Sussex teen Owen Harding missing for one year: ‘We are just left lost and bereft’
It’s a milestone anyone would dread. Today marks one year since 16-year-old Owen Harding left his home in Saltdean, East Sussex, to watch the sunset at Telscombe Cliffs.
He never returned.
His mother, Stella Harding, said: “I’m feeling really fragile. I can’t quite believe it’s been a year.
“Although I’m coping fairly well, this week is especially difficult...
“I get waves of horror sometimes, just thinking about what was happening this time last year.”
When Owen went missing, the first national lockdown has just been introduced and ‘everyone was feeling pretty awful’, Stella recalled.
Owen was particularly upset at the prospect at not seeing his girlfriend, who lives near York.
After he went missing, a massive search effort supported by neighbours, family and friends was launched.
Police said searches extended along the coastline as far east as Dungeness in Kent and, following the advice of an oceanographer from the University of Southampton, officers also alerted colleagues across the Channel.
But despite their extensive efforts, they discovered no clue as to where Owen might be.
One year later, Stella said she hated to use the word anniversary, which has happy connotations, and said she would be relieved when the day was done.
She was planning to spend some time on Friday sitting by a fire with one or two close family members, an act that had become ‘really important’ to her since Owen went missing.
They will light some candles, as will many of Owen’s family and friends, wherever they are.
Stella and friends have also been putting collection boxes with a poster of Owen in local takeaways and shops in recent days to raise donations for the charity Missing People.
She said: “Local people have been really great. They all know me, Saltdean is such an amazing place to live in.
“Everyone is really grief stricken as well. Everyone who is a parent, everyone who went searching, everyone who went looking on the downs.
“Everyone is bereft, whether they knew Owen or not.
“He’s our boy, he’s our Saltdean boy.”
Over the last year, Stella has been supported by Missing People and, thanks to the charity, has got to know other people whose loved ones have gone missing.
They meet once a week online to talk and spend time together, to grieve with each other as well as have a laugh and a joke – and though it was ‘heart-wrenching’ to hear their stories, Stella said meeting them was ‘a relief’.
“I don’t think anyone else understands what it’s like,” she said.
“The terrible ambiguous loss we are all in, of not knowing what happened to our loved ones.
“They might be dead, they might be alive – you don’t know, there’s no evidence.”
Robbed of the chance to say goodbye and have a funeral, she said: “We are all left in limbo.”
Some of the families Stella has met have had loved ones missing for decades.
“It shocked me, when I first joined the group,” she said. “It’s quite overwhelmingly excruciating, someone has had someone missing for more than 20, 30 years.
“But it sort of prepared me for an acceptance, that if Owen died, that this could be it. This could be our fate, that we never find out.”
Some families cling on to the hope that their loved one might be found.
But Stella said she felt, ‘in my heart and my gut’, that Owen was no longer alive.
“We are just left lost and bereft, because we can’t conclude this story,” she said.
Stella’s boyfriend Sunny Davidson has written a song about Owen, called May you Find Your Way Home, to help raise funds for Missing People.
The lyrics were inspired by the many phone calls the couple shared in the months after Owen’s disappearance.
With the help of several friends skilled at photography, they also made a music video, which Stella said was a ‘beautiful process’ – watch it here.
Stella said the song had really resonated with other families of missing people, and has been used by the charity Missing People for several of their virtual events.
It was played during its virtual ‘Night of Light’ held earlier this month – watch a recording of the event here.
Lockdown has been difficult for everyone – but for Stella, it has deprived her of the chance to find comfort with loved ones as she comes to terms with what has happened.
She is willing it to be over.
“We all need to be together,” she said. “I want us all to be together and hug and spend time together and comfort eachother. It’s for me the most important thing.”
Detective Inspector Mark Rosser said: “Our thoughts are with Owen’s family and friends a year on from his disappearance.”
Find out more about Missing People and make a donation to the charity here.
To purchase a copy of May You Find You Way Home, with all proceeds going towards Missing People, click here.