Ask Asad: How to deal with grief when a family member goes missing?

Published: January 25, 2017


Dear Asad,

My brother, a human resources manager and a humanitarian worker, was picked up and detained a year ago for reasons unknown.

He was newly married then and has a six-month-old daughter now which he has not seen as yet. During this one year, three of our close relatives have passed away and my brother was not around to attend their funeral. His absence has taken a heavy toll on our family with all of us suffering from some form of depression, anxiety and other health problems. This has been particularly hard for our old parents – our father is 76-year-old – who have various health problems ranging from blood pressure to Parkinson’s disease.

We haven’t been able to meet or talk to him nor do we know his whereabouts. Please advise how our family can cope with the trauma and pain of being unaware of a family member who is a son, a brother and a father.


Distraught Family

Dear Distraught Family,

I am really very sorry to hear about the disappearance of your brother and the effect of such a tragedy on your family. It is really heart-wrenching to know that your brother has a six-month old daughter whom he has never ever seen and vice versa. And yes you are right, it must be especially hard for your parents to go through this – the disappearance of their son – at their age. May God give you and your family patience and strength to bear this tough time and soon bring your brother back safely to all of you.

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The trauma and pain that you and your family are going through is called ambiguous loss. It is specifically caused when loved ones suddenly vanish; when a person is physically absent yet psychologically present.

The feelings associated with it are the same as when one has confirmation that the loved one will not come back, such as sorrow, longing, denial, anger and guilt. But this grief is also complicated by your need to keep hope alive, which constantly interrupts or delays the mourning process and makes it far more difficult to resolve. It’s like harbouring a wound that cannot heal.

Learning to live with this distinct type of loss is one of the greatest challenges to families. Loss by itself is difficult enough; but add ambiguity to it, and the results are agonising and immobilising, even across generations. The psychological, physical and emotional impact on those left behind can be devastating.

There is no right or wrong way to feel or react when a family member goes missing. No one is ever prepared for the nightmare that comes when someone you love goes missing. Each person’s experience of coping is unique. The following ideas are based on the experiences and thoughts of other families and friends of missing people.


Pray as much as you can. Many people find comfort in religion and use it as a powerful incentive to survive this nightmare. The loneliness of grief diminishes somewhat for people who believe that they are not alone. Turning to religion can give you the support and encouragement you need at this critical juncture in your life.

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Release your emotions productively

Your emotions will be running wild and will seem out of control. In these circumstances fear, anger and grief can take over your entire existence. Therefore, you need to find a way to release your emotions productively because if you cannot express them, you may find yourself taking it out on others. Talk with someone – a friend, a relative, or a professional therapist – who will just listen. Also, try to stay busy. You can cook, exercise, meditate, write journals, etc. to give vent to your emotions and release them in a productive manner.

Create space for yourself

Find a place of refuge where you can be alone with your thoughts and regroup. Even a few quiet minutes can significantly relieve stress. Try to take as much time as you need and can spare. Remember that you are the best judge of what will help you to handle the life crisis and that it is okay, even necessary, to take a break from the stress for something like going out for dinner or a walk.

Find time for physical exercise

Any type of physical activity, even walking around the block, can help to ease the stress on your body and clear your head. Physical exercise also can help you relax at night so your body gets the sleep it needs.

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Don’t stop living

As heartless as it may seem, your life and the lives of your family must go on. Although moving on with your life may seem impossible, you must do it – for the good of yourself and your family. You will, of course, find that there is no such thing as ‘normal’ life as you once knew it. Everything has changed, and has changed forever. And whatever the outcome, you will be dealing with this issue in some way for the rest of your life.

Don’t blame yourself

Looking back, you or your family may feel that there was something you could have done to have prevented your brother’s disappearance. You can literally drive yourself crazy asking, what if . . . ? But the fact is you should not hold yourself responsible for not knowing or doing something that may seem obvious in hindsight.

Don’t blame each other

As a family, don’t blame anyone amongst yourselves for the disappearance of your brother. This is hardly ever fair and can critically harm the well-being of the entire family. Try to stay out of the blame game by being kind to yourself and to one another. Understand that sometimes anger and blame are irrational and misplaced.

Don’t allow the stress of this situation to drive a wedge into your family life. When emotions run wild, be careful that you do not lash out at or cast blame on others. People within the same family may react differently. It can be helpful to be understanding and give each other space and permission to cope in their own way. Remember that everyone deals with crises and grief differently, so don’t judge others because they do not respond to the disappearance in the same way you do.

Some people need to have an opinion as to how well you are handling the situation and whether you should be acting differently. Keep in mind that such judgments are merely the opinions of others and that at any given moment, you are doing the best you possibly can.

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Don’t ‘taboo’ it

Don’t let the absence of your brother and your deep sense of loss become a taboo subject. Instead, let your relatives and friends know that they can freely express their thoughts and feelings to you and that they will be met with love and acceptance.


This is way too big to think you can manage it all by yourself. You need and deserve the support of an experienced professional because learning to cope with ambiguous loss is likely to take a considerable amount of time and require specialist support.

Therapy can be extremely helpful for you and your family to assist you in coping with your feelings of fear, depression, grief, isolation, anger, and despair. You may think that you and your family can or should get through the crisis alone, but you don’t have to. Encourage family members to take care of themselves by seeking support and therapy.

Both individual and family therapy is advisable. I would suggest the need for therapy specific to missing people in order to understand the complex and unique needs of your family.

Seek peer support for yourself and your family

Some families find talking with other families of missing people to be extremely beneficial. Sometimes, it is enough to know that you are not alone and that someone else in the world truly understands.

In addition to these coping strategies, try to get the word out in public about your brother’s disappearance. I am sure you must have contacted the authorities and are doing your best to find out the whereabouts of your brother but have your tried contacting the media and relevant non-governmental organisations? Recently, there have been quite a few disappearances of social activists and bloggers in Pakistan and most of the media are giving it extensive coverage. Along with NGOs – who have taken out protest marches – the media are pressurising the authorities in Pakistan to bring the disappeared people back. Contacting such TV channels and NGOs will raise awareness about the disappearance of your brother and the plight of your family. This in turn may help the speedy recovery of your brother.

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My prayers are with you and your family in this harrowing time of your life. I would also like to request all the readers who are reading this post right now to please say a prayer for you and your family. May God soon bring a happy end to this extremely distressing chapter of your life.

Take care!


Asad is a counsellor, life coach, inspirational speaker and a personal-development expert. He advises on social, personal and emotional issues. You can send him your questions for this weekly column at with “Ask Asad” mentioned in the subject line and provide as many details as possible.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Express Tribune.

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