Our son, Robert Neville (Bobby) had been away from home on several long outback trips over the years, but we never expected him to disappear from our lives.
Bobby has been missing since 30 September 2008 after telling me he was going to the beach for a walk. The initial police response when he didn’t return was disappointing: “A 30 year old man should be ok”. But we knew something was very wrong and out of character by the time we officially reported him as missing.
With police unable to find him, my husband Bob and I decided we would try to locate Bobby ourselves. We bought a caravan so we could travel around Australia to look for him. Our search soon led us to most corners of the country: Perth, Darwin, Alice Springs, Lake Eyre and Lightning Ridge, to name a few. We took our NSW missing persons poster to police stations across Australia to remind the officers that we had not given up. Often they responded positively, organising meetings, checking their databases and putting out further alerts that Bobby could be in the area.
Sometimes, however, the response was less helpful. Early on in our travels, we discovered that there was little communication between the different states about missing persons. This confusion greatly concerned us, as hope of finding Bobby is all we have left. In fact, hyper-vigilance becomes a way of life when you’re uncertain what has happened to someone, and it is exhausting.
Even today, nearly five years later, I still find myself searching faces in crowd, particularly as I live near the beach where so many young men are the same age as my son. I think I see him most days. It even resulted in me having a car accident when I became distracted after I thought I had seen my son on the side of the road. From that moment on, I have had to remind myself to stop constantly searching for him, to concentrate on the present moment. It also helps to say to myself, “well, if that was him driving the other way, or walking along the street, then he is alive, and that’s all I need to know.” I do know that subconsciously, I’m still searching.
I stopped taking the caravan trips and searching physically for Bobby in 2011. We had information that there had been a sighting in Port Macquarie. As we walked along a beach searching for him, we became lost both physically and emotionally. In that moment, I suddenly felt a calm come over me for the first time since Bobby went missing. It was then that I decided that Bobby probably wasn’t alive and that I would stop taking the trips to find him. I realised that if he had died, at least he was OK.
Everyone reacts differently – my husband is still planning trips to find Bobby. He copes by believing Bobby is still alive, somewhere out in the outback where people can hide if they don’t want to found. This poses its own difficulties as it is hard for my husband to understand why our son has not been in touch.
It is increasingly difficult to live with a missing loved one. No one wants to lose lose a child but the unresolved grief really cuts away at your spirit. The grief we live with is unlike the grief when a loved one dies. I don’t mean to dismiss such grief, but when your loved one is missing, there are no answers. It’s an ambiguous loss because they’re not here physically. There are challenges with having an adult child go missing too – adult people have the right to privacy and to live their own lives, but when they are part of a close family like ours, you expect them to be in contact. You find yourself wondering if he is the man you thought he was.
I have found comfort in a support group called Friends and Families of Missing Persons Unit (FFMPU). We meet with people who know what it is like living with missing loved ones. Other families and friends of missing persons have shared their stories and also have discussed their disappointments and concerns with the national system for finding their loved ones. However, through the FFMPU we have seen some evidence in the past few years of police training and development for dealing with missing persons. New cadets are now given an insight into the importance of keeping the lines of communication open, listening and responding to family concerns. Hopefully, the police response will improve.
As a retired textiles teacher, I have found sewing circles often help bring people closer together and a quilt can be a way of expressing ones self. Recently, I have encouraged people to design a quilt square that brings back happy memories of their missing person, enabling us to express our love, embrace our missing person and announce our concerns to the wider community. The quilt will be legacy to my son, and the sons, daughters, fathers and mothers of a number of people from FFMPU – we have no headstones to visit.
Sue Neville is a guest on tonight's episode of Insight on SBS ONE at 8.30pm. The program explores why people go missing, the emotional impact on families of missing loved ones, and whether enough being done to support them.