Think of a loved one you've lost touch with. What's holding you back from making the first move—and what happens if that person is long gone by the time you've found your nerve?
Investigator Troy Dunn is the master of unfinished business. Twenty years ago, he started his career with a case close to his heart—searching for his mother's birth parents. Since then, Troy says he's brought nearly 40,000 people back together. Now Troy's tracking down birth moms and dads, old friends and missing relatives on WE tv's The Locator. Part-detective, part-therapist, Troy helps people make peace with the past.
When it comes to lost loved ones, Troy says people need to realize time does not heal all wounds. "Any wound left untreated can grow worse," he says. "Sometimes to protect ourselves, we decide we don't really want that person in our life anyway because they're not worthy of us, or they hurt us, or we believe some version of the story that may not be true—until eventually we've said it so many times it's become fact and we've created an inability to move forward. Our wound has created paralysis."
In 1978, Mary and her husband, Clement, became foster parents after suffering numerous miscarriages and a stillborn child. When 2-year-old Tamisha came to live with the couple, she healed their hearts and lit up their lives. "I just fell in love with her," Mary says. "She was mine. I took care of her like any mom would, and she called me Mommy." The family lived happily for five years—and expanded when Mary gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
Mary says she wanted to adopt Tamisha. "We wanted to but we weren't able to," she says. "At the time we were always under the impression that [social services] was going to place her back with her biological mother."
Then, Mary received the shock of her life. Social services told her 7-year-old Tamisha had been adopted by another family. Tamisha was forced to leave the only home she could remember. "They took her out to the car. She was crying, and they told me to wait in the house," Mary says. "If I'd have went out there, I would have just snatched her back. It was a date I'll always remember, and I've carried this many years because I felt like I didn't get a chance to explain anything to her."
Later, Mary says she tried contact Tamisha. "I called social service on a couple of occasions, and they told me she was doing fine," she says. "But they said that I could not speak with her."
Mary hopes Troy can help her deliver one message to Tamisha: "I just want her to know that I loved her from the day she left my house and I love her today."
Troy set out on a search for Tamisha. Seven days later, he found her in New York and arranged a meeting.
Tamisha says she never forgot the day she was taken from Mary. "I was definitely traumatized. I was crying, hysterical," she says. "I remember trying to hold onto Mary. I was devastated. It was home. It was what I knew. I was crying all the way from Mary's house to my now mother's house."
Tamisha says she didn't understand what was happening at the time. "I thought that I was there because they couldn't have children," she says. "Once they had a child, I thought: 'Well, my services are no longer needed. I'm being shipped away.'"
After speaking with Tamisha, Troy gives Mary an update. "When we started talking about the day that she was taken from your home it is almost like this 32-year-old young lady turns back into a little 7-year-old girl," he says. "It was the worst day of her life."
But that's not the only news Troy has for Mary—Tamisha has traveled back with him.
Mary bursts into tears, embraces Tamisha and tells her what she's wanted to say for 25 years. "We never stopped looking for you," she says. "I never stopped loving you. I carried that day all my life."
Tamisha tells Mary how she felt when Troy found her. "When they told me that you were looking for me, it made me feel like you don't want to throw me away," she says. "It took a long time for me to call my mother that I'm with Mom. You were my mom."
"Yes," Mary says. "I still am."
One year after their emotional reunion, Mary and Tamisha are like family once again. "Blood is not thicker than water," Troy says. "Who loves you when you need them? That's your family."
Mary has been able to leave her feelings of guilt behind. "When I saw her, she looked so well," she says. "It kind of helped me to release a lot of the concerns."
Tamisha also says she's been able to put her feelings of rejection to rest. Though she adjusted to her new family, Tamisha says she never forgot her first home. "One thing that we do as women, we just keep going. Life doesn't stop around you," she says. "Every now and then, I'd have little flashbacks of my life. Especially when you're in school, kids talk about their experiences growing up or teachers will ask for pictures of your childhood, and I just didn't have those things like the other kids did."
Now, Tamisha looks and feels better than ever. "My confidence has gone up," she says. "I've just become an active participant in life."
Troy says that's no surprise. "I'm always telling people, 'You cannot find peace until you find all the pieces,'" he says. "It still brings you this sense of calmness and understanding—why you are, where you came from, where you can go."
One of the biggest mistakes in finding a lost loved one, Troy says, is waiting too long. "The hardest calls I have to make are to tell somebody, ... 'The good news is I found them, and the bad news is they passed in an accident six months ago,'" he says. "If you wait for timing to be everything, you'll end up with nothing."
It's a lesson a mother of four named Cindy knows too well. Diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, doctors have given Cindy only months to live. "I want to find my dad more than anything in the world because I feel like I have a part of me missing," she says.
Cindy says her parents split up before she was born. She was 12 years old the first time she met her dad. Just as she got to know her father, Cindy's mother left town with her. "I can remember him backing out, and I saw his car," she says. "I never saw him again, and I want to know why."
With limited information, Troy tracks down an aunt, who helped him find Cindy's father, Doug. Before letting Doug back in Cindy's life, Troy wants the full story. "I have a great deal of love and respect for daughters and how sensitive and fragile they can be. I will not bring a deadbeat dad back into a young lady's life," he says. "It's important to me that they prove they made some effort to find them or they have a dag-gum good reason why they've been missing. And if they convince me of that, then I will do this."
Doug tells Troy the whole story, starting with Cindy's mother. "We got married when I was in the military," he says. "By the time I got home, she was gone."
Doug says he wasn't allowed to see Cindy when she was born. "I didn't get to see Cindy until she was, like, 11, 12 years old," he says.
After Cindy and her mother moved, Doug says he tried to find his daughter. "With her mother and her family, there was no hope. I couldn't get information from anybody," he says. "I want to be able to be in her life. I want to be able to see her. I want to be able to talk to her and hold her. Let her know her daddy loves her."
After their conversation, Troy believes the pair should be reunited. "Doug was able to document to me everything he'd attempted. And, bless his heart, with the limited resources he had, he did what he knew to do to try and find Cindy," he says. "That man is one walking heart. He has so much love in him."
The next morning, Doug and Cindy are reunited for the first time in 20 years. Doug says he had given up on ever seeing his daughter again. "But I never had given up hope that she was okay and she was doing good," he says. "Even though I found out she's not doing the greatest, I'm still happy to be with her."
As a condition of the reunion, Troy made Doug promise to talk to Cindy every day—and he's gone above and beyond that promise. "My dad has actually moved in with me and takes me to all of my doctor's visits," Cindy says. "It's been great having him with me."
Cindy admits feeling angry about the time she lost with her dad, but says she's choosing to focus on the now. "When I was diagnosed, I was given six to nine months to live, and I actually passed that. I am now going on a year and a half of doing chemo," she says. "I feel that every day for me is a miracle."
For anyone thinking about reconnecting with a loved one, Troy's message is simple: Don't wait. "As you come to grips with the reality of your own mortality—especially those who are working toward the end of their life clock—you don't just think about the loved ones in your life. You also begin to think about the unloved ones."
"As awkward and painful as it might be for you personally, think about the unloved ones in your life," he says. "There is still time to move them over to the loved ones list. There is no better time than today."