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MODULE 1

Ambiguous Loss & Trauma 

This workshop will examine the differences between traumatic loss and traumatic ambiguous loss. It will discuss the way ambiguous loss affects the body and brain of an individual and symptoms associated with the loss. The course will discuss therapeutic goals and while examining attachment theory and ambiguous grief. This course also examines the emotions felt by the families and helps professionals understand how to normalize these emotions for families. 

Course Description

Ambiguous Loss [missing person’s loss] is one of the most stressful types of loss. It involves trauma and grief but is also a unique type of loss that involves high levels of uncertainty and unanswered questions. The goal is not to “fix” or “cure” because the response of most families to this time of uncertainty is not abnormal. Instead, the goal is to strengthen family unity, grow resiliency and teach the family to carry on and live in the present despite the uncertainty of not knowing if their loved one will ever return.

This workshop will examine the differences between traumatic loss and traumatic ambiguous loss. It will discuss the way ambiguous loss affects the body and brain of an individual and symptoms associated with the loss. The course will discuss therapeutic goals and while examining attachment theory and ambiguous grief. This course also examines the emotions felt by the families and helps professionals understand how to normalize these emotions for families. 

This Course is comprised of four modules: an Introduction to the material, Special Needs of Children, Supporting Families of the Located, and Supporting Families of the Murdered. This online course will break down the Supporting Families of Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls & Other Missing Persons manual while providing some helpful articles and videos to put the material learned in the manual into context. This online course is designed for you to go through on your own time, and each week, we will have a synchronous meeting to go through the material in the manual while also providing a chance for questions and discussion. 

To navigate through the course, start at the home page where you can see displayed Module 1, Module 2, Module 3, and Module 4. Each module will contain a Module Overview, Learning Objectives, and Instructions for what is expected from each module. 

Module Overview

Trauma, traumatic reactions and grief and loss are all part of the ambiguous loss journey an individual or family travels when they have a missing loved one. As a frontline professional, volunteer, or caregiver, it is important to be able to recognize the effects of trauma and grief on an ambiguous loss survivor. 

Learning Objectives

 When you have finished Module 1, you should be able to do the following:

  1. Define and describe “grief” 

  2. Define and explain “ambiguous loss”

  3. Define and discuss trauma and the traumatic reaction

  4. Explain how to re-establish structure

  5. Discuss how to appropriately ‘fill the role’ of the missing person

  6. Discuss the emotions present when ‘feeling through the pain’ of the absence of a missing person

Module Instructions

  1. Read Supporting Families of Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls & Other Missing Persons Manual (pages 1-22)

  2. Work through Module 1
     

Required Readings

  1. Supporting Families of Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls & Other Missing Persons Manual (pages 1-22)

Key Terms & Concepts

  • Ambiguous Loss: The loss that occurs when a person is psychologically present but physically missing.

  • Anticipatory Loss: The process of adjusting to a loss before it occurs.

  • Emotional shock: Constant interjection of intense feelings, followed by periods of numbing. 

  • Physical shock: May mean that family members are unable to provide their own basic needs and maintain physical health. For example, eating properly, irregular sleep patterns, and exercise.

LEARNING MATERIAL

INTRODUCTION

Module 1 will be an introduction to the information that will be discussed in more detail in Modules 2, 3, and 4. This module will focus on the side effects that individuals or families can experience when dealing with ambiguous loss. Such side effects include an inability to trust, negative perception of law enforcement, the creation of poor communication between family members and a lack of understanding of each other’s behaviour, the effects of media on individuals and family members, and dysfunctional and often self- destructive coping mechanisms become prevalent and are often passed on to subsequent generations. 

READING

Supporting Families of Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls & Other Missing Persons Manual

Pages 1-22

Re-establishing Structure

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In our manual reading, we can see that supporting a family or individual by following the family members needs and focusing on the issues that they bring up/request is the best support. This is because most often individuals or family members are only open to periodic support for a specific issue, at a specific time, and no more. In addition, physical and emotional support to address the physical and emotional shock may be the best starting point for a family who has recently experienced ambiguous loss. For providing emotional support, the most helpful approach in this situation is exposure to someone who has personally experienced ambiguous loss. For providing physical support, the creation of a schedule for the family to follow will provide organization and a sense of control. 

Accept the Temporary Absence

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This section of the manual focuses on Individuals and family members ability and improvement on coping by accepting the temporary absence and the shift from immediate return to the hope of future return in the short-term future. The time of ‘firsts’ should be acknowledged, and extra support may be needed during these times. The time of ‘firsts’ are activities that are done for the first time since the loved one has been missing.  As the family accepts the temporary absence of their loved one, the emotional shock and numbing/feeling cycle begins to diminish. With this, the new emotional and physical structure in the absence of the loved one is accepted and continuously reinforced within the family or amongst an individual. As the new emotional and physical structure is accepted, supporters may find that their involvement is less and less necessary as the family regains its ability to care for itself.

Filling the Roles of the Missing Person

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This section of the manual focuses on another indicator that the family has accepted the temporary absence of the missing person being their participation in the process of filling the roles and expectations of that person. Once roles are re-assigned, they become the norm over time, and serve as one of the agents of change to help the family, to adjust to the continuing absence. However, it is important to note that although roles have been re-assigned, that does not fill the void of the missing person and the removal of their personality, but rather acts as a coping strategy to ensure that physical structure of the family is maintained. 

Review of Personal Beliefs of the 'Status of the Missing Person'

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In this section of the manual, it is extremely important to know that the family can be honest about their beliefs as to the status of the missing family member. Each person’s belief about the situation comes out in their behaviour and in the way they interact with other family members. If they cannot be honest about their beliefs as to the status of the missing person, they may control their behaviour within the view of the family and over-react outside of their presence.

Feel Through the Pain of the Absence

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This section of the manual focuses on the emotional aspects of dealing with the pain of the absence of a family member. It can be difficult to discuss these emotions because they are so strong and discussions around these emotions should not be forced. Instead, discussions around feelings and emotions can be discussed in small pieces, over a period of time. There are many triggers for a family member’s emotional response to the absence of the loved one which can be physical or non-physical as family members become emotionally stronger, a sense of control emerges. Uncertainty and fear can be a primary emotional issue of the family. Each scenario about what could have happened to the missing loved one that family members create should be acknowledged, discussed, and processed. Assisting the family in finding some point of hope helps to reduce the element of fear created by these ‘what could have happened’ scenarios. 

 

Guilt, for the family, may be a safe emotion in which to dwell in order to avoid the onslaught of intense emotions which accompany this situation. Support can be provided by asking the family member if they would like to talk through their feelings of guilt. Even though an individual has gone through the process of the feeling of guilt, it should not be expected that the individual will immediately let go of their feelings of guilt. 

Accepting Dual Perceptions of Life

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This section of the manual focuses on the emotional aspects of dealing with the pain of the absence of a family member. It can be difficult to discuss these emotions because they are so strong and discussions around these emotions should not be forced. Instead, discussions around feelings and emotions can be discussed in small pieces, over a period of time. There are many triggers for a family member’s emotional response to the absence of the loved one which can be physical or non-physical as family members become emotionally stronger, a sense of control emerges. Uncertainty and fear can be a primary emotional issue of the family. Each scenario about what could have happened to the missing loved one that family members create should be acknowledged, discussed, and processed. Assisting the family in finding some point of hope helps to reduce the element of fear created by these ‘what could have happened’ scenarios. 

 

Guilt, for the family, may be a safe emotion in which to dwell in order to avoid the onslaught of intense emotions which accompany this situation. Support can be provided by asking the family member if they would like to talk through their feelings of guilt. Even though an individual has gone through the process of the feeling of guilt, it should not be expected that the individual will immediately let go of their feelings of guilt. 

Acknowledge the Loved One that is/ Releasing the Loved One that Was

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This section of the module focuses on the expectations that individuals and family members have for the missing loved one regarding developmental stages and milestones. As individuals grow within the family structure, the family itself grows to accommodate the member’s development, and anticipates that growth. Visualizing events with and development of the missing loved one as it could/would have been, and verbally discussing that vision is very supportive. As long as the family expects the loved ones’ return, they must keep up with the growth and development of the missing person. Therefore, not only is visualizing the events supportive, but visualizing the family member as he/she has developed is necessary as well.

Acknowledging a Future without the Missing Person

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This section of the manual focuses on the set of beliefs that accept that the missing loved one will not be present for some period of time. However, this is not an acceptance of the belief that they will not return, but an acceptance that their return will not be in the short-ranged future. Holidays, birthdays and other annual family events are difficult times for the family of a missing person. In addition, the anniversary of the date when he/ she went missing is an extremely difficult time. When supporting the family for the anniversary date of when the loved one went missing, helping to prepare the parent in advance for this day is key. Suggesting an event or activity which honours the missing loved one can serve as a way in which the family can effectively focus and stabilize their emotions and assuring that the missing loved one’s memory is not forgotten.