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Heartache and sorrow of losing a loved one in the sea

PUBLISHED: 10:57 28 December 2018

Search and rescue teams looking for missing girl Sophie Smith off Gorleston Pier this time last year. Her body has never been found
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Search and rescue teams looking for missing girl Sophie Smith off Gorleston Pier this time last year. Her body has never been found Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2017

Nick Conrad writes about the dreadful lack of finality that comes from losing a loved one at sea

Few phrases carry as much sadness as ‘Lost at sea.’ The depth of the sorrow I feel for those searching for a loved one who has disappeared beneath the waves might be down to my coastal upbringing. It is a heartfelt sympathy, a profound sadness for any family who looks out onto the cold, unforgiving North Sea questioning where their loved one lies - the sea rarely answers. If she does, then a lifeless body brings no comfort.

As a child I frequently visited Sheringham RNLI station. I was fascinated by these paradoxical emotions experienced onboard the lifeboat - sometimes a triumphant rescue, sometimes not. These conflicting outcomes are scribed on glossy black boards that adorn the station’s wall. Dates are chalked next to the outcome of the rescue, taking the reader all the way back to Victorian times. Glaring in white paint multiple times, that phrase ‘Lost At Sea.’

My father is exceptionally confident in water and passed this love of the sea over to all his children. His great enthusiasm for water sports was tempered by a very honest appraisal of the risks attached. On the very few occasions I’ve interviewed the families or friends of those who are missing, feared drowned, my father’s realism drifts in my mind’s eye. My juxtaposed inner emotions drift between supporting hopeless optimism, then also feeling this is delaying the inevitable ‘wave’ of grief that shall eventually flood their lives. It’s the hope that kills you. The sad reality, you have only a matter of minutes, at most times of the year, to survive exposure in the North Sea.

Last year we sadly lost a diver off our coastline. The 68-year-old man, from the Brighton area, had been diving on a wreck and it’s believed he became entangled. An extensive rescue mission didn’t locate Terry Tonkin and subsequently the search was called off. This time last year we were concerned for the safety of Sophie Smith who disappeared from her home in Gorleston at 3am on Boxing Day. Subsequent CCTV footage captured her heading towards the seafront a short time later, but there have been no other confirmed sightings since then. It was suggested, but never confirmed, that she may have entered the water.

My heart goes out to Terry’s and Sophie’s families. Her father has undertaken a heartbreaking tribute, releasing a single rose into the waves at Gorleston.

As the rose drifts down into the murky brown brine, it might sadly only be acute grief that surfaces.

I should imagine the absence of the physical remains of a loved one makes the process of grieving, then recovery, much harder. The ambiguity of this situation denies the possibility of closure or resolution. Unlike with certain death, there is no official verification, no funeral or conventional support. No finality.

And occasionally, just enough times to maintain a glimmer of hope, a missing person does come walking out of the water!

But often this opens a new can of worms – a good example being the ‘missing canoe man’ John Darwin and his incredible deception.

For those truly lost at sea there will be no ‘happy ending.’ Their family and friends stuck in a painful limbo which only time will help soothe. My thoughts are very much with anyone who finds themselves in this category.

Eternal Father strong to save

Whose arm has bound the restless wave

Who bids the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep

O hear us when we cry to Thee

For those in Peril on the sea.

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