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The ambiguous loss of missing persons

By Alison Langley, Niagara Falls Review

Ben Trommels and his mother Monique Smith

Ben Trommels and his mother Monique Smith

Ambiguous loss: It was once a foreign phrase to Monique Smith.

Today, nearly 12 months after her 24-year-old son disappeared without a trace, those two words have become a daily reality for the Niagara Falls woman.

Defined as a loss that occurs without closure or understanding, ambiguous loss can leave a person searching for answers as they try to live with unresolved grief.

Smith has sought help from several counsellors since her only child, Ben Trommels, vanished.

None were able to help her.

“I’ve been to three, and I’ve left in tears from each one,” she said. “Ambiguous loss is a different type of grief and there’s no one who can help me here.”

Smith said the “lack of local support” has been very frustrating.

“Unless you’ve gone through it, it’s hard to counsel someone with it. They just don’t understand.”

Smith recently created a Facebook page — Ambiguous Loss Group — to share her story and help support other Niagara families on their journey of uncertainty. It features photographs of Trommels.

“We’re like a sounding board to each other,” she said of the group. “All of us are at different stages of grief.”

Trommels struggled with schizophrenia — a disease of the brain which, untreated, can cause the person to experience delusions and in some cases to harm themselves. He was last seen Feb. 11, 2016 after leaving his Casey Street apartment in the city’s north end.

He often told his mother that if he ever took his own life, she would never find him.

“I’ve accepted the fact that if he hasn’t been found yet, he probably will never be found. I am hoping he’s resting in peace, wherever he is.”

Cathy O’Connell is all too familiar with Smith’s anguish.

Her son, John Patrick O’Connell, was last seen July 4, 2008 after he left his apartment on Portage Road near Morrison Street in Niagara Falls.

The 31-year-old, who went known as Patrick, told his roommate to tell his family he was “going to see God.”

Eight and a half years later, his mother still struggles.

“Your head tells you he’s not coming back, but your heart tells a different story,” O’Connell said.

Patrick was diagnosed as schizophrenic at 17.

“I don’t think there’s enough help out there for these poor people suffering with mental illness, or their families,” his mother said.

“It’s disgraceful. There are more and more and more stories like ours happening every day.”

O’Connell reached out to Smith via Facebook after reading media reports about Trommels’ disappearance.

“Sometimes it’s better to talk to someone who has walked in their shoes,” she said.

The two mothers eventually met in person.

“We were automatically connected,” Smith recalled. “When people have the same thing happen to them, you tend to become family right away even though you’re perfect strangers.”

O’Connell is also a member of the Ambiguous Loss Facebook page.

Smith hopes other people dealing with unresolved grief will join the page to share their stories.

“It helps,” she said.

“It’s nice to know there are people out there who care, people who are in the same situation that I am.”

Waterloo resident Maureen Trask said it’s vital that families of the missing have community supports.

Her son, Daniel Trask, was reported missing in November 2011. The Kitchener man was 28.

His remains were found in Temagami in northern Ontario in May 2015. Now Trask is an advocate for families of the missing.

“When Daniel went missing, no one could explain to us what we were experiencing or how we could effectively cope during our journey of uncertainty,” she said.

“Our grief was frozen, our loss in limbo.”

Trask discovered there was a significant gap in services available to support families of missing loved ones.

A missing person peer support group she helped create has been up and running in Waterloo for the past year.

“Families can relate in a safe and supportive environment. They realize they are not alone,” she said. “Traditional loss and grief groups do not relate to our reality, since our issue is uncertainty, not knowing if our missing loved one is alive or dead.”

Trask is also lobbying the provincial government to enact missing person legislation that would ease restrictions on privacy laws — such as accessing phone records, medical records and banking records — to make it easier for police to investigate missing person cases.

“It was a shock to all of us that there was a legislative roadblock when it came to investigating cases where there is no evidence of crime,” she said.

“It wasn’t that police weren’t or didn’t investigate their missing loved ones cases, it was that they couldn’t.”

She’s also working with victim services agencies to develop a protocol where police would advise victim services groups of missing person cases and provide resources and support to families.

“My goal is to ensure consistent, sustainable resources are available to families with missing loved ones without having to create yet another agency,” Trask said.

Meanwhile, Niagara Regional Police are continuing to investigate the disappearance of the two local men.

“The investigation always remains open … until the person is located,” said NRP Const. Virginia Moir.