When A Family Member Goes Missing, 'Not Knowing' Is Hardest

As the search continues for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, Kelly Murphy talks about her son who's been missing for 13 years. She's joined by the co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Today, we're going to focus on one of the difficult issues raised by the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. As you probably know by now, the airliner has seemingly vanished without a trace, in the middle of a flight earlier this month. It sparked fears of a sophisticated terrorist plot, worries about airline safety; it has set off an international search of thousands of miles of ocean, not to mention thousands of hours of news media speculation.

But it has also set off a much quieter tragedy. It has pushed the loved ones of the 200-plus passengers and crew into an emotional limbo. And that caused us to consider that in this country alone, there are thousands of American families living with the uncertainty of having someone go missing. In fact, the FBI had over 600,000 missing person entries in 2013. Many of those cases never make the headlines. And we wanted to talk about what that's like for the families left behind.

To talk about this, we've called upon Kelly Murphy. Her son Jason has been missing for 13 years. He was 19 years old and was last seen taking out the garbage, waiting for a lift to a part-time job. She's founded the group Project Jason, an organization that helps provide support and resources for families of missing persons. She's with us from Seattle. Mrs. Murphy, thank you so much for joining us.

KELLY MURPHY: Thank you for having me on the show, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us, Natalie Wilson. She is the cofounder of the Black and Missing Foundation. That is also a group that brings awareness and support to families. She focuses on missing persons of color. Natalie Wilson, thank you so much for joining us as well.

NATALIE WILSON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Kelly Murphy, I have to say, I'm so sorry that this has happened to you. I don't know how else to start.

MURPHY: Thank you. I appreciate that. It is hard to know what to say when someone's in this situation. It's just so unusual, and especially unusual to have it go on for such a period of time. And I know what those families of the missing passengers are experiencing right now, and it's just very traumatic.

MARTIN: And I know it's difficult, but can you tell us a little bit more about what happened to your son? As I understand it, he was just - the last person to see him was his younger brother - your other son, Michael, who saw him taking the trash cans out. And he was waiting for a lift. What happened?

MURPHY: Well, we don't know what happened. Close to 13 years later, we still really don't know much more than what happened on that day. And that's that his car was in the shop, getting repairs. He worked a part-time job in the afternoon, and they called him to work in early. We were at work so we couldn't take him. They arranged to pick him up at a nearby high school, which was seven blocks from the house. We were gone. He got ready for work.

He did his chores and then presumably, he started that walk to the high school where he was going to be met by one of the employees to give him a lift to the job. And he never showed up. And we - it's such a mystery. We have no idea what happened. There are no leads, no clues, no suspects. It's just an everlasting limbo, a nightmare that you don't wake up from.

MARTIN: Forgive me for asking this question this way because it sounds like such a stupid question, but what's the hardest part of this?

MURPHY: The hardest thing would be what I call living in the not knowing. It's living in this limbo of not knowing what has happened to someone that you love. You go to bed every night, and you don't know - is he warm, is he safe, has someone taken his life? You just simply don't know the answers. So you're living with what's called ambiguous loss - loss without an answer. You can't move forward in the grieving process, which is usually what someone would do in a somewhat similar circumstance, when they have answers. But we don't have answers.

MARTIN: Natalie Wilson, let me turn to you now. We've previously covered your organization, which started, in part, out of a concern that you and your cofounder, who works in law enforcement, had that persons of color who were missing often don't get any attention from the media or law enforcement - or very little. And I'd like to just ask - just if you would chime in here, and say how much of what Mrs. Murphy has experienced are the kinds of things that the families you work with have experienced.

WILSON: Absolutely. Individuals that we help, they do not have any answers as to what happened to their missing loved one. And they're in pain, and they are looking for them. One mother said to me: I don't know if my daughter ate, I don't know if she's alive, I don't know if she's in the cold; I need to find her. And awareness is key in finding our missing. Forty percent of all persons missing are of color.

Last year alone, there were more than 242,000 persons of color reported missing. And that's reported; I'm sure there are many who were not reported missing. And awareness is key in finding our missing. All of us have a responsibility - not only law enforcement, the media, but our community. We need to come forward if we have information about this individual because families are looking for closure. They deserve answers as to what happened.

MARTIN: Can I ask - maybe I'll start with Mrs. Murphy - when you see the kind of attention being given to this airliner that seems to have disappeared - you know, of course, that's a story. I mean, of course people are going to be interested in it. But does it make it - I don't how to ask this - better or worse for you? I mean, is there a part of you that kind of resents the fact that people are still thinking - you know, day after day after day? Do you see what I'm asking? When you see another story like this about somebody or something like this, how does it - how do you react to it?

MURPHY: I'm not resentful at all. It is a great tragedy. Multiple families are affected. We have 239 missing passengers. And you take that times, you know, who knows how many close friends and family, it's just a very wide circle of impact. So there's no resentment whatsoever. And they need to get to the bottom of this mystery. So perhaps the more people that are aware and continue to be aware of what they are finding, perhaps the mystery will be solved and the persons affected can find some sort of peace in whatever answer lies ahead for them.

MARTIN: Natalie Wilson, I know that your background is communications, so part of your expertise is trying to make sure that the public stays interested.

WILSON: Right.

MARTIN: But could you just talk a little bit about, you know, how you do that, and what tolls this kind of thing takes on families?

WILSON: Well, we also assist families in searching for their missing loved ones. And we have a number of partnerships - again, awareness is key in finding our missing. We have created a support group. Normally, there's a support group for alcohol anonymous, for victims of homicide. But when there's someone that is missing, it's not really considered a crime because law enforcement will say that individual could've walked away. So families, they need a shoulder to cry on. They may need to exchange information, exchange experiences. So we have created a support group, listening from the families, to help them get through this process.

MARTIN: Mrs. Murphy, I'm thinking that for myself, I think the hardest thing would be to try to figure out - on the one hand, you can't let this person go because if you let this person go, who is going to keep looking for this person - right? - for the loved one. And on the other hand, you still have another child to raise. You still have the rest of your life to do. How do you go about balancing that?

MURPHY: You're absolutely right. There is a balance to be found and sometimes, it can take a while to strike that correct balance because no, you are the advocate for potentially the rest of your life, for your missing loved one. And you need to be creative and keep thinking of ways to keep his story out there to make sure the public knows he's still missing. We need the public's eyes and the public's ears to help bring him home, potentially. And - but there is a healthy balance between the search, that part of your life that is the ongoing search; the rest of your family and the relationships in your family; and the balance there.

And also for that person, the seeking person as an individual, it's a healthy thing to come back and find some hobbies that are fulfilling to you, whether those be old hobbies or new hobbies. So it's a healthy thing to find what that balance is. The search always remains a part of your life. But the reaction of trauma on the body and on the psyche, with that you just need to have that healthy balance and to find things that fulfill you as an individual. And I can't emphasize that enough.

MARTIN: Do you still have hope that he is alive?

MURPHY: I have hope, yes. And I always tell the families that we work with, hope is your right until you know the truth. And it is our right to hope. And hope gives us insight into a future; a future that we, again, hope is a good future.

MARTIN: Natalie, can you just give us a final thought about - somebody who may be listening to our conversation and would like to be helpful, perhaps knows someone in this situation who is in this limbo, what can they do to be helpful?

WILSON: OK. We ask individuals just to be hopeful, to provide hope and love and support for families that are going through this. And we also speak to the minority community. We know that there's a sense of distrust with law enforcement, and there's this no snitching. If someone has any information about a missing person case, you can report it anonymously to law enforcement. You can report it anonymously to the Black and Missing Foundation - because these families deserve answers. They need to know what happened to their loved ones, and we need to just bring them home.

But again, someone may need a shoulder to cry on. They may need financial support. We're seeing where a number of individuals, they lose their job or their savings because they're looking or they're searching for their loved one. So whatever support that person needs, please be there to help them through this process.

MARTIN: Mrs. Murphy, final thought from you on that? What is the - is there something that - and I hate - don't mean to put it into the negative, but sometimes, you know - is there one thing you really wish people would have done to help you, or would do now to help you? Is there one thing you'd really wish people would not do to help this person in this situation?

MURPHY: Well, people - it's a frightening situation, so people don't know how to react and what to say to the person who is suffering this tragic loss. And I think in our logical minds, when someone says something like that to us, we understand they don't understand. And it's hard, but we can shrug it off.

So we don't want anyone to be in our shoes. We're glad they're not in our shoes, and we just keep going. Take one step at a time, one day at a time. Sometimes, it's one minute at a time, similar to what the families of the passengers are going through right now, just hoping and waiting for those answers, and that answers will come.

MARTIN: Well, we can keep a good thought for you and for Jason as well.

MURPHY: Well, thank you so much.

MARTIN: That was Kelly Murphy, founder of Project Jason. It's a support group for families with a missing loved one, named in honor of her son Jason, who has been missing for more than 12 years now. We reached her in Seattle, Washington. Also with us in Washington, D.C., Natalie Wilson, the cofounder of the Black and Missing Foundation. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

WILSON: Thank you.

MURPHY: Thank you.

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