Living with the disappearance of a loved one

What is living with the disappearance of a loved one?

On this webpage you can read information about the emotional consequences of the disappearance of a loved one. This includes information on the study regarding the emotional consequences of disappearance of a loved one.

The study comprises two parts. Part 1 consists in identifying the emotional consequences of the disappearance of a loved one. When you have a loved one who has been missing for more than three months, you can apply to take part in in the study. This participation consists in completing a questionnaire. Part 2 consists of a therapy developed for those who are left behind. Unfortunately, the therapy is only available in the Netherlands.


The emotional consequences of the disappearance of a loved one

In most cases of missing persons reports, the missing person is found within a few days. When this does not happen, however, the period of insecurity increases. This can be accompanied by various thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Constantly asking yourself what happened and where the person is now, moving back and forth between hope and despair, guilt and anger and a chronic feeling of grief are characteristic of those who are left behind after a disappearance. Every person tries to cope with this in his of her own way.

Living with disappearance

When your partner, child, relative or friend is missing for a long period of time, this can have profound consequences for your life. In contrast with a death, there is no clarity with regard to the situation of a loved one in the case of a disappearance. This uncertainty hinders the adjustment process. Life seems to stand still. Not knowing whether there will ever be answers to all the questions not only has a great impact on the daily life of those remaining behind, but also gives rise to uncertainties with regard to the future. Some people get caught up in the tangle of thoughts and feelings. This makes it difficult for them to fulfill everyday commitments such as housekeeping, work and taking care of the family, or they no longer enjoy things that used be enjoyable. Some people find support with people around them or through peer support, but for some specialist support during this process is needed.


The aim of the study

The University of Groningen in the Netherlands is conducting a three-year study regarding the emotional consequences of the disappearance of a love one. The study comprises two parts. The purpose of Part 1 is the identification of the emotional consequences those remaining behind after a disappearance have to contend with. Worldwide, there has so far been limited research into this issue. It is important to gain insights, so that among other things specialist help can be adapted accordingly. Anyone who has a loved one missing for three months or more can take part in this study. Those remaining behind after their loved one has been missing for a long time or those remaining behind who experience a decrease of complaints are also invited to take part in this study, so that a complete picture can be presented of the range of emotional consequences of the disappearance of a loved one. Taking part consists in completing a questionnaire. Taking part in this study is currently also possible for individuals in the UK and Belgium. Also a collaboration with Pakistani researchers has been started for carrying out a cross-cultural study.

Dutch participants who are eligible for therapy, based on part 1 of the study, can take part in part 2 of the study on an entirely voluntary basis. Part 2 of the study consist in evaluating the effectiveness of a therapy for the loved ones of missing persons. A network of Dutch psychologists trained in counselling those remaining behind after a disappearance. The network consists of experienced psychologists, based throughout the Netherlands. The effect of the therapy will be evaluated scientifically. Research will be done to determine whether taking part in the therapy results in a decrease in complaints and an increase in wellbeing. Based on the responses to questionnaires the development of the complaints and the effect of the therapy will be determined.


The therapy

When your adjustment process proceeds with difficulty, you can receive support in learning to cope with the loss of your loved one. The therapy, that is offered in the Netherlands, has been designed specifically for people whose loved one has been missing for three months or more. Individual sessions with an experienced therapist are offered in your own area. The therapy consists of what is known as cognitive behavioral therapy combined with elements of mindfulness and writing assignments.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

In the sessions you and your therapist will explore your thoughts, lead to feelings and that result in certain behavior regarding the disappearance of your loved one. For example, the thought “If I don’t watch my children all the time, they will go missing too.” (brain) causes fear (body), which results in calling the school twice every hour to check on the children (behavior). In the therapy you will learn to recognize hindering, unhelpful thoughts. Then these thoughts will be questioned to determine to what extent these thoughts are “true” or “helpful”. The purpose is to turn unhelpful thoughts into helpful thoughts. This prevents the evocation of negative feelings and reduces dysfunctional behavior.


Living with the disappearance of a loved one requires much of a person’s resilience and capacity for acceptance. The therapy therefore aims to strengthen these abilities by not focusing on closure, but rather on learning to cope with the painful situation with the help of mindfulness exercises.    

Writing assignments

Various previous studies showed that writing assignments were helpful in the adjustment process for persons who had traumatic experiences. Due to disclosure of the deepest thoughts and feeling regarding the disappearance of a loved one, the writing assignments contribute to meaning-making.


The study is part of a PhD program and will result in a PhD thesis. At this time the enrollment of participants for both parts of the study has begun.


Staff Members

The study is conducted by:

Ms. Lonneke I.M. Lenferink, MSc (University of Groningen)



Mr. prof. dr. J. de Keijser (University of Groningen)

Mr. prof. dr. P.A. Boelen (Utrecht University)

Ms. Dr. I. Wessel (University of Groningen)


In cooperation with:

Dutch Peer support group Vereniging Achterblijvers na Vermissing (Association for People Remaining Behind after Disappearance)

Victim Support the Netherlands

Child Focus in Belgium

Missing People, the UK



Fonds Slachtofferhulp (Victim Support Fund)

University of Groningen

Stichting Stimuleringsfonds Rouw (Bereavement Incentive Fund Foundation)