and family gathered together at their home.
"We will look to the doorway, waiting for you to appear," she said through tears.
I know joy will never fill me until you are home again.
"When the sun turns red our stomachs will sink, but I will keep looking to the doorway waiting for relief."
"I wish I knew where to go just to tell you happy birthday."
His mother's heartbreaking words to Naz are being shared publicly as part of a new campaign launched by Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MPAN) to raise awareness about the pain of ambiguous loss.
Founder and CEO of MPAN Loren O'Keeffe said ambiguous loss is a unique type of loss that lacks clarification and closure and is commonly experienced by the families of missing people, especially on birthdays and holidays.
"The grief is unresolved, so you can’t mourn or move forward because there’s no proof that allows for it," O'Keeffe told 10daily.
It is a continual loss, and research on stress and trauma has found that no other form of grief is as unmanageable and traumatising as the stress of ambiguous loss.
Hirut says ambiguous loss means that no one sees or understands her pain.
“Friends try to help you find a solution to the pain but you’re the only one who feels it so it’s very difficult,” she told 10daily.
MPAN works with hundreds of Australian families every year who reach out for support in the wake of their loved one going missing.
The organisation's 'Missed Birthdays' campaign focuses on the families of two long-term missing Australians, Naz and Paul, by sharing specially-written birthday messages to the two missing men.
Paul Rushworth was last seen on September 13, 2013, when he spoke with his long-term partner, Peter, in Circular Quay.
Last week, as he has done for the last six years, Peter celebrated Paul's birthday without him.
He went down to Coogee in Sydney where the pair used to go for a swim.
In previous years the pair would celebrate birthdays together at a nice breakfast before doing something special like a helicopter ride, sky-diving or go to dinner and a show, Peter told 10daily.
Peter says ambiguous loss is different from any other feeling.
"There is no resolution," he said.
[It] is an empty space in your heart and life which you cannot fill until you find your loved one.
O'Keeffe hopes the campaign gives a chance for families to share their heartfelt messages and maintain a connection with their missing loved ones.
"I think it was important for them to represent a community that is otherwise unseen, unheard and forgotten," she said.
She said every individual experiences loss differently and it's one of the reasons why birthdays and holidays can be particularly upsetting because some might want to speak openly about the loss while others find it too painful.
O'Keeffe, whose own brother went missing in 2011 prompting her to start the 'Dan Come Home' campaign and later establish MPAN, said she had her own way of feeling more connected to her brother on his birthdays.
"When my brother was missing, I’d spend his birthdays at his favourite beach and eat all of his favourite dishes," she said.
O'Keeffe hopes the Missed Birthdays campaign will help start the conversation about ambiguous loss, something she believes as a society we are not very good at.
"We’re even worse at dealing with uncertainty," she adds.
"It’s an awful combination, so I understand why people who have a loved one disappear are avoided. But we’ve got to get better at this. The most important thing to do if you know of someone experiencing ambiguous loss is to simply be there."
Lecturer in Health and Lifelong Disability Dr Sarah Wayland said families of missing people face the most complex of grief in not having an answer to the most catastrophic of questions.
"If they don’t have the evidence that the loss is final, then they’re not going to be able to connect with any of that grief put forward.”
Naz and Paul's families are determined to never give up on finding their missing loved ones.
But Sofi simply wants to wish her brother, her Abeye, a happy birthday.
“Wherever you are, I hope you are safe,” Sofi said she would tell him.
“My heart is melting everyday, life without you is so hard. We miss you very much, please come back home.”
Peter said he would keep pushing and try to open as many doors as possible.
Asked what he would tell Paul if he was reading this right now, Peter said he would tell him that his family loves and misses him dearly.
"We only want what is best for him and will always support him, no questions asked or explanations needed."
You can watch the full Missed Birthdays campaign here.
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