The Pain of Grieving for a Missing Person

Grieving for a missing person brings the kind of a pain in which a person's reality is hard to explain and understand. It's the kind of suffering in which words can't define what a person is feeling.
The Pain of Grieving for a Missing Person
María Alejandra Castro Arbeláez

Written and verified by the psychologist María Alejandra Castro Arbeláez.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Grieving for a missing person is really hard, as it comes along with a feeling of emptiness. One so deep it makes you rethink your goals and the meaning of your life. There’s usually grieving after a loss. But what happens when this pain is very strong and comes and goes? The pain of not knowing what happened to a missing person has a huge impact on their loved ones. Continue reading what this article has to say about it!

To begin, grieving is a set of phenomena that occur after the loss. Matters that go beyond the psychological and that encompass the physical, anthropological, economic, social, and spiritual. A loss is “a deprivation or lack of people, things, or mental representations that sets in motion affective, cognitive, and behavioral reactions” (Tizón, 2013).

A distressed woman.

Grieving for a missing person

Humans grieve when there’s a sudden and unexpected separation from someone they love. Several reasons may lead to their disappearance. However, it makes a huge impact all the same. This is because of the silence and lack of information that haunt those who are closest to them.

After someone disappears, their family often tries to follow the steps of their loved one in order to find clues. But it may be outside the law and there’s no way to find the truth. And it may be dangerous if you do get close to it, or, at least, not backed by the state.

When a person disappears, there’s no trace of them, so it’s hard to know if they’re dead or alive. This situation makes it hard to grieve. One of the most frequently asked questions when grieving for a missing person is: How to accept the loss of a loved one when you don’t even know what happened to them?

Why do we talk about suspended pain?

Grieving for a missing person leads to suspended pain because you often pause with the hope of finding your loved one. It is as if you can see a light in the middle of a storm that’s telling you not to give up, that they’ll return.

So, it’s a sort of intermittent pain, suspended and paused thanks to the anxiety that keeps you away from and close to your loved one at the same time. It’s still difficult because it’s there, suspended. Also, the loading and unloading lead to deep stress and anguish and it doesn’t go away.

The feeling of uncertainty prevails when you’re grieving for a missing person. Especially when it’s a forced disappearance. It leads to much pain, the kind you can’t label as you can’t find the words for it. The kind you don’t know how to deal with because the loss is so different from others.

Grieving for a missing person – how to face this situation

How to accept a loss from someone who might return? What words can you use to describe the immense pain? How to go on feeling so empty?

People ​​go through various types of mourning throughout their lives. Some are the natural result of a change in your life cycle. Then, there are those you’ll encounter but haven’t even begun to imagine. The truth is that facing them is a major challenge. But even when it comes to grieving for a missing person, there are ways to work it out.

Grieving consists of “the psychological processes in favor of the acceptance of the new internal and external reality of the subject”, according to Jorge L. Tizón, a man who studied this subject.

From the theory, there are proposals for various stages to be able to grieve. What happens when you’re grieving for a missing person is that it’s so different that you can’t always follow the typical process.

When a grieving person has the mortal remains of their loved ones, they can begin to accept it. However, when it comes to a missing person, the bereaved don’t have it. There’s uncertainty instead. Therefore, they may feel guilty if they choose to assume a death they can’t be sure of. Also, they may even feel like they’re killing their loved one by doing so.

A woman crying on someone's shoulder.

What happened to them?

The family members of a missing person insist on thinking of them as if they were alive. At least, according to what Ramírez Guerrero y Salvador says in the article published in the Revista Internacional de Buena Consciencia, in 2014. This situation prevents them from overcoming their grief.

So how to work out this grief? It’s difficult to put into words something that’s causing you a lot of anguish. However, you can always try other types of communication. Art, for instance. This is because you can use it to transmit information in a different way. One in which your unconscious can surface. Also, it allows you to take it a day at a time and become conscious of what’s happening. You’ll find symbols and, then, be able to put them into words.

Also, you can lean on resilience, which consists of overcoming what afflicts you. For this, you must find meaning in your own life. You don’t have to stop loving or missing the person who disappeared. Rather, assess the “here and now” and continue to walk. It’ll be less painful. Also, you can always seek psychological help.

Grieving for a missing person is no simple matter. It’s a pain that’s difficult to describe in words. However, you can name it as long as you elaborate on it. This is because elaboration consists of accepting the loss, not giving up your memories and experiences. Finally, resilience is a good weapon for coping while art is a great mobilizer that builds the bridges that give meaning to your life and your pain.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Ramírez Guerrero, E.S. (2014). El trabajo de Duelo Frente a Personas Desaparecidas. Análisis de Caso. International Journal of Good Conscience.

  • Tizón, J. L. (2004). Pérdida, pena, duelo. Vivencias, investigación y asistencia, (12). Madird: Grupo Planeta.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.