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When loved ones go missing

“We may never know what happened to our son” … Bob and Sue Neville at their Coledale home. Photo: Nick CubbinIn a stark office block in western Sydney, surrounded by courtrooms and legal offices, a small group of parents are talking about their children. They are a mixed set – a weary mother with sad eyes and a South African accent; a retired draughtsman and his wife, a former textile teacher, who live just beyond the southern edge of the city; an elderly Frenchman who runs a bore-and-pump business – and for a long time their lives never intersected.

But here they are on this sunny weekday afternoon, ageing parents sipping tea from paper cups and exchanging intimate sentiments, smiling together sometimes and then crying openly. In their dreams they might have been relaxing into retirement, easing into the next phase of their lives with happiness and satisfaction. Instead, they find themselves in this anonymous meeting room, surrounded by the machinery of the justice system, chasing a rare moment of solace with the few who understand their loss. They are here because they are united by a terrible reality. Each of them has a son who has been missing for years.

Their grief cycle has been frozen. No one can tell them if their adult children are alive or dead, or if they will ever see them again. They live with constant uncertainty, and outside of this room there are few places where they feel comfortable discussing the uneasiness that continues to rob them of sleep. There is no ritual for what they are enduring. Unlike death, there are no social conventions when someone disappears and no reassurance of closure.

“Nothing prepares a family for the experience of ‘missing’, ” says Liz Davies, who runs these semi-regular support group meetings for the NSW government’s Families and Friends of Missing Persons Unit. “It’s all the negative adjectives you can think of. It’s shocking, devastating, immobilising and all-consuming. It becomes something that occupies so much of their lives.”

Every year, about 35,000 Australians disappear. Ninety-five per cent of those people are located within a week. After a month, that number will have inched up to 98 per cent, and in most cases the missing person will have been found alive. But those heartening statistics belie the agony that surrounds the remaining 2 per cent of cases – those 1600 Australians classified as having been missing long term, for at least six months but in reality sometimes for years, and possibly forever. For their families and friends, their absence is marked by uncertainty, confusion, loneliness and grief, and no one can tell them how or when it will end.

Theirs is an ambiguous loss endured in few spheres of life. “There is always an end and an answer to everything,” says Sue Neville, a warm, expansive woman who, like every parent at this support meeting, including her husband Bob, has been forced to live with a lack of resolution. “But I may never know what happened to my own son.”

This was the realisation that confronted the Nevilles five years ago, when their only boy, Bobby, then 30, the eldest of their three now adult children, went for a walk and never returned. He had enjoyed a fairly charmed start to life, an adventurous, inventive childhood full of surfing and fishing and fashioning fish hooks out of bones. He had flown through high school and had plenty of friends. And then, at around 20, he seemed to change. He tried three university courses, dabbled in architecture, talked about becoming a mining engineer, but settled on nothing.

“He just couldn’t complete things,” says his mother, who is now 60. “He would always have another idea and go off on another tangent.” His behaviour began changing. “He started to say peculiar things, talk about nirvana a lot. And we thought that’s all part of the surf culture.” In retrospect, the Nevilles realised that their only son had been heavily smoking marijuana, but by then he had tipped over into depression. “He actually said to me one day, ‘What’s happened, Mum? Everything was always easy [before].’ ”

Desperate for help, they eventually had Bobby scheduled, and he seemed to improve. He worked on a building site in Sydney and had his own little apartment, but spent most evenings with his parents and two sisters at their family home near Wollongong, looking across to the park where he had played as a boy and then out to sea where he still loved to surf.

He was functioning but fragile when he disappeared the first time, at the beginning of spring in 2008. Given his age, and that he was as free to come and go as anyone, his parents were unsure at what point their adult son should be considered missing. Concerned about his mental state, they did report his absence to police, but their concerns for his safety were only allayed 10 days later when he reappeared at their front door in late September. He had been to Western Australia seeking work, and when the exuberance he had felt about starting afresh had begun to wane, he had found his way back home, arriving unannounced and in a mess. “He was just so tired,” says Sue, who, inexplicably, was moved to take a photo of her son that night as he fell into a deep sleep on the lounge-room couch.

Late the following morning, Bobby said he was going down to the beach to chill out. His mother watched him walk away wearing a sage-coloured jumper. When he failed to return by midday, she and Bob became concerned. By 1pm they were searching the area for him. Bobby did not come home that night and the following morning, overwhelmed with worry, his parents went for a walk to try to clear their heads. When they reached a stand of Norfolk pines, Sue dropped suddenly and started weeping: “I just had this feeling I was never going to see him again.”

And that is how it has been ever since – an unexplained absence with no contact, just a heavy silence loaded with worry and grief. Every day, says Bob, has become Groundhog Day. “You get up in the morning and it’s there, the same thing.” Life has continued around them, as it does for every family in their predicament. Children have completed school, relatives have become ill, pets have died, people have fallen in and out of love and aged, some friends have rallied but others have been lost, and the reminders about moving on have started to mount. “I had another one recently, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s it, I’m not mentioning Bobby to anyone anymore,’ ” Sue says irritably. “A woman said, ‘Oh well, you and your husband, you have to get on with your lives now.’ Not that you’re trying to dwell on it. But it’s part of your reality.”

The one constant in that long five years is that Bobby is still not here, and, even though they lumber through each birthday hoping he will ring, no one can tell them where he is or whether he will ever come back. “When you get this far down the track – five years, 10 years, there’s not a big difference – it’s just as raw, it’s just as upsetting,” says Bob, 65. He is remarkably eloquent about the effects of his son’s disappearance, even though the personal toll right now is harder than ever – he has trouble sleeping and settling his mind, wondering on cold nights if his son is warm and comfortable. “You don’t know what’s going to set you off. You might be sitting having a cup of tea and you see a bird on the verandah. Bobby used to attract the king parrots to the house by feeding them. So if you see a king parrot, straight away you think, ‘Bobby’. ”

He looks for his son everywhere. Over the past five years, he and Sue have driven around Australia on an endless trek of hope and despair, up and down the NSW coast, often going straight back on the road again on a tip-off that ended, as ever, in disappointment. “When you travel around Australia as much as we have, you realise that needles in haystacks don’t come into it. It’s one needle in thousands of haystacks.”

On one occasion they rushed to Wollongong when a neighbour was certain he had spotted Bobby in the mall. “We went down there early in the morning,” says Sue, “and there was this person talking to somebody else and we both looked at each other and as we approached him we thought, ‘Is it? Is it? It’s him, oh my god it’s him!’ ”

“We’re holding each other, shaking,” says Bob. And then Sue looked into the young man’s face and realised this was not her son. “For a moment it was just the best,” says Bob. “Our hearts were pumping. But then the disappointment …”

They were gutted, again. But before they turned and headed home with the usual heaviness, they surprised the homeless man with a simple gesture. “We gave that guy 20 bucks,” says Sue, “just because we thought he might be Bobby.”

When someone goes missing, hope seems to be the one factor that sustains those who love them. “I’m not saying that other losses are easy,” says social worker Liz Davies. “But when what has been lost is not clear – why have they gone away? Are they safe? Has somebody hurt them? – it makes it very difficult to live with because we are used to finding answers and having some predictability. When someone dies we can say to families, ‘We know it’s really hard, but with grief, in time, the intensity of it lessens.’ With missing, what are you adjusting to? We can’t even say to people, ‘This gets better.’ ”

“There’s that empty space and you don’t know how to mourn; whether it’s going to be forever or whether he’s going to knock on the door tomorrow,” says Jennifer Brown, whose only child went missing in 2002 and was gone for five years.

Her son, Lee Harber, was in his late 20s, had been through a break-up, and was drifting between jobs when he moved in with his beloved grandparents in Ipswich. He started working for the dole in the kitchen of a local corrections centre and was attempting to reboot his life, but his family seemed to have little inkling of deeper troubles. “Mum rang me and said, ‘I just went to get Lee for tea and he’s gone,’ ” says Brown. “They couldn’t really understand what was going on.”

In fact, Harber had been unsettled by a rising sense of despair. Still traumatised after being stabbed in a dispute, he had been dabbling with drugs, unable to hold down a job, and was becoming increasingly introverted. He had also been prescribed antidepressants, which made him feel vague, “indistinct”, and added to a general sense of unease he had difficulty articulating.

“I just got to the point where I thought, ‘Bugger it. I have got to do something, I can’t just sit around my grandparents’ place,’ ” Harber says now, quietly. “I just needed clarity. I needed out of everything.” Stuffing his clothes into a backpack, he walked out of his grandparents’ home that afternoon, caught a train to Brisbane, then a bus to Hervey Bay. He bought a tent and camped on the beach for a fortnight. “The days are very long when you’ve got two weeks of waking up at 6, going to bed at 7, 8 o’clock, with nothing to do. I would walk along the beach, watch the stingrays, buy a book from the op shop.”

He stopped taking his medication and the haze that had been filling his head started to lift, to be replaced by some clarity – and a rush of guilt. “A week or two after I had gone, I thought, ‘Why did I do that? What am I doing?’ Because I knew that would have really hurt and upset my grandparents. I knew my grandparents were cooking tea, so Nanna would have come and knocked on the door to get me for tea and I wasn’t there.”

But even with this sense of remorse, he did not return home or contact his family. “I didn’t want to. I was ashamed,” he says softly as he sits at the kitchen table of his Brisbane share flat. Lee Harber is 38 now, has a full-time job and keeps healthy with regular gym workouts. But the memory of that period still seems to pain him deeply.

“For my family’s sake I was embarrassed about it,” he continues. “I was also upset with myself. And I didn’t know how to approach it and say, ‘Look, I’ve stuffed up.’ I didn’t know how to go back. And I suppose it just seemed easier to keep going forward. I just thought, ‘Well, you’ve made your bed, you have to lie in it.’ ”

So he kept moving, travelling to Lismore, walking dozens of kilometres from Mullumbimby to Nimbin just because he had the time, and finally arriving in Byron Bay, where he decided his life was “boring and crap” and realised he needed a job. He headed south and started picking fruit in Young, went down to Shepparton and up to the Riverina. He saved enough money to buy a car. And he met a woman. “That made me want to respect myself more and be a better person for her.” They spent several years together, travelled around Australia and eventually settled in Innisfail.

But Harber’s sense of guilt remained with him for five years. “You know what they say, if you’re trying to run away from something, it’s deemed to stay with you. At the time you think it’s just easier to stay where you are and keep doing what you’re doing, even though at the end of the day it’s not easier and it does hurt more, because as long as it goes on it’s still in the back of your head.”

So it was with a sense of relief that he opened a letter in 2007 and discovered that his family was desperate to contact him. His mother had registered him as a missing person, but when police were unable to locate her son she had turned, at their suggestion, to the Salvation Army. Five years after her son disappeared, Brown received some unbelievable news. “I got a call saying that they knew where he was. I was like, ‘Oh my god, wow.’ It was just so exciting.

“I felt relieved and maybe also happy that they wanted to talk to me,” Harber says of that first phone call home, “and also surprised that they wanted to talk to me.” But more than anything, he was taken aback. “Missing people, they were someone else to me. I just didn’t see myself as that statistic or in that class. I knew where I was. I didn’t think I was hiding. I was just living life, doing whatever. You’re still putting in a tax return. You’ve got a bank account. I hadn’t changed my name. I hadn’t done anything. I didn’t think I was a missing person.”

Not all endings are like this. Many times the missing person is never sighted again, and families spend the rest of their lives wondering what happened. Even when there is a conclusion, the outcome can be tragic. As Liz Davies says, “No matter how long somebody is missing, it’s not a preparation for what happens if they’re found.”

But an ending is what families, such as Alan de Courcy Ellis and his adult children, dream about most. They spent 115 weeks wondering what had happened to their wife and mother, Jean, who at 73 had become increasingly fragile as the depression and back pain for which she was being treated intensified. For three years Alan was her carer. After an especially rough day in December 2010, he kissed her goodnight as she sat up watching television, and went to bed.

When he awoke the next morning, his wife and his car had both disappeared. Jean’s bag was still at home and she had taken no money with her. On the kitchen bench at their home near Sydney’s Botany Bay, she had left a note alluding to the misery she felt her life had become. “But she doesn’t say goodbye in it,” says 79-year-old Alan. And it was that slender strand of hope that gave him the momentum to endure all the despair and uncertainty that comes when someone goes missing, through a massive police sweep of the area around their Kurnell home, a two-day SES search, a public appeal on radio, and then the weeks and months of silence as Jean’s absence continued.

After 53 years of marriage, Alan could not be certain if he should mourn his wife or await her return. So he carved her name into a wooden cross and nailed it high up on a telegraph pole beside the bay, where the missing car was later found, less than a kilometre from home. “I used to come down here and talk to her.”

On February 28 this year, 28 months after Alan kissed his wife goodnight, a kayaker found a skull in Botany Bay. A police search later recovered a body. Jean was identified by a metal ball inserted during an operation. Her funeral was held in April. A coroner found she had taken her own life.

After so long, Jean’s family were grateful for an ending. “It’s a terrible sadness, and loneliness has descended upon me,” says Alan. “But the missing part was worse than now.”

For those still waiting and hoping, life continues in its endless holding pattern. “There are the days you think and hope maybe he’ll ring,” Sue Neville says as she contemplates the next step in her son Bobby’s disappearance – a coronial inquest scheduled for August. “Common sense tells you he won’t ring because he would have by now, but you still think on those days, maybe.”

So she and her husband Bob console themselves with what they can: reminiscing and looking over and over at their son’s photographs. It’s then that they seem happiest. “We’ll be sitting there and the sun will be shining and Sue will say, ‘Do you want another cup of tea and a biscuit?’ and I’ll start and I’ll mention something and Bobby will come into it somewhere and then off we’ll go,” says Bob. “We’ll be having this conversation and it’s just so relaxed and so easy and before you know it we’re talking about Bobby and we’re laughing and, ‘Wow, wasn’t that great?’ And Sue says, ‘You know we had him for 30 years here, but that kid, he’s squeezed a whole lifetime into those 30 years.’ ”

Their property remains scattered with signs of their son – the creek he helped dig at the back of the yard, the paving he laid, his old bedroom which has not been touched. His trusty ute is still lovingly maintained. Long after Bobby disappeared, his parents spent two days cleaning it. “Every bit of polish and scrub and detail – it felt good because it was for Bobby,” says his father.

As the years have passed in unresolved silence, maintaining Bobby’s ute has become a ritual, cleaning it and running the engine regularly, ready to go again at a moment’s notice in case Bobby comes back one day and decides he does not want to stay too long.

“You’re not playing games with yourself,” Bob insists of this act of love with which he perseveres, even as his own health declines. “It’s not that at all. It makes you feel good because you’re talking about him.” And his eyes smile faintly. “It’s like he’s almost there.”

This article originally appeared in Good Weekend. Like Good Weekend on Facebook to get regular updates on upcoming stories and events.

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