The disappearance of a family member is making me a better aunt

Guest post by Matilda

Note: all names (including the author’s) have been changed to protect the privacy of the author’s extended family.

By: WiderbergsCC BY 2.0
My three-year-old niece Julie asked me to look at the Christmas lights strung up in her family’s dining room the other day with her. We both laid down in the front hallway and gazed up and talked about what colors we could see. We were only there for a few minutes, we only said a few things, and then she said we should go play in her room and ran ahead of me down the hall. That moment wasn’t much, it didn’t look like much, but I filed away the memory of it carefully in my brain — touched at how lovely it was.

I live far away from Julie and her family — have ever since she was born — so these moments with her are always special. My sister does a great job of making sure she remembers me. Every time I see Julie, she shouts my name over and over again until she gets my attention, and then when I say, “Yes?” she’ll say, “I love you!” It’s pretty fantastic.

I have a feeling of protectiveness for Julie, and my other niece, Mandy, that’s really hard to completely express. I want to hug them tight and play with them and always be there for them. I probably would have always felt this way for them — it’s primal instinct, you know, for adults to always want to care for the children to whom they are related — but it’s especially important to me given my family history.

You see… I don’t know where one of my aunts is. None of us do.

She left her home about two-and-a-half years ago, and no one has seen or heard from her since. This is the second time this has happened, as she was gone for nearly a decade when I was younger. She came back when I was around 12, and it was one of the oddest sensations to re-meet this aunt that had been gone for so long.

She would never talk about why she left or why she came back, and got angry the one time anyone suggested she talk to a therapist. Everyone was just so happy that she was back that they didn’t push it. These are all things I learned only after she left the second time. I have depression, as do other members of my family, and have always wondered how many of my aunt’s problems are related to an undiagnosed, untreated illness.

It is strange how much I have been affected by the disappearance of someone I frankly, barely knew. She was often very quiet. I never knew what to get her for Christmas. I knew she liked Star Trek and Star Wars, so I ended up getting her a lot of figurines and books. I know shamefully little else about her. I can only remember having one or two one-on-one conversations with her at all. She had lost a lot of weight in the year before she left home and looked like almost an entirely different person.

For a while there, she seemed really happy — she was always sharing her weight watchers recipes and seemed very proud of what she had achieved. When I heard she was gone the second time, I was very upset, but had a feeling of helplessness in knowing that I didn’t even know what it was about her that I was supposed to miss.

When I was growing up, my mom and I used to butt heads on a regular basis over one thing or another — more than once, she begged me that if I ever ran away, I just tell her where I was. I know I reminded her of her younger sister. The comparison shook me and made me realize how much I never wanted to hurt my family the way my aunt had hurt ours.

As I have grown as an adult, it has helped shape the way I deal with my mental illness and approach life. I never want to let my depression make me as selfish as my aunt has been. When I’m around my family in the few times a year I come back to my hometown, I do everything I can to help them — it feels like something I can do.

I have a lot of anger toward my aunt at this point, and have had to consider whether I would want her to be in the life of the family I hope to have someday if she someday reappears. But then I remember that it’s possible that she’s not even alive any more or that something terrible might have happened to her and feel terrible for being mad. The not knowing is the worst — I don’t even know how to feel from day-to-day.

I may never know how to feel and may never know where she is or what happened to her.

The lack of my aunt’s presence in my life has molded more of me than I think I’ll ever fully realize. I never want my nieces to have the same doubt and confusion about me as I have about my aunt. I’ve made a commitment that I will be there for them as they get older — I want them to know that even when I am several states away, I am always on their side and always plan to be reachable.

I want to be an example for them of how to face their fears and their lives head-on and show them that running away from problems is never the answer. And I plan to be there to gaze at Christmas lights with them until I am old and wrinkled and their children can join us as well.

Comments on The disappearance of a family member is making me a better aunt

  1. I haven’t seen my aunt since she babysat us, maybe 15 years ago. I only know that she probably fell out with my gran, because they would butt heads. My dad takes the stance that, having lived in the same house since then, she could easily get back in touch with us, he’s willing to wait, but who knows. I don’t know what to think, if I think anything about it. A vague sense of worry, I guess. I hope she’s alright.

  2. The author admits to not knowing her aunt very well, so it seems really sad that she is judging her aunt’s reasons for staying out of contact. Some family relationships can’t be fixed by facing them head on. It’s sad the author judges her for running away when there may not be other options open to her.

    • You know, my take on it was more than she’s not judging her aunt as much as she’s just speaking from the perspective of a family member who has been impacted by her aunt’s disappearance. To me, that perspective is valid — regardless of her aunt’s reasons for not being around, it’s obvious that the author and her family are deeply hurt.

      Granted, the author likely doesn’t have the whole story since she has never known her aunt, so I’m not disputing you there.

    • I agree that some family relationships can’t be fixed by facing them head on, and none of us know what the author’s aunt might be dealing with. But, like, there’s a big difference to me between having a falling out or choosing to leave and just disappearing. There are members of my family who haven’t spoken to each other in 20 years, but they are not scared for or wondering what happened to the other – none of us are in the tortured position of wondering whether or not someone is alive or in the country or what kind of situation they might be living in. There is no communication between them, and those of us closer to one side geographically end up also mostly out of contact with the other, but we don’t fear for them. I feel like no-communication sudden disappearances trigger a lot of fear.

      I haven’t had the experience the author is describing, but I have supported a friend dealing with a loved one disappearing completely like this. Having seen the severity of that impact – the not knowing piled on top of the feeling of abandonment – on an adult, I can only imagine how traumatizing disappearance could especially be for a child. No matter what the reality of her aunt’s situation, it is OK for the author to have her own experience of anger and hurt. I don’t think that necessarily means that it’s judgey.

    • You’re right, by calling my aunt selfish, I have judged her based on very little information. I’m not going to deny that. When facing a situation so fraught with confusion, it’s easier for me to come to at least a few black and white conclusions regarding her actions so I don’t just cry every time I think about it. I fully acknowledge that my judgment may be unfair, but it’s honestly an emotional survival tactic.
      I’ve arrived at the few conclusions I can make about her actions based on my own experiences with depression and how selfish it has made me at times – I think one of the curses of mental illness is how it can blind you to everyone else’s problems. It seems very likely to me that given the family history, my aunt has similar issues. And I personally think it’s fairly selfish to leave your family without assuring them that you’re at least alive, whatever the situation is.
      But again, it’s just a very confusing topic for me and frankly everyone else in the family. It’s hard to know what to think or how to feel at all. This was a hard topic to write about – I drafted several versions of it before I was able to submit one that was in any way coherent. I didn’t want to speak for anyone else, but I think it’s safe to say that no one has any idea why she left either time.

      • Matilda – My cousin referred me to your blog post today. Maybe I can help in regards to your missing family member….I’m the founder of Outpost for Hope – we help shine the light on missing persons who are often lost with mental illness as well as unaccounted for children. I have a sister who disappeared almost 14 years ago, she was struggling with bipolar disorder and addiction when she vanished – the story was made into the Lifetime Movie Bringing Ashley Home. Anyway…my work at Outpost for Hope is I believe, a divine calling for me. If your family needs help in reporting your aunt missing – I invite you to visit our site at http://www.outpostforhope.org and download our free family resource guide which you can find under the menu settings. I hope this information is helpful. Libba

  3. As someone whose father killed himself because he couldn’t face the situations in his life I often wish that he had just run away. Of course running away from your problems is not what people should do, perhaps taking that long break was the better alternative to her.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your father.

      If its any consolation, I’ve experienced both a sudden unexpected death of a parent, and family members just leaving. For me, the death was more final therefore I could process it better / in a healthier way. Alternatively, I found that the possibility of the family members returning kept that wound open a lot longer.
      Either way is very sucky.

  4. i can identify with this for sure.. not really knowing any of my family (meeting only some of them only once or twice in my lifetime), its very weird when they have passed away. like the author, i have this weird feeling that i *should* be sad, i *should* go to the funerals, i *should* care and remember them and all this because they are my family… but there is nothing there to care about, really. its a weird feeling.

  5. Thank you.

    I could have written this post myself. I never thought that anyone could ever know what I’ve gone through. I am deeply touched and I feel such a kinship with the writer. I also never thought of it from the perspective of being even better in the current relationships I have.

    Thank you for telling your story, and thank you Offbeat Families for posting it.

  6. I had an uncle who disappeared for over twenty years without a single trace, only to suddenly reappear in our lives a year and a half ago. Everyone else in the family is so excited that he’s been found that they don’t want to pressure him into giving any details regarding his long absence. Personally, I find it hard to feel any emotions towards him, and I often feel like a horrible person for it. I never met the man, I know nothing about him (my father refused to talk about him, and my mother didn’t know a lot about him), and I can’t really bring myself to feel happy that he’s back. I’m relieved that he’s not dead, but it’s a very detached emotion, about the same amount that I might feel for the relative of a casual acquaintance.

    • I can imagine you’re not feeling very connected to him, or not feeling the joy others are experiencing at the return of their brother/child/uncle. However, as you point out, you hardly know the man. The only thing existing between you and him is a bit of DNA. I don’t think you are a bad person for not feeling overjoyed: you never had the chance to bond with him.

      I did not go through the same, perhaps you would consider it similar. Three or four years ago my mother come to me and told me her youngest sister had committed suicide after years of dealing with their (as far as I know from the stories my mom tells me) overbearing and downright ugly-as-a-person mother. I felt sad for my mom, who had lost her sister, even though they hadn’t spoken in ages. I also felt sorry for my mom’s sister (who I don’t consider my aunt) but I felt sorry in the way I feel sorry for anyone feeling they have to take their own lives.

      I never knew that woman, just like you never knew that man. I will never be able to meet her now, but even if I would be able too, I can’t imagine having instant feelings of family-ness.
      Best of luck with dealing (and perhaps bonding) with your uncle.

  7. I can somewhat identify with your Aunt. Several times in my life I have had to step away from involvement with family. My mother, father, and sister are all alcoholics and very deeply sick. I have tried several times to reconnect with them only to be sucked into their user drama. Once I had children of my own I vowed to stay away from my family from that day forward. I feel that exposing my children to their sickness and way of life is far too dangerous for all of us. I wish it didn’t have to be that way but the roller coaster of rehab, jail, homelessness all three of them are on is too much for anyone. I stay in contact with my sisters son who she doesn’t have custody of and I see my father’s mother and siblings as well. You never know what might be hidden in the dark family closets that you don’t know about that keeps driving your Aunt away. I hope she is happy somewhere.

    • I am so sorry you have to deal with that situation. I’d like to state though, if it wasn’t clear in the article, that there was no precipitating argument with my family before this. There were no disagreements. That side of my family does not drink or do drugs. I have never seen a violent explosion of any sort – shouting or anything. She just disappeared. I’m not saying there weren’t issues, just that nothing happened that any reasonable person would have viewed in any way as a valid reason to leave home without a word or explanation. I am fairly sure her issues leading to this were internal, or perhaps from unknown third parties.
      Sometimes there’s a very good reason for people to leave home and stay out of contact with their families. I have total sympathy for those people. You’ve got to protect yourself and your children first – and if the situation with your family is abusive, dangerous or just flat out toxic, cutting off all contact sounds like the way to go. But unfortunately, there isn’t always a good reason- it isn’t always cut and dry – sometimes you just don’t ever even know why that person left.

  8. This is something I have spent a good deal of thought with, in some ways. I am an aunt, but I do not have a healthy relationship with any of my aunts or uncles. It is really hard to figure out what role I should play when I haven’t had someone play that role for me.

    My uncle killed himself when I was a senior in high school. I will admit I didn’t know him too well, but he chose to put the distance (promising he will come to a family thing and showing up hours late, or cancelling last minute) and it can still be really painful sometimes, and his rejection of my family when I was a child still life feel complicated. On the plus side, his death made me take my mental health seriously. But it’s so easy to get caught in the anger and guilt cycle with these things. No matter what your aunts reasons, she still rejected you on some level and you are allowed to be hurt by that. Mental health can be an explanation, but don’t use it as an excuse either, because that isn’t healthy. All we can do is be the best aunts we can be and not expect children to understand adult situations.

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