Until a missing child is found, his parents and loved ones have to live through their worst nightmare. But somehow, they need to find ways to cope with their loss.
It is natural for the missing child’s parents and families to feel helpless, frustrated, depressed and even angry at themselves, says clinical psychologist and HELP University senior lecturer Alex Lui.
“They have to realise that they cannot turn back time and that the only thing they have to work on is the present. There will be regrets, the blame-game and even self-blame but none of these are going to help find the child. Instead, they will sap even more energy that could otherwise have been used positively to look for the child. They may lose their appetite or sleep, but it is important that they continue nourishing themselves because they will need all the energy they can get in order to continue with the search. The last thing the child needs is for the parent to be the one who needs help.”
One must be able to distinguish between what is within their control and what is not, adds Lui.
“Parents must be aware that they are not in control of what is happening to the child and that there are some things that need to be left to the authorities. They can, however, still be in control of their lives and daily work routine. They can channel their energy toward activities that are solution-focused, like putting up posters of the missing child or calling friends and family whom the child may have gone to. And then there are also emotion-focused activities that will help dispel some of the stress – keeping journals as a way to crystalise thoughts, talking to close friends and relatives or seeking consolation from God through prayer, recitation or meditation.”
Establishing new routines can be a good way to move forward, suggests Lui.
“New routines may be helpful if an old routine reminds them too much of the missing child and causes more trauma. At the same time, they cannot run away from thinking about the child, as this will only make it more difficult to heal emotionally in the long run, because the trauma is still unprocessed and may pop up one day when some things remind them of the missing child.”
While there may be many who will sympathise with their plight, these parents must be mentally prepared to be criticised by the public, as there will always be those who will accuse them of being irresponsible and bad parents, says Lui. He adds that parents of missing children could also seek professional counselling to help them cope with their trauma.
“Some parents may find it difficult to seek help from their own family members because they too may have been affected by the incident. A third party professional such as counsellors and psychologists may be helpful, especially when the missing child’s loved ones are depressed and unable to cope with the stress, or are beginning to develop unhealthy thoughts. There is a stigma among Malaysians that only ‘crazy’ people seek the help of a clinical psychologist. Or that you must only have ‘serious’ problems before seeing a counsellor. In actual fact, clinical psychologists and counsellors can help just anyone who has issues in his or her life.”
While depression is more of a psychological state, Lui says it can also manifest into physical symptoms. “There have been cases where the depressed exhibit symptoms like neck ache or complain of feeling lethargic. The mind and body is connected and when your mind isn’t well, your immune system can take a dip as well.”
If you suspect that a loved one is depressed, bring them to see a general practitioner and ask for a referral letter to see a clinical psychologist, Lui suggests. Another option would be to call Befrienders (03-79568144 or befrienders.org.my), a non-profit organisation offering emotional support, who will be able to link you up with the relevant contacts. Families must also not neglect their other children who may be affected by the missing sibling as well.
“Younger children may not understand what is going on and parents should be honest to them about the situation, and be as calm and reassuring as possible. Older children may be included in the search efforts such as helping in designing pamphlets and putting them up. It is okay for parents to tell their children that they do not have all the answers but they must remember to end on a positive note – saying that they will never give up hope despite the helplessness of the situation. At a much later stage if the child is still missing, it is very important for parents to not ‘replace’ the missing child with another child, and expect him or her to take the place of the child that they’ve lost,” says Lui.