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Photo: Courtesy of Josée Cardinal

How families cope when a loved one goes missing

A Quebec man went for a walk in the early morning of March 16, 2016, and hasn’t been seen since. His family, like many loved ones of the missing, finds it impossible to grieve — or give up hope.

By Justin Dallaire

Even at six foot four, Gilberto Cardinal-Fernandes seems to have gone unseen. It’s a wonder the University of Ottawa chemistry student, then sporting long dreadlocks and ample facial hair, wasn’t noticed. He wore wooden spacers in his ears and had several tattoos, including a chemistry symbol on his neck. Later, police would show his mother footage of a man walking in the street — a potentially valuable lead — but she would be unable to confirm that it was, in fact, her son.

Early in the morning before he disappeared, the 23-year-old had texted his roommate to say he was going for a walk and “not to worry.” Then he left his apartment in Gatineau, Que., probably around 4 a.m., and vanished into the thawing winter temperatures wearing a denim jacket. Where he was headed, only God knows. His mother, Josée Cardinal, is desperate to share in the secret. The Montreal woman is overwhelmed by the number of possibilities and the scant answers she’s been able to obtain. All she knows is that her son is missing. It’s been more than two years.

Due in part to Canadian privacy laws, there’s much Cardinal doesn’t know about her son’s disappearance. But she was told that as the day went on, his roommate began to suspect not all was right. That the young man searched Cardinal-Fernandes’ computer and discovered websites that suggested drugs, bridges and suicide. That the roommate assembled a group of friends who searched the neighbourhood and scoured the banks of the Ottawa River. That police were notified, but that their search resulted in few leads, except for a cellphone signal from across the bridge in Ottawa.

Cardinal-Fernandes is now one of the roughly 7,500 to 8,000 Canadians whose whereabouts are unknown at any given time. Since 2015, the first year for which a complete set of statistics exists, the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains has recorded more than 71,000 annual missing-person occurrences in Canada. The number includes repeat runaways and duplicates of instances recorded by multiple police jurisdictions. And the majority of missing persons are located within a relatively short period of time.

In a handful of other cases, families might wait months, even years, for answers; some wait their entire lives. These families cope with what is known as “ambiguous loss” — a sense of unresolved loss or grief, incomparable to that of life’s other losses. Families in these situations often require specialized and lifelong support, but the nature of their plight is not well understood and the services available to them scarce, leaving many to struggle on their own.

By now Cardinal-Fernandes is — or would have been — 25 years old. Police told his mother that he’s likely dead. She chooses, reluctantly, to refer to him in the past tense. Police have also said there’s a chance he simply ran away. Thus the “mental torture” that comes from needing to pick a tense at all, she says. She will live with the pain of uncertainty until either he or his body is found.

Cardinal-Fernandes went missing on March 16, 2016, a Wednesday. The following Saturday, Josée Cardinal arrived at the Gatineau police station from Montreal, where she had been visiting her parents for the March break. (At the time, she was living in Stratford, Ont., with one of her daughters. Her husband, Cardinal-Fernandes’ father, died several years earlier.) At the station, police confirmed that they’d found no trace of her son. Cardinal can’t remember if they said it was “probable” or “highly possible” that he’d taken his own life. But she recalls that in the early stages of the investigation the officers were “very kind and helpful.”

Investigators have since provided Cardinal with a summary of their search efforts, but there are many details they haven’t shared. It’s not against the law for an adult to go missing in Canada. A person may do so for any number of reasons, including interpersonal conflict, a desire for independence, addiction or mental health issues, financial problems, abuse and neglect — or some chance occurrence that defies all probability and understanding. In some provinces, including Quebec, investigators are barred from accessing certain information, such as the missing person’s banking and medical records, unless there’s evidence to suggest a crime has taken place. The laws seem to assume the person has gone missing by choice, forcing police to respect his or her right to privacy.

In 2012, the now defunct Missing Women Commission of Inquiry recommended that the B.C. provincial government enact legislation to “grant speedy access to personal information of missing persons without unduly infringing on privacy rights.” The inquiry had investigated the mishandling of missing women investigations in British Columbia between 1997 and 2002 and concluded that such a law was necessary, especially for the protection of Indigenous women and girls. Since then, the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador have passed some form of legislation giving police greater access to the records of missing persons in an attempt to facilitate investigations.

Maureen Trask has been deeply invested in the issue since her son, Daniel, went missing from his hometown of Waterloo, Ont., in 2011. A search group from Michigan helped locate his remains near Temagami, Ont., more than three years later, and Trask has been petitioning the Ontario government to enact a Missing Persons Act ever since. She has succeeded: in March, the provincial government passed a bill that contains new regulations around missing persons. But that alone will not solve all the problems plaguing missing person investigations in the province, nor will the RCMP’s new DNA bank, designed to help identify missing persons. The families continue to need greater support and better communication with police.

Daniel Trask in Temagami, Ont., in September 2011. He would disappear later that fall. Photo: Michael Messner/Artistic Photography, courtesy of Maureen Trask
Daniel Trask in Temagami, Ont., in September 2011. He would disappear later that fall. Photo: Michael Messner/Artistic Photography, courtesy of Maureen Trask

Family members’ first and most frequent point of contact is usually with police. This can present a number of challenges, as investigators are bound by confidentiality laws and burdened with a continual flow of new, more pressing cases. Family members may keep asking for updates on cold cases; police may be unable to respond. It’s not uncommon for the situation to become a source of vexation for both parties.

Even Josée Cardinal, who demonstrates immense patience and understanding, expresses mixed feelings about how police have handled her son’s case. She doesn’t blame any one officer or investigative practice; rather, her frustration stems from the unwieldiness of the system and its ability to defy common sense. The RCMP, for instance, maintains a national website for missing persons and unidentified remains; its purpose is to help raise awareness and solicit potential leads from the public. Yet that trove of invaluable information does not contain the name Gilberto Cardinal-Fernandes because the decision to include a file lies with its investigators, and they have chosen not to include it.

Although Cardinal-Fernandes’ case remains open, his mother says police have told her they’ve stopped actively searching for him, that a fresh lead is required and that they can no longer assist in finding one. What, then, are his family and friends to do?

The day after her visit to the Gatineau police station, Josée Cardinal faced a difficult decision. Her son had been missing for four days. March break was ending. Monday morning, she was supposed to be back at work at Nancy Campbell Academy, a school in Stratford, Ont., where she taught and her youngest daughter was a student. Feeling helpless as she waited for news in Montreal, Cardinal decided to return to Stratford to complete the semester. She spent the next two months teaching before she reached a mental breaking point and decided to take a leave of absence.

Until recently, Cardinal felt incapable of speaking to the media. She agreed to an interview for this article “in a spirit of service.” As years pass and a family member remains missing, outsiders erroneously assume that “the event is in the past, when it is absolutely in the present,” Josée Cardinal explained in an email. “Most people (friends near and far) carry on with their life as if this event has been grieved and is fading in the fog of time. They hope we have found closure or suggest to us to work towards that. . . . They do not realize that our thoughts are caught in the prison of our mind.”

The sudden disappearance of a family member is devoid of the finality of death. Families do not simply “move on,” find closure, make peace with a possible or likely outcome. They experience “ambiguous loss,” a term coined by researcher Pauline Boss in the 1970s. Ambiguous loss can exist when a person is physically absent but psychologically present, as with missing persons, adoption and divorce. It also appears in situations where the reverse occurs, such as mental illness, drug addiction and dementia. There’s no quick fix for families faced with this loss; in the case of missing persons, the goal is to learn how to cope with lasting uncertainty.

Isolation is a common issue for families — so few people have shared a similar experience and understand what they’re going through. Over the years, Josée Cardinal has learned to be “very forgiving to all these good-intentioned people who want to help me.” Some assure her she will find her son, sustaining a hope that is painful in itself; others tell her that he’s dead, the implication being that she should grieve; one person thinks visiting a psychic is the answer; and then there are the people who say nothing at all.

In September 2016, after having spent the summer near Montreal, Cardinal began looking for a support group. Initially, she joined groups whose members’ circumstances were too different from her own to be helpful, including one for families of homicide victims and one for missing children. Eventually, she stumbled on an institution in St-Jérôme, Que., outside Montreal, that serves families whose loved ones have been affected by mental illness. The counsellors understood what she needed. “They are not there to tell you, ‘I think he’s dead; I think he’s alive,’” Cardinal says. “They talk about you. ‘How do you feel about that?’”

Both Trask and Cardinal say learning about ambiguous loss helped them immensely. Trask, who leads a support group for the family members of the long-term missing, emphasizes a key insight: “I’m not crazy; it’s the situation.” And Cardinal considers Lusia Dion, who runs a website called Ontario’s Missing Adults, a “life-saving person” for having mailed her materials about ambiguous loss. A website called the Canadian Centre for Information on Missing Adults also provides referrals and practical information to families and friends of missing individuals. 

“When I realized that I could read testimonies of other families, I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s exactly what I’m going through,’” Cardinal says. “You know, like I’m not crazy. It’s normal. Like, normal in my craziness.”

There's no quick fix for families faced with ambiguous loss. The goal is to learn how to cope with lasting uncertainty.

The current National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has highlighted the pressing need for a full range of services for families in Canada. Australia is often regarded as a leader in this respect, offering access to counselling, information and referrals through various government-funded agencies. In the United Kingdom, the Missing People charity manages a 24-hour hotline that missing people, their families and friends, and those contemplating going missing can call for support.

In Canada, existing services would benefit from national oversight and co-ordination. Currently, the RCMP may refer families to victim services through provincial, territorial or municipal partners. Other jurisdictions handle things differently. Gatineau police sometimes send families to the Association des Familles de Personnes Assassinées ou Disparues (for families of victims of homicide and disappeared persons) or to the Réseau Enfants-Retour (the Missing Children’s Network), but note that “not all files necessarily correspond with the mission of these organizations.” Often, families must rely on private therapists for help.

Caring Hearts in Regina is one of the few Canadian organizations that provides some free individual and group counselling tailored to families of the missing. Through a program supported by the provincial government, Caring Hearts’ counsellors will even travel to rural communities to meet with clients. Stephanie Kohlruss, the centre’s executive director, estimates that they serve around 30 to 50 family members per year through individual counselling.

In January 2018, Caring Hearts was looking for families to fill a new round of group counselling sessions. But it’s hard to reach out to potential clients and offer support when the laws prevent police from providing names and contact information. Meanwhile, families don’t necessarily have the strength to attend sessions or to ask for help. “There’s a definite wall between us and families in letting families know that we’re there to support them,” Kohlruss says. She believes agencies should be allowed to engage with families directly while still respecting their privacy. “I don’t like the onus being placed on somebody who’s already shouldering a burden nobody in this world would ever want.”

Every morning since her son’s disappearance, Josée Cardinal awakes with him in her thoughts. She prays her way out of bed and tells herself that she can endure another 24 hours — a “manageable and realistic goal like in AA,” she says. She then tries to “put the thoughts in a drawer to be able to do my work.”

She’s found informal but invaluable support through friends and family who’ve spread the word on social media, helped raise funds online, emptied her son’s apartment and offered to store his belongings. She’s relied on her Bahá’í faith and community. “Had I not held tightly to the rope of my spiritual beliefs,” she says, “I think I would have lost the little sanity I had left.” And she’s found strength in assisting those around her, be it through helping an immigrant family shop for clothes and food or visiting the sick and the elderly. “The best thing is to be helping other people, sharing time and energy in a joyful spirit,” she says. “For a while, you forget your own unhappiness.”

Trask’s experience has turned her into a fierce advocate for missing persons and their families. On top of her legislative work, Trask supports the push for a national Missing Persons Day so that families can honour their loved ones. She has ambitious plans to bring forward a national framework for missing persons involving an array of governmental departments. “[My son] Daniel put me on this path for a reason,” she says. “He would want to know that some good came from his demise.”

To cope with ambiguous loss, families must “find meaning in this chaos,” Trask says, “and this kind of work certainly brings meaning to my experience.” The ordeal put her in contact with “many wonderful people” she would otherwise not know. “We have to find the positive in it,” she asserts. “[Our family] learned more about strength from Daniel than we ever could have [otherwise].”

Justin Dallaire is a journalist in Toronto.

This story first appeared in The Observer's April 2018 edition with the title "No closure."


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