Preparing for return
Getting the news that your loved one is coming home will be wonderful. You will be excited to see them and relieved that they are safe. You may also have other mixed emotions as a result of what you have been through during their kidnapping. You might also feel apprehensive or nervous about them coming home. This is normal. It will take time to adjust and you need to take things one step at a time.
What to expect
You may be shocked by the changes you see in your loved one. If they have been away for a long time, they will probably have lost a lot of weight and their appearance and behaviour will be different. This can be upsetting and distressing to see. You might feel helpless. But just being there to support, care and listen is all you need to do.
The period immediately after their release will be very strange and disorientating for your loved one. They will be struggling to come to terms with being free at last, being able to move freely, and they may be emotionally overwhelmed to see family and friends again. This may impact on their ability to connect, and might mean they want to spend time apart as well as time together. This is not unusual and will change over time.
The moment of reunion is likely to be highly emotional. For the returning hostage, it can be overwhelming and difficult to deal with. They might still wonder whether they have really been released. They might be overwhelmed by the attention they are receiving. They might feel guilty for what they have put you through, or if they have left other hostages behind in captivity. This will impact on their behaviour and your reaction to one another.
Think carefully about who will be there for the reunion. It can help to limit the number of people to reduce the pressure on the returning hostage. They are likely to find it difficult to cope in large groups of people after an extended period of captivity, possibly including periods of being held alone. Coordinate with others who have been involved and might be there for the reunion, too, such as the government, the hostage’s employer or private security company. Remember that you know your loved one best. Make clear to these other agencies who you want to be there for the reunion. Take things slowly and at your own pace.
There is usually a debrief or period of ‘decompression’ after the hostage is released, usually without any family members present, which will be conducted by experts and may be supported by trauma specialists. The hostage will be asked to recount what has happened to them, and this might be used as evidence to support a future investigation and prosecution by law enforcement.
As a family member, you may want your loved one to return to you immediately but we know from experience that it is beneficial for them to have time to debrief after they are released. And it is best done soon after they have been released so the information is fresh in their minds.
As a family member, it’s really important you give your loved one the space they need. This is the best support you can give in the first few days after they are released. In fact, you will all need time to come to terms with what has happened and accept that you are entering a new phase of your lives.
This is the point when you will all begin to come to terms with what has happened and rebuild a new life together. Sometimes you won’t know the best way to support your loved one – what to say, what to do. This might feel frustrating. And what might be right for your loved one might not be right for the rest of the family. This is normal.
It is very likely that your relationships will change, because you have changed. You have all been forced apart under difficult and stressful circumstances and you will all have changed. It is good if you can talk about what has happened and how you are all feeling. However, this might not be right for you – some former hostages have never spoken in depth to their family or friends about their experience, as it can be a very painful and emotive subject for them. You will need to be patient and understanding with each other.
If you feel you need someone to talk to outside the family, Hostage International is here for you, you don’t need to go through this on your own. We can allocate a dedicated caseworker to you who will be a constant point of contact for as long as you need.
Children can have unexpected reactions to the return of a parent. They may resent them for having been away and missed birthdays or holidays. They may be angry at having to share their mum or dad. They might struggle to express their emotions or feel some sense of blame themselves for what has happened. These are all natural feelings, which need to be recognised and can be worked through.
You will need to accept that your loved one may need lots of rest because they might not have slept soundly for weeks, months or years. This could mean that they will want to sleep more than is usual and at different times of the day and night. You might feel this way, too. It will take time for everyone to re-establish a normal sleep pattern.
You can also support your loved one by acting as a gatekeeper to manage what could become an overwhelming experience. You can also help by encouraging simple activities that are not too physically or emotionally taxing, such as going for a walk or pottering around the garden. It is advisable to create some kind of routine and structure for the returning hostage without being too regimented.
Health and medical needs of the hostage
It is important that you help your loved one to get a medical and dental check-up as soon as possible after they have been released. They might be malnourished. They might have muscle wastage if they have not been able to exercise. They might have picked up a virus or infection.
Encourage them to make an appointment with their doctor and ask for a thorough health check. They should get advice about a healthy eating plan and sensible fitness regime to bring them back to full health. Hostage International can help to organise a full medical.
You should also encourage them to get a dental check up. Malnutrition can cause teeth to fall out. They may not have been able to brush their teeth every day, or at all.
There are all sorts of things we do to help us cope with everyday stress and help us to relax, such as going for a run or having a glass of wine. In moderation, these are healthy responses for anyone, but done to excess they can become detrimental. Keep an eye on yourself and each other – you will know if things don’t feel right. Hostage International can facilitate access to the right professional mental health support for you and your family.
Dealing with the impacts of trauma
In general terms, the psychological impact of being taken hostage is similar to that of being exposed to other trauma, including major incidents and disasters. There are many potential reactions.
Your loved one might experience cognitive problems, such as impaired memory and concentration; confusion and disorientation; intrusive thoughts or ‘flashbacks’ and memories; denial, perhaps that the kidnapping happened; and hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal which is a state of feeling too aroused, with a profound fear of being kidnapped again.
They might have emotional reactions, such as shock and numbness; fear and anxiety, although panic is not common; helplessness and hopelessness; dissociation, such as feeling numb and ‘switched off’ emotionally; anger which could be directed at anyone, such as the perpetrators, the authorities or themselves; anhedonia, a loss of pleasure in doing things that they previously enjoyed; depression; and guilt, whether at having survived if others died, or for being taken hostage and the distress they caused to you.
They might also experience social problems, such as feeling withdrawn; irritable; or practicing avoidance, such as of anything that reminds them of the event.
Most hostages make a full recovery from their experiences. Even those who go on to suffer from PTSD can overcome these problems with the right care and treatment. Hostage International can help them to get the right support, so they will not have to go about their recovery alone.
Don’t forget that you have been through a traumatic incident, too, and might also need support to come to terms with what has happened and rebuild your life. Hostage International is here for you, too. You do not need to go through this alone. See Dealing with the impacts of trauma.