Getting the news that your loved one is coming home will be a huge relief. Some families cannot wait to see them and are elated to know they are safe. Others have mixed emotions as a result of what they have been through during their kidnapping. Some feel apprehensive or nervous about them coming home. Whatever the case, a period of adjustment will be required.
What to expect
The period immediately after the hostage’s release will be strange and disorientating for them. They could be struggling to come to terms with being free and in control of their own actions, 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.
Equally, 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.
Remember that they are home and safe. Just be there to support them, listen to what they want to say and show you care.
Reception plans are difficult to plan and you might not have much time to prepare.
The moment of reunion is likely to be highly emotional. For the returning hostage, they may be elated to be home, but at the same time it can be overwhelming and difficult for them. They might have trouble accepting the reality of their release. They might be overwhelmed by the amount of attention they are receiving. They might feel guilty about 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 with being in large groups of people after an extended period of captivity when they may have spent much of their time in solitude. Coordinate with others who have been involved and might also be there for the reunion, such as government representatives, the hostage’s employer or private security consultants. 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.
The hostage may have expressed who they want present at their reunion; do not be upset if it does not include significant members of the family and respect their wishes.
There is usually a debrief or period of ‘decompression’ after the hostage is released, which will be conducted by experts and may be supported by trauma specialists. Usually, family members are not present. 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.
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.
As a family member, it’s really important you give your loved one the space they need – especially 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.
It is very likely that your relationships will change, because the experience will have changed you all. You have all been forced apart under difficult and stressful circumstances. 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 and family members 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. They might even be trying to protect their loved ones from what they have been through. You will need to be patient and understanding with each other. Sometimes it is easier to talk to someone who isn’t a close family member- this is not an insult, it is because someone who has not been through the ordeal might be in a better place to support you or another family member.
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 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.
However, allow the hostage to say what support is best for them; while they may want you to suggest ideas, do not prescribe what they should be doing. It is important that they are making their own decisions and regain control of their own environment.
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. Depending on the environment in which they were held captive, they might be malnourished, have muscle wastage or have a virus or infection.
Encourage them to make an appointment with their doctor and ask for a thorough health check, including blood tests that check for vitamin and mineral deficiencies and other tests such as for parasites and infections. They should get advice about a healthy eating plan and a sensible fitness regime to bring them back to full health.
You should also encourage them to get a dental check-up. Malnutrition can cause tooth decay. They may not have been able to brush their teeth regularly or at all and their diet will have been different in captivity.
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.