The 31st of May marks two years since Theo Hayez went missing. The Belgian backpacker was asked to leave Cheeky Monkeys around 11pm on what was noted as one of the coldest and darkest nights of 2019, his life forever changed by turning left and not right. He went the wrong way home, and wasn’t seen again. He was just 18. Somehow this sweet fresh-faced boy is gone. Gone on our watch. Missing from a town where everyone wants to be. What happened on that dark night? It’s a shadow that lurks in our town. We lost a boy. We lost a boy who belonged to a family that loved him. I wonder what it is to have a child missing?
How do you move on? How do you mark the moments of your grief when you don’t know what happened? How do you bury hope? This morning I woke thinking of Theo and his parents and their insurmountable loss. I thought of his father having to travel to a strange land, to a tiny town on the coast of Australia, to retrace the steps of his beloved boy. What did it feel like to be that man walking our coastline, not marvelling at whales, or the sparkling beauty of our sea; he walked looking for his son. He looked, not at the sky or the sea, but at the ground. That is not the Byron we see on Instagram.
How does a person navigate loss without closure. Where there are no answers – just more questions. The vast abyss of the unknown opens up and takes your loved one, and you just stand on the precipice peering into the darkness. It is hard to grieve in this situation because it’s complicated. Grief is delayed and often it is unresolved. There are so many people living with this ambiguous loss. In Australia, about 38,000 people are reported missing every year. About 64 per cent of the reports are resolved in 24 hours. So, every year, families and friends of the rest are left waiting. The rest live in this new country where the pain and fear and hope are unrelenting.
How do you move on with a child missing? How do you resolve the trauma of not knowing? How do you not go to the worst places when you imagine the things that could have happened? How do you not revisit, time and time again, the scenarios in which your child could have died? How do you not see that face? Remember that child snuggled up next to you in bed, reading a story. Tasting ice cream for the first time. Smiling in a photo after a summer swim. Standing awkwardly in a school photo. That child who you pulled close, when he cried, for comfort. Whose golden head you can still smell. How do you reconcile these moments with the vast reality of nothing-ness? This is a terrible place. This is a place that no parent wants to know. It is a club that no one wants to join. Only those in it know what it means.
I am sorry we lost Theo. I am sorry that even after months of our local volunteers combing kilometre after kilometre of bushland that we are no closer to knowing what happened. After walking the whole of the Arakwal National park in Broken Head and 50 metres in along the dune at Tyagarah, we are no closer. His hat was found. But no boy. It’s perhaps the saddest of all. Yes, he was there. Yes. He is gone. Just a hat marks a place where Theo once was. What was he doing there in that remote place on that cold dark night? What happened? Does someone know something? It seems unlikely he would have found his way to that area of bushland alone.
I would have said that ours is a safe town. So how can a boy just vanish? There are theories of what happened – but until he is found, they are only that: theories. We need to know what happened to Theo. We need to find him. Because it’s not just a beloved boy that is missing. The truth about our town is missing too.