As told to Amy Molloy
Last week Kate McCann appeared at a parliamentary inquiry calling for more support for the families of missing people. Rachel Elias knows how she feels. Here, the sister of Manic Street Preachers' Richey Edwards - who vanished 16 years ago - tells of her pain.
'Imagine the terror you feel when you lose a child in a supermarket. That chest-crushing fear as every worst-case scenario flies through your mind... then the utter relief when they appear back in sight. Well, for my parents and I, that relief never came. Sixteen years ago, my brother Richey Edwards - just 27 and a guitarist with Manic Street Preachers - missed a flight to New York... and was never seen again.
'I never thought I could wish my brother dead, but some nights I pray they'd just find his body. Because I can't even grieve - that would be breaking his trust. I feel hopeless and yet I still can't give up. I'm not alone in this torturous limbo. Astonishingly nearly 350,000 people are reported missing every year in the UK. Some make the headlines - like Madeleine McCann and Claudia Lawrence - but many vanish quietly, leaving behind loved ones suspended in pain. Because how do you mourn the missing? There is no 10-step grieving process for those who just vanish.
'That's why last week I joined high-profile parents like Madeleine's mum Kate and Claudia's dad Peter to give evidence at an inquiry at the House of Commons, campaigning for more support for relatives of missing people. It's not just the emotional ramifications, but the practical. For example, it's impossible to gain access to your next of kin's bank account or mortgage details without a death certificate, which only adds to the trauma of those left behind.
'The inquiry made headlines when Kate gave evidence with me, revealing she'd been on the brink of a breakdown after her daughter's disappearance. Kate and I have met a few times through our campaign work for the charity Missing People and I'm always struck by the sadness in her eyes - it seems to emanate through her and just takes your breath away. She is truly broken. I struggle to find words to comfort her, when after 16 years I still feel lost myself...
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Richey and I were extremely close growing up, even sharing a bedroom until I was 11 and he was 13. I was actually disappointed when my parents bought a bigger house and we were given separate rooms. Every evening we'd take our dog for a walk together and he'd counsel me on my latest worry, whether it was homework or if I'd ever be able to save up enough crisp packet vouchers to get that free Kate Bush voucher. Richey was always looking out for me - the typical overprotective older brother. I followed him around in awe most of the time. Being two years older he hit every milestone before me - first kiss, first drink - but always seemed to handle everything with such minimal worry... unlike me, always fretting about everything.
'We remained close even as teenagers but when he went off to university, a gradual shift started to take place. He was more "flat" every time I saw him and my parents and I were starting to get really concerned. But then, in May 1991, his band the Manic Street Preachers signed a record deal. Richey was over the moon. But the thing is - as Richey would later tell me from the Priory where he was being treated for depression - even being a pop star is just another job, with as mundane a routine as any. Sound check, gig, sleep, sound check, gig, sleep...
'Over the next three years, while away on tour, he pushed his body to the limits. When he'd come home, he was painfully thin and pale. I tried to comfort him, but he'd make excuses about long hours and the "demands of the road". In 1994 I was relieved when he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital, but he discharged himself early, so he could go back on tour.
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'The last time I saw Richey was January 1995 (two weeks before he disappeared) at our parents' house. He seemed flat - but far from suicidal. I do remember he kept taking photographs of us all. Me, sitting in a chair. Mum ironing. I didn't think much of it then, but now I wonder. Was he planning to run away and wanted the photos as a reminder of us?
'Two weeks later Richey was due to fly to New York but didn't turn up for the flight. His manager reported him missing straight away, but the police didn't take his disappearance too seriously at first. People miss flights all the time... but alarm bells went off in my head. Richey was Mr Reliable. He was the band's designated driver and was always on time.
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'In those first hours I kept hoping Richey would walk through the door and tell us off for being so dramatic. Then as the hours turned into days and weeks, a feeling of cold dread settled into my stomach. Yet even in my darkest moments, I never dreamed I'd still be wondering where he is today.
'It was two weeks before police found his car, abandoned near the Severn Bridge in Wales. The police declared there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the vehicle but I disagree. He'd put the steering lock on for one. Why would you do that if you're planning to kill yourself? His car battery was also flat, which makes me suspect he couldn't move it, so may have left the scene on foot.
'That's when all the conspiracy theories started. Fans started calling the police reporting "sightings" of Richey all over the world. Our family had to contend with constantly getting our hopes raised and then dashed. I barely slept for weeks, exhausting every lead I could think of. This was before Facebook and Richey didn't even own a mobile phone, but I called everyone that knew him. I phoned the hospitals, coastguards and coroners. I wrote to monasteries around the world in case he'd run away to a retreat. Then, when all that failed, I spent days just driving around Cardiff, looking for any clues. I'd climb down to the riverbank and just stare at the water, wondering if my brother's body was hidden deep beneath the surface. His disappearance consumed me.
'The police say it's an open investigation, but I haven't spoken to anyone in regards to the case for six years, and that's only because I contacted them.
'My family and I live in limbo. Mum and Dad still live in the house we grew up in - terrified to move, just in case Richey comes back and doesn't know where to find us. It's heart-breaking. It took me years to stop jumping up every time the doorbell went or the phone rang, hoping it was him.
'I describe it as a "suspended loss". When a loved one dies you can find peace in closure. But I feel guilty if I grieve, as if I'm giving up on him. Yet in November 2008 we finally declared Richey "presumed dead". It was my family's decision... and a hard one. I had to swear under oath that I believed he was dead. It felt like a betrayal. Sadly, we needed to resolve his legal and financial affairs and had no power to do so otherwise. This is a key part of the parliamentary inquiry - the Missing People charity is calling for more rights for families.
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'I used to examine the face of every person on the street. I even worked at a homeless shelter for a while after he disappeared, just in case I'd find him. Richey would be 43 now - I might not even recognise him. Maybe he thinks we're angry at him and is too scared to come back, after all this time. So if you're reading this Richey, we'd welcome you back with open arms... please come home.'
[Originally published: Grazia, July 2011]