Cold cases are devastating, never-ending nightmares for the families and friends of murdered or missing victims. For every Elizabeth Smart or Jaycee Lee Duggard found alive years after they went missing, there are disappearances and murders that have yet to be solved dozens of years later.
A cold case is any case that hasn't been solved in which police investigation is no longer active. Cold cases can be reopened when new information surfaces in the form of material evidence, new information from witnesses, forensic psychology
findings, or scientific analyses such as DNA samples.
One of the most famous recent cold cases is the Natalee Holloway case. Natalee, a recent graduate of Mountain Brook High School in Birmingham, Alabama, was on a graduation trip in Aruba with classmates when she disappeared. She has never turned up and her body has never been found.
Natalee was seen leaving a nightclub with three male companions very early in the morning before her return home. After she didn't arrive at the airport for her flight later that day, her luggage and passport were found in her room. There has been no sign of her since she left with the three men the morning of May 30, 2005. The case periodically receives news coverage of potential suspects or possible discovery of a body, and in 2009 the National Museum of Crime and Punishment
unveiled an exhibit dedicated to the Holloway disappearance.
The psychological impact of cold cases, particularly disappearances, kidnappings, or murders, is overwhelming. Natalee Holloway’s mother Beth flew to Aruba with her husband and friends within hours of learning Natalee was missing. She worked with Aruba police to identify the men with whom Natalee was last seen, and to speak with one of them, Joran van der Sloot.
Beth Holloway made numerous subsequent pleas on national television for information about her missing daughter. She since has founded two organizations dedicated to helping families dealing with the practical and psychological effects of cold cases: The International Safe Travels Foundation and the Natalee Holloway Resource Center.
When a loved one disappears or is murdered, the family grieves the loss the same way anyone else would. An important part of the grieving process for survivors is making sense of what happened to their loved one. When a murderer can’t be found, or a missing person doesn't appear after weeks or months, the added psychological stress on the families increases. Psychologists call this phenomenon 'complicated grief' due to the traumatic nature of the death or disappearance and the obstructions to its resolution.
When a case remains unsolved for a year or longer, survivors begin to experience uncertainty and loss of hope they'll ever know how the crime happened. Still, remains constantly on their minds. Many survivors say 'I think about it every day' or something similar when asked even years later how they've coped with the unexplained murder or disappearance of their loved one.
The psychological stress of losing a loved one to murder complicates survivors' grieving process. The typical feelings of shock, loss, anger, helplessness, and guilt are intensified. The intrusion of news media and the need to go over the painful experience again and again in working with investigators prolong the grieving process. In addition, family members may be blamed by people close to them or by the public. All of these experiences can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many cold cases from years past are being reopened today as DNA testing reveals the identities of unknown murder victims or possible suspects. When investigators reopen a case with this new evidence, families' pain and grief is renewed even as they're given new hope for resolution. Even when, as in the case of Elizabeth Smart, a missing person comes home safely, the emotional impact isn't lessened. The family dynamic has been irrevocably changed.
Cold cases can have other serious impacts too. Financially, expenses related to private investigations can continue for years. The overwhelming need to spend almost every waking hour trying to find answers can often degrade the bonds of even the closest of families. Beth Holloway, for example, divorced her husband less than two years after the teen’s disappearance.
Beth has recently said she doesn’t believe her daughter is alive, in large part because Joran van der Sloot has since been charged with another crime and seems likely to have killed Natalee. In the years since her daughter disappeared, Beth has channeled her grief, anger, and deep desire to know exactly what happened to Natalee toward helping other families in similar situations.
Families dealing with the types of crimes that often become cold cases need ways to cope with the uncertainty and helplessness. Counseling is often a good first step to take. Mental health professionals experienced in treating PTSD can often help treat the similar psychological problems of cold case victims' families, even if those issues haven't developed into full-blown PTSD. In addition, survivors should consider joining a support group. There are specific groups for parents of murdered or missing children, for instance, that provide a safe place to express grief, anger, helplessness, and the gamut of other emotions experienced by cold case victims' relatives.
Living with not knowing how or why a loved one disappeared or died is an extremely stressful situation for families that unfortunately can go on for years without resolution. Families can become very involved in trying to help others avoid similar situations, but often need help themselves from others with comparable experiences, and from mental health professionals. No matter what kind of cold case a family is involved in, help is available if they'll only seek it out.
Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to wok in the weird world of Internet marketing.