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World-first masterclass to support families of missing Australians – Launching for National Missing Persons Week 2023

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Leading Australian charity, The Missed Foundation (or Missed; previously known as the Missing Persons Advocacy Network, or MPAN) has produced a world-first training tool to help professionals better support families of long-term missing people who are living with ambiguous loss.

Launching for National Missing Persons Week, the Ambiguous Loss Masterclass will help police officers, families of missing people, search and rescue organisations, the media, and counsellors to be better informed about the ways in which the complex grief shows up in people’s lives when someone is missing.

Ambiguous loss is widely recognised as one of the most traumatic types of grief, and most unmanageable forms of stress, due to its continual nature complicating and delaying the grieving process. It is felt by loved ones of long-term missing people who live with the unending, not-knowing about what happened to them.

More than 55,000 Australians were reported missing last year – up more than 35% in three years – and while most are found within a week, around 1-2% go on to become long-term missing persons (missing beyond three months). Research shows that for every missing person reported, at least 12 other people are directly impacted, whether emotionally, psychologically or financially.

Despite this growing demand, there are currently no funded services available in Australia to provide support for those affected by a person going missing. This masterclass, like all of Missed’s initiatives, aims to fill this gap and help thousands of Australians as they navigate this difficult path.

Created and hosted by Dr Sarah Wayland, Associate Professor at the University of New England (UNE) and internationally-renowned missing persons expert, the first masterclass video introduces the concept of ambiguous loss, how it presents itself for families of missing people, and ways to manage reactions to that ambiguity.

The second (advanced) video offers a deeper dive into the topic for professionals working with families, providing practical examples to build confidence in engaging with the uncertainty and helping families navigate this path. It explains the goal of counselling in this specific context and includes a simulated counselling session roleplayed by UNE Social Work students. Both components can be viewed individually or in groups.

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Loren O’Keeffe, Founder and CEO of The Missed Foundation, says this initiative is critical to building wider understanding of the effect this type of loss has on those living through it.

“When a loved one goes missing, you experience varying emotions that can change day to day. There is no closure for families of long-term missing people, and what they endure is different to standard grief – it can sometimes feel impossible to deal with.

“Our aim is for all professionals working with families of missing Australians – whether you’re a police officer, a support worker or a journalist reporting on a case – to watch this masterclass so collectively we can better understand and support loved ones going through this complex, and historically misunderstood, type of grief.”

The Hon. Ged Kearney MP, Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care and Federal Member for Cooper, shared her support for the initiative.

“If you’ve ever missed a loved one, you can imagine how devastating it is when your loved one disappears. It is a hole filled with despair, grief and loss. It is a unique form of loss that requires understanding.

“The Missed Foundation has created a vital community resource addressing the often-misunderstood loss and grief caused by long term disappearance. Congratulations to The Missed Foundation and Dr Sarah Wayland on the production of this essential resource.”

Dr Wayland draws on her 20 years’ experience working in missing persons to deliver this evidence-based program, helping people better support families as they navigate the loss of their loved one.

“Standard counselling can often fail to help families who are dealing with the intersection of hopefulness and hopelessness that ambiguous loss creates. This training aims to fill the gap that currently exists for counsellors and those supporting families of missing persons, so they can understand how to better support the people they work with every day.”

A police officer who participated in one of Dr Wayland’s previous training programs commented:

“This training was a real eye-opener. It has given me a greater understanding of ambiguous loss, as well as the different experiences and traumas that friends and families of missing persons go through. It has allowed me to recognise the different considerations that should be taken into account when interacting with those close to a missing person and has certainly given me a new level of compassion.”

Part one of the masterclass, ‘Ambiguous Loss 101’ has been made available free online for everyone to view. The second training video, ‘Advanced Skills Training’ is aimed at professionals and will be available for purchase on the Missed website:

This initiative follows last year’s launch of The Hope Narratives, a tangible therapeutic tool to help people navigate living with ambiguous loss. This year, The Hope Narratives are launching in new French, Spanish and Swedish language editions to help support more families of missing persons around the world.

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