The detective thought I was overreacting.
“People go missing and return all the time,” he said while covering a page of his notepad in chicken scratch. “Sometimes they just need a break.”
He spoke to me like he knew Matt, my 27-year-old brother, who I last saw in the apartment we shared in Chicago at 5:30pm on Saturday, March 4, 2017. It was 9:00pm on Monday, March 6, 2017, when the detective was there to take my statement.
If the detective was right, then Matt was quite the asshole. He had missed his Saturday night movie plans, bailed on Sunday brunch, and ignored calls from everyone, including my mom. Now Matt was on track to miss work on Tuesday, too (he had Monday off).
“No,” I told the detective. “This is serious.”
When Matt went missing, my first thought was suicide. Matt had battled depression since childhood, and despite dabbling in guitar playing, architecture and creating indie comics, it seemed hardly anything interested him, impressed him or gave him much sustained joy. He managed to mostly mask – or at least make light of – his discontentment with the world around him by using his unmatched dry sense of humour, which was beloved by his friends. Even more, Matt’s kind heart and empathy made him especially vulnerable to spiralling into chronic hopelessness about the state of the world. And so, our family had frequently worried about his well-being.
But there was reason to think Matt’s two-day absence wasn’t the result of suicide. He had seen his psychiatrist several weeks before he went missing and seemed encouraged about some improvement he had made. He and I talked openly and non-judgmentally about his suicidal thoughts, which studies show can decrease suicide risk. He assured me that he’d never take his life. And he had plenty of friends and plans with them to keep him busy during the following week – including seeing the new Hayao Miyazaki film, seeing his favourite indie band, Slothrust, and co-hosting a board game party. He had just chosen the two-day shipping option for a pair of shoes he had purchased on Amazon. So, despite my worries, I went to bed with some optimism and hoped he’d turn up soon.
The next morning, Matt was still missing and it was now three days since I’d last seen him.
The following weeks were agonising and filled with hours of hanging flyers, patrolling streets and herding the police. Each day, my family oscillated between hope and hopelessness, waiting for any news about where Matt was or what might have happened to him. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. And my GI system was a wreck. We didn’t know when, or if, Matt would appear, let alone if he was alive or dead.
Even more maddening were the false alarms that periodically went off during our search. At 10am on March 9, I received a text from my uncle while I was at work.
Hey this is Dwight can you call me or text me and fill me in on the information you guys got this morning please ASAP
Wait, there’s news? I thought. What news?
My heart started pounding like something was trying to crawl out of my chest. Why haven’t I been informed? I gave a specific request to the detective to call me before anyone else – if anything happened to Matt, I didn’t want some stranger to break the news to my mom. So I called her.
“Mom?” I said, “What happened?”
Her response was surprisingly calm.
“Oh, there was this damn radio show that broadcasted your brother had been found dead,” she said. “Get this – the radio show is in Wisconsin! Way north in Wisconsin. Matt’s not in Wisconsin.”
DEAD? I jumped out of my chair and left the room.
“Are you sure it’s not Matt?” I asked her. “How do you know?”
“Your brother doesn’t want to go to Wisconsin,” she replied. “The radio show probably saw your brother’s name trending on Facebook. Trust me, I’ll call you with any need-to-know updates.”
I was impressed by my mom’s composure and ability to make a joke in light of this serious situation.
Despite my mom’s convincing points about the alarm, I remained vigilant until noon of that same day, when, as my mom suspected, the radio report was retracted. We temporarily regained hope that Matt was still alive. But with each passing day, my outlook grew darker. Could Matt have been kidnapped? I wondered. Had he been murdered? When I was able to get anything resembling even a few minutes of sleep, my nightmares reminded me that these surreal possibilities were in fact very much possible.
When Matt went missing, my own life suddenly became public and seemed to be solely defined by this tragedy. I couldn’t go anywhere without people consoling me. I couldn’t even distract myself long enough to catch a breath. My Facebook feed was filled with Matt’s “MISSING” flyers ― roughly 3,000 people shared my post about his disappearance. It felt like nearly every transit stop in Chicago featured my brother’s face and my contact information.
My phone rang, vibrated or dinged every five minutes.
“I’m so, so sorry Andrew,” read the texts. “Please share for a friend,” read the Facebook wall posts. “For any information on my best friend Matt Devendorf, please contact Andrew Devendorf. He was last seen at Montrose Harbor,” stated the flyers. And no matter how much hope I had that Matt would walk through the door of our apartment, each notification I received sounded the same message in my head: Your brother is dead.
What was I supposed to do? Silencing my phone or logging off my social media to try and avoid the insanity that consumed my life wasn’t an option. With each ring, there was a chance I could talk to my mom, the detective working on Matt’s case or even my brother himself. Every tweet or email was filled with the chance that someone might have some information that might lead us to him.
I started to feel like my life was out of my control – as if I was a character in some cruel writer’s novel. Kurt Vonnegut once said that to write a good story, “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them.”
I quickly realised my friends, extended family and co-workers were feeling just as powerless to help me – or even to know what to say or do in the face of such an awful, unthinkable experience. Should they distract me? Tell me to keep hope alive? Hug me? Tell me I’m “in their thoughts and prayers”?
“If you want to do something for someone, then you should just do it. Don’t offer to bake a cake. Bake a cake and convey the message, 'This sucks. I have no idea what you’re experiencing. Just know that I care.'”
There’s no social script for how to react when a person goes missing. There are no guidelines for what’s appropriate and inappropriate. Most of us never even consider that this could happen.
But since it happened to me, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how people should (or at least could) respond to this situation and similar ones involving trauma or loss, like the death of a friend’s parent. So when someone says, “What can I do to help you?” and there’s no good answer, the best response might be to provide some solid examples of what not to do.
Don’t offer to bake treats. Just bake treats.
When Matt went missing, everyone wanted to bake something for me. Everyone. It was a sweet gesture, but these offers also lacked some degree of self-awareness, because most of the people who made them weren’t my friends. They were peers from high school or old co-workers from my first job or random acquaintances I would see occasionally at parties when I was in college.
Suddenly, people I barely knew or hadn’t heard from in years were contacting me because they learned about what happened to Matt. And while I’m sure they had nothing but good intentions, their reaching out felt more like a social obligation or a chance to get closer to a dramatic situation they’d heard about than a sincere gesture. And, sadly, very few people actually followed through with their offers.
I realise I’m being hard on these people and I’m sure they really did want to help – or would help if I asked them to – but this is a case of actions speaking louder than words. I’m not boycotting grief pastries or any other kind of assistance, however large or small, but if you want to do something for someone, then you should just do it. Don’t offer to bake a cake. Bake a cake and convey the message, “This sucks. I have no idea what you’re experiencing. Just know that I care.”
Two of my friends Venmo-ed me $50 with the simple message, “For pizza and ice cream, we love you.” That was amazing. Being proactive also saves the person going through the trauma of having to expend more emotional energy on making decisions about things that they probably don’t want to deal with – or can’t – even if it’s something as small and seemingly simple as, “Do you want me to bring you cookies or brownies?”
Let people “be” at work, unless they need you.
When Matt went missing, my sense of living a ‘normal’ life vanished overnight. The only place that provided me some semblance of normalcy was my mundane job as a research assistant at DePaul University. My position was to coordinate and train personnel for a grant-funded study on children’s health and fatigue. It was boring work, but it was the closest thing I had to my life before the crisis.
And even though I functioned at – maybe – 10% of my usual work performance, my co-workers, who were also my friends, were amazing enough to cover my responsibilities. They were also mindful to allow me to approach them when I needed support, rather than them asking me questions about the search, which could have triggered my emotions and reinforced the feeling that I was trapped in a nightmare.
Avoid making trauma comparisons.
When Matt went missing, I felt like I became a sponge that absorbed other people’s trauma. It was not uncommon for my social interactions to follow this sequence of events: People would approach me, they would offer their condolences, and then they would proceed to talk about their own tragedy – losing a family member to cancer, losing a grandparent at age 80-something, losing a dog to diabetes, etc.
Those losses are certainly tragic and I cannot imagine what they meant to these individuals, but that’s kind of the point: Everyone’s trauma is unique to their own experience. I believe people can relate to one another’s experience, but at that point in the search for Matt, I wasn’t in the emotional position to respond to other people’s grief. I had no idea if I should even be feeling grief. More times than not, these moments made me feel angry because I felt misunderstood.
I’d think to myself, My brother is missing. I don’t know where he is. He might have died by suicide and you’re telling me you understand what I’m going through because your dog died? I’m only 23 years old... My older brother isn’t supposed to be missing!
I felt like people were trying to prove to me that they could provide me with compassion by sharing their own experiences. Ironically, I felt the most sympathy from people who kept their messages simple without oversharing and who instead offered a message like, “I’m sorry this happened. I’ve been there and I know I can’t comprehend what you’re going through. If I can do anything, just let me know.”
Provide help, not resistance.
When Matt went missing, most people responded with unconditional support. But there were others who challenged the decisions my family was making.
Even though we didn’t want to accept that Matt was gone forever, there was more and more convincing evidence that he was dead. His bank account had remained untouched, he hadn’t used his transit card, and his last recorded phone location was in Montrose Harbor. So after eight exhausting days, we made the difficult decision to schedule a memorial service for Matt. We decided to plan the service in late April with our fading hopes that Matt could still return alive and well. We were not in any way stopping our search, but we had reached a point where we had to start accepting the probable, devastating reality.
Still, people told us that making plans for a memorial for Matt was premature. “He could still be out there,” they pleaded. “I know Matt! He would never do this,” they said in response to the very real possibility that he had died by suicide.
Some people questioned our motives when a friend of the family launched a GoFundMe page to finance the memorial. “Why would we donate when you don’t even know he’s dead?” they asked. I learned that several distant relatives had even held a clandestine meeting where they discussed why my mom was giving up the search for Matt and why she wasn’t doing more to find him. At one point, a Reddit thread regarding Matt’s disappearance popped up and it included comments suggesting my parents might have murdered my brother.
My family was being incredibly transparent about our search for Matt and we offered very thorough and very public updates about what we learned – or didn’t learn – as the weeks went on, but this didn’t stop people from critiquing our actions and offering their own suggestions of what we should be doing or doing better.
These criticisms continued even as the memorial date approached. After four weeks, some people wondered why my family didn’t hire an investigator or post flyers or look to see if there had been any charges on Matt’s credit card, even though we had done all of that – and more – within 48 hours of Matt’s disappearance.
We believed that these reactions – as unhelpful and hurtful as they were – actually stemmed from love and concern and showed just how much Matt was loved and missed by everyone who knew him. Like us, no one wanted to let him go and they, too, were struggling more and more with the real possibility that he wasn’t returning.
But the way that they dealt with and messaged these feelings made us feel like they thought we were incompetent, at best, or even cruel to be giving up the search for Matt.
I want to emphasise that most of our friends, family and co-workers offered their time without hesitation and without questioning our decisions, and I’m forever grateful for that. But those who did question our actions added even more pain to what was already the most painful experience of my life.
On April 10, 2017, after five exhausting weeks of worrying and searching and living through the waking nightmare that Matt was missing, I was sitting in my office when I answered a phone call from my mom.
“They found him!” she said hysterically. “He was in the harbor!”
I froze in place. My co-workers, hearing my conversation, turned in their chairs, their faces pale and apologetic. I walked out of the room with a deadpan expression on my face.
“I’ll be home,” I told my mom.
I hung up and walked to my desk, where I broke down crying even more intensely than in my previous hundred cries leading up to this moment. Then I ordered an Uber to take me to my parent’s house.
It’s been over two years since I lost my brother. This fall, I’ll be in the third year of my Ph.D. program for clinical psychology. I study depression, suicide and stigma related to these issues and inspired, in part, by my experiences growing up with Matt.
Do I think about him all the time? Of course.
I miss my brother’s unique perspective on the world and his ability to make something of nothing. I miss our trips (really, Matt’s trips) to Goodwill or The Salvation Army, where he’d find a bag of stamps or a misshapen piece of wood – something seemingly random – and bring them home to create art.
I miss his ridiculous sense of humour, which can be heard on his podcast, “The Cow Goes Moo,” which Matt described as an absurd pseudo-experimental talk show. On Episode Four, for instance, Matt spent three minutes meticulously describing the crunch of Funyuns. I miss seeing his sense of humour in his comics like the one titled The Walking Mouth Bird (a comic about a walking mouth bird).
I miss how he did things like designing a chicken coop during the summer of his junior year in college, ordering four baby chicks through the mail to live in it and then returning to college, thereby leaving my parents with the burden of taking care of the chickens during harsh Midwest winters.
I miss our brother-to-brother midnight walks in the quiet, humdrum suburbs of Chicago, where we’d reflect on our recent romances and qualms with the world. I miss seeing concerts with him, having an IPA with him and being able to call him when I need a vacation from the stresses of graduate school.
I miss having my brother.
I especially miss not having to say, “I have a brother, but he passed away.”
But while I think about Matt all the time, I also think about how I’m not alone in my experience. On average, each person who dies by suicide leaves behind six or more “suicide survivors.” But rarely do we consider – or understand – these facts in a humanising way.
I wrote this piece – and I intend to keep talking about Matt and what he did – because the more we talk about mental health issues and how they affect not only the person grappling with them but also those around them, the more we can hopefully help find relief and prevent more people from feeling alone and reacting to that loneliness and their depression in tragic ways. By talking about depression and other mental health problems, we can spread awareness, decrease negative stereotypes about mental illness (e.g. false beliefs that people with depression are weak; they’re not), and increase access to help for those suffering from mental health problems via social support or formal treatment.
The stigma of speaking out about mental health problems is real, especially for survivors of trauma and suicide, and we need to combat this stigma and provide these survivors with support. I encourage readers to visit the National Alliance for Mental Illness or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention websites to learn more about identifying, treating and supporting people with mental health conditions.
When Matt went missing, my life changed forever, and I’ve never fully recovered from the idea and the reality that he’s gone. In the process of going through this experience, I believe I’ve become a more passionate, patient and empathic person. I hope that by reading my story, people can gain some kind of understanding of what occurs “behind the scenes” when someone goes missing, and I hope that my story encourages others to share their experiences.
Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on firstname.lastname@example.org