What happens when someone doesn´t get to say goodbye?

Imagine all of the ways a community supports a family who has lost someone close to them. All of the ways that as human beings experiencing loss, we grieve and seek support. Through these collective and individual means of support we may draw upon beliefs, ceremonies, and traditions—almost all of which, in all of their diversity, invoke memory, and help us to say goodbye.

But what happens when someone doesn´t get to say goodbye?

On August 30, the social movement in Colombia commemorated the International Day of Forced Disappearance. The estimated number of victims of forced disappearance in Colombia are between 20,000 and 100,000.[1] Each of these “cases” could be multiplied to include many more victims: Each into the story of a family and community who are living the emotional, economic, and social effects of having loved ones who never came home.

The emotional repercussions of having a family or community member forcibly disappeared are inextricably connected to the ongoing realities of armed and structural violence. Uncertainty, ambiguity, and lack of closure can make it difficult for family members to grieve. For many families already living in contexts of violence, the search for answers regarding the whereabouts of their loved ones can put them at risk, resulting in additional fear in their daily lives.

The fear, intense grief and depression, and feelings of powerlessness that result from forced disappearance can have impacts at the community level, including collective mistrust, stigmatization of affected families, displacement, and isolation. The same social fabric and support networks that normally help in difficult times can fray, even reinforcing the cycle of violence when communities who are hurt and afraid react with aggression.

Life following the forced disappearance of a friend or family member is often disproportionately difficult for women. Since most victims are young men, it falls upon mothers or widows to care for the rest of their grieving household, often in the midst of precarious security and economic situations.

Relatives of the disappeared also draw upon immense strength and resilience in their search for justice. Key supporting factors are a sense of solidarity and connection with the larger community, having the right to give testimony, and security. This inseparability of community and individual wellbeing is why many mental health organizations that work with civil society in Colombia are also human rights organizations.

PBI Colombia´s Support for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric Team integrates self-protection workshops with psychosocial assistance in order to promote the ability of groups and communities to support each other with these and many other effects of political violence.[2]

Heidi Mitton coordinates the psychosocial area of PBI’s Support for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric team. 


[1] El Espectador: Familiares de desaparecidos presentarán en La Habana propuesta para su búsqueda, 17 de febrero de 2016


Corporación Avre: Acción colectiva y transformación. La dimensión política del acompañamiento psicosocial. Miseror, 2013

Perez-Sales, Pau y Liria, Alberto Fernández: Violencia y Trauma. Del Trabajo Comunitario a la Psicoterapia: Guía de procesos y programas integrados, Irredentos Libros, 2015

Perez-Sales, Pau y Navarro, Susana García: Resistencias Contra el Olvido – Trabajo Psicosocial en Procesos de Exhumaciones, Gedisa Editorial, 2007

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