Marianne Dickerman Caldwell

The Dew of Compassion is a Tear !

It is a myth to believe having a loved one disappear only happens to someone else. No one is exempt from the possibility of this happening. Each year in the U.S. , there are approximately 1.8 million persons (children and adults), reported as missing. Many remain missing. I know this experience.

Ironically, it was Friday, Sept. 13, 1991, when my adoptive mother, Stella Dickerman, an accomplished artist and teacher, vanished mysteriously two years after the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

I never imagined this would be day the first day of more than a thousand to come without knwoing what happened to her. In the years since her disappearance, I have experienced firsthand the feelings of profound grief, anguish and confusion that engulf one when faced with the unknown. I was adopted at the age of two -- it was for me, the disappearance of a second mother.

I first learned that my mother was missing when I was awakened by the phone ringing at 530am. Sat. morning. The call was from my brother saying, "Mother is lost--she walked away from a children's softball game last evening and hasn't been seen since." I literally leaped from my bed. What I thought to be my worst fear had come true. What I learned later was that my worst fear instead would be my mother would remain unfound. And for three years, that is exactly what happened. I immediately made arrangements to take emergency leave from my job as a nurse. Although, I work with military veterans hospitalized for psychiatric treatment as a result of their war traumas, I was completely unprepared for what would happen to me. In shock, I felt utterly overwhelmed.

When my mother wasn't found, I had to return to California and my job. I found going to work especially difficult because people rarely mentioned what had happened and acted as if I should be feeling better. Sometimes I wondered if I was imagining all that was happening. At several thousand miles away, I could only speculate what was going on--and the wait was excruciating. I was living on a roller coaster -- my hopes were crashed time and time again.

Feeling helpless I was consumed with trying to solve the mystery of my mother's whereabouts. For me, this period of intense grief and searching went on for almost two years.

Families like ours, are in crisis following the sudden disappearance of a loved one suffering from memory loss. When a loved one wanders and remains unfound, families oftentimes respond with feelings such as desperation.... because they have known the missing person in the full richness of their personality. Knowing that the person has Alzheimer's disease is knowing just one part of who they are-- and to the families and friends, the thought of the missing person being out in the environment somewhere-- alone, confused, frightened and perhaps cold is unbearable to think about.

It is a baffling and frightening experience when a search brings no answers, only questions such as "Where did she go"? "Was she given a ride somewhere"? "Was she a victim of foul play"? "Is she in a hospital unable to say where she belongs"? "Had she felt abandoned, frightened, lonely? "Did she wonder why noone came to rescue her, while not knowing how intense the search for her was" ? These are just some of the words and questions that are a daily haunt to families of missing persons.

Fortunately, most lost persons are found--but for some families, the search for a missing loved one may span years before answers come and for some answers may never come.

I discovered families are at the mercy of others when coping with grave crisis such as an abducted child or a memory-impaired adult who becomes lost and mysteriously vanishes. People are often unaware of the changes in the grieving person's perception of the world when there is no body. For many in traumatic grief, the world is no longer a safe place to be. They know that someone can disappear and that terrifying things can happen.

People in a perpetual state of grief experience intrusive images and memories associated with the time when the person vanished. They experience spontaneous and unwanted recall of the event, suddenly acting or feeling as if it were re-occurring.

Sometimes people avoid the subject of the missing person because they fear that talking about it will trigger more grieving. What is most misunderstood is that the thought of the person missing is always on one's mind. The anxious anticipation of news of the loved one is constant. I know that one speculates continuously, "If I just make the right call to the right person, I'll solve this mystery. If I look in the right place, I'll find the person". And, "If I stop looking, the person may never be found."

For persons suffering devastating losses, is there a way to comfort someone who is struggling to cope on a day to day basis with traumatic loss issues? I believe there is !

I have developed a model for caring which is included in my book, GONE WITHOUT A TRACE. It is a model which all of us can relate to when reflecting on our own life traumas.

Model for caring ***When there are no answers

Hear what the person is saying. He or she is entitled to their feelings. Remember that feelings are generated from one's life experiences and may differ from yours. That's okay !

What does the person want to say, but is afraid to? What are his or her worst fears?

Let the person know that what they are feeling is normal. It is the traumatic experience which is abnormal.

Offer compassion and sensitivity.

Unresolved Grief - Coping with the Unknown

Bereavement known to families of a missing person is one of unrelenting anguish. The suddenness of a person vanishing and the not knowing what has happened, disallows the finality of death. It is all the customary feelings associated with simple bereavement and it is without an ending.

Perpetual mourning.
Intense feelings are normal--it is the traumatic experience which is abnormal.
Inability to bring closure without presence of the body, or knowledge as to what happened.
Misunderstanding by 'others' who cannot bear to witness the anguish of persons who are dealing with traumatic loss.
Lack of support from others due to the silence which oftentimes prevails when someone remains missing people don't know what to say in these circumstances and often say nothing.
Intrusive recall of images and memories associated with the 'time' a person vanished.
Preoccupation with possibilities of what happened to the lost person. Is the person dead or alive?
Survivor of a disappeared person becomes a victim.
Unspoken expectations by others about how long it should take one to recover from irrevocable loss.
Acknowledge loss in whatever way one can.
Listen - Observe-Validate-Empathize
Offer compassion and sensitivity

About the Author

Marianne Dickerman Caldwell is an advocate for families of missing persons. Marianne, is the Executive Director of the Home Safely Foundation, and is the author of Gone Without a Trace; a Nurse, and an experienced professional in the field of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In addition, she writes and lectures about the missing and lost Alzheimer subject; the impact of families struggling to cope with the unknown and how-to-communicate with the severely grief stricken.

Gone Without a Trace may be ordered on the internet directly from the publisher Elder Books

You can find the Home Safely web site at: Home Safely Foundation:

If you would like to contact Ms. Caldwell, write to her at: P.O. Box 1625,
Pacifica, CA 94044-6624. Fax: (415) 359-9538
e-mail: Marianne Dickerman Caldwell


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