Professor Jenny Edkins: When someone disappears people find that they didn’t really know the missing person as well as they thought

 

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The way we as a society respond when people go missing tells us a lot about our attitude to people and how important we think the relation we have with each other are in the scheme of things - after all people are only ‘missing’ to those that know them.

Unless they meet with disaster, people who leave their family behind continue to live and work, to pay taxes and to contribute to the community. You can’t tell they’re missing by looking at them. The question is: Is it the connections with other people that make us who we are?  Or do we see each person as a disconnected individual?  Do we expect those ‘left behind’ to just go home and carry on, or find someone else to take the place of the one who’s missing? Or is each person irreplaceable?

When someone disappears, not only is it an ‘ambiguous loss’, in terms of the way those searching are torn between grief and hope  - they cannot give up searching and admit that the person may never return, so they cannot carry on with their everyday lives.  When someone disappears, it also seems to reveal another ambiguity: it emphasises how little those closest to them knew about them in the first place. What has happened is incomprehensible. Disappearances are traumatic because they demonstrate the fragility of the worlds that people have built and the pictures they have constructed of what people they know are like. These pictures become questionable, and until the missing person is found, there is no way a new story can be put in place instead.  And of course if that person is never found, or found dead, the questions can never be answered.

Not only do people find that they didn’t really know the missing person as well as they thought - they also find that they didn’t know themselves as well as they thought either.  We get our sense of who we are and what we’re like from our interactions with people around us - from our relationships with others - and when someone goes missing, we begin to doubt not only who they are but who we are as well.  Any loss forces people to rethink and reconstruct the relationships around them - and when someone goes missing, it is even more difficult to do this.

Professor Jenny Edkins, University of Aberystwyth, is the author of Missing: Persons and Politics, and one of the speakers at this week’s international conference on missing people.

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