Australians have gathered to remember the MH17 victims in events across the country as the recovery mission in the Ukraine falters.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has promised the families of MH17 victims their loved ones won’t be forgotten, as the Dutch-led recovery team withdrew from the Ukraine crash site.

Australians paused in cathedrals, workplaces and schools on Thursday to remember the 298 people, including 38 of their own, who died when the Malaysia Airlines jet was downed by a missile over eastern Ukraine on July 17.

Mr Abbott was among 1000 people gathered at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne for the main service of the national day of mourning.

“You have not been abandoned and you never will be,” he said.

He said it was a time to rededicate the nation to supporting the bereaved, obtain justice for the families of the dead and work for a better world.

Mourners shed tears as they placed yellow wattleseed branches on a wreath to remember those who lost their lives.

Singers Katie Noonan and Abby Dobson performed the Leonardo’s Bride song Even When I’m Sleeping. Sam Roberts-Smith, the brother of Victoria Cross winner Ben, led the Australian Boys Choir.

Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove spoke of the grief, shock, anger, confusion and loss felt across the globe as a result of the disaster.

“So often words do not and cannot express our true feelings and thoughts during such a time of great loss,” he said.

He paid tribute to the West Australian Maslin family, who lost children Mo, Evie and Otis – aged 12, 10 and 8 respectively – along with their grandfather Nick Norris.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the nation was united in its grief.

“We mourn 38 of our own who laughed, learned and loved beneath the Southern Cross that today flies at half mast around the nation,” he said.

Paul Guard, the son of Toowoomba couple Roger and Jill Guard, said the service would help with the healing but it was disappointing to hear news that fighting had disrupted the recovery effort.

“I wish the Australian government or the UN or world leaders were able to somehow bring an end to the violence because it would be just horrific for my parents if they knew what was going on,” he said.

Special envoy Angus Houston said the first phase of the mission to the crash site was over, but a final inspection would be conducted when it is safe to do so.

“We are committed to honouring the victims of flight MH17 and seeking to give their loved ones the closure they deserve,” he said.

To date, 228 coffins have been sent to the Netherlands for bodily remains to be identified, and an international team is gathering evidence for the criminal case.

So far only two Dutch nationals have been identified.

United Nations members and NATO figures are engaged in a diplomatic effort to ensure the estimated 20,000 combat-ready Russian troops along the border with the Ukraine do not add to the turmoil.

Ukrainian forces are poised to seize back the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, raising the prospect of more casualties adding to the 1300 killed since April.