I’ve worked with thousands of families like Gabby Petito’s. This is what is probably happening behind the scenes

·4-min read
Police say they have exhausted all avenues searching a reserve near the home of Brian Laundrie, right, with Gabby Petito (YouTube)
Police say they have exhausted all avenues searching a reserve near the home of Brian Laundrie, right, with Gabby Petito (YouTube)

In my line of work, I am all too familiar with cases such as Gabby Petito’s.

Gabby’s family will be experiencing emotions quite unlike those felt in any other trauma. Many families using our services say they would rather have a death than not knowing at all, and that is understandable. Although police have now found a body which they have described as consistent with descriptions of Petito, her fate is still unsure — and the further reported disappearance of her partner Brian Laundrie only complicates matters further.

The ‘limbo’ one finds oneself in when somebody is missing is vast, empty and lonely. Nobody can provide the answers that are needed, and it simply feels desperate.

When a death has occurred, there is a recognized pathway to follow. We know how we are supposed to grieve, what needs doing, when it needs to happen. People can help us along the way, support us, and we can lean on them. Most people genuinely can say they have experienced the death of someone close, and so they do understand.

But when someone is missing, people don’t know what to do. They don’t understand, and there is little they can do in way of support. They can’t help that — very few go through this ordeal, so people on hand to say the right things and do what needs to be done are hard to find. Often, those surrounding the relatives of someone who has gone missing don’t mention the missing person as they are afraid of what to say. The families we work with often say that friends accidentally slip and mention the missing person in the past tense. It is easy to imagine how upsetting that could be.

Cases where somebody who is known by the family — perhaps loved and trusted by those people — is thrust into the limelight as a potential suspect or person of interest make things even more difficult to cope with. Questions are asked, theories and fears abound. Internet conspiracy theories spread and only add to the family’s pain.

Gabby’s family will have been asking themselves impossible questions. They will perhaps be blaming themselves for not stopping her going, seeing signs they believe they should have noticed before, wishing they had done more.

As I frequently tell parents and families of LBT Global cases, none of it is their fault. Nobody could have foreseen the outcome — and of course right now we don’t know the outcome in the Petito case. Where I work, we spend a huge amount of time speaking to families, going over their fears and scenarios, and dealing with the often all-encompassing guilt, at any time of the day or night. We need to be there when they can’t sleep, when the nightmares seem so real.

Behind the scenes, a vast amount of activity will be going on. One of the worst situations is where there is an investigative element to the missing person, and this means that the family won’t be informed of much of the proceedings. Instead, families will be told that “we are waiting for an update”, or “enquiries are ongoing”. That could mean that three different law enforcement agencies, consular staff from embassies, border forces, NGO’s like LBT Global and more are all working together, following leads, sightings, and intelligence, to locate the missing person. It may be they are perceived to be in a high risk situation, so to reveal any of the investigation’s progress could at least hinder the proceedings and at worst be fatal. But through all this, the family are clutching phones, refreshing email inboxes, jumping with shock whenever the doorbell rings. Every ‘ping’ on an electrical device could be the news they are waiting for — or the news they have been dreading. Imagine for a second going through something like that. It’s almost impossible.

When we are able to tell a family that a body has been found, a regular response is that of relief — followed immediately by a devastating sense of guilt.

We feel very privileged that in the majority of our cases, we are able to give families the news they do want to hear. But we are here for the others, in the immediate days and hours after bad news, and the many years that follow. That is an enormous privilege too.

I have thankfully never been through a missing persons ordeal myself, but I have accompanied thousands of people on that unenviable journey. I don’t fully understand how it feels — how could I? — but I do understand what they need.

Matthew Searle is the Chief Executive of LBT Global, the overseas crisis support charity

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