HEALTH PLUS MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT
This article contains content that might be triggering for survivors of sexual and physical abuse, survivors of trauma from losing a loved one by kidnapping and/or murder and those struggling with PTSD.
Losing a loved one through an act of violence is a very traumatic experience. No one can ever be prepared for such loss. No amount of counselling, prayer, justice, restitution or compassion can ever bring a loved one back.
Those left behind to mourn the loss of their loved one are sometimes referred to as ‘homicide survivors’ and these people are victims of crime.
There was a period of time when the justice system did not recognise next of kin as victims. This changed with the lobbying efforts of victims and their advocates. Today, those who work with homicide survivors, such as counsellors, social workers, victim service providers, lawyers and police officers, recognise that these victims face a unique set of emotions and circumstances, and that assistance must be delivered with this in mind.
When someone is murdered, the death is sudden, violent, final and incomprehensible. The survivors’ world is abruptly and forever changed. The awareness that your loved one’s dreams will never be realised hits. Life has suddenly lost meaning and many survivors report that they cannot imagine ever being happy again.
Homicide survivors will each experience the death differently, as each person had a unique relationship with the victim. A survivor’s personal history of trauma will also affect the manner in which he/she experiences this loss.
It is important to remember that no two people grieve the same way, with the same intensity or for the same duration.
Support Group – Parents of Murdered Children(POMC)
Dealing with the aftermath of a homicide is not something that can easily be overcome. It is a process which affects each person differently. Families that endured similar losses offer much support.
The founders of ‘Parents of Murdered Children’, a US support group formed in 1978, that has advocated policy change over the decades, shared at a training conference that “the grief caused by murder does not follow a predictable course. It does not neatly unfold in stages. When a person dies after a long illness, his or her family has time to prepare emotionally for the death, to feel anticipatory grief. When someone is murdered, the death usually comes without warning. A parent might have breakfast with a child on an ordinary morning – and then never see or hold or speak to that child again. The period of mourning after a natural death lasts, one, two, perhaps three years. The more complicated mourning that follows a homicide may be prolonged by the legal system, the attitudes of society, the nature of the crime, and the final disposition of the case. A murder is an unnatural death; no ordinary rules apply. The intense grief experienced by survivors can last four years, five years, a decade, even a lifetime.”
The Grief Process
The grief process is often characterised as work because it is laborious and difficult. There is no timetable for this process. Losing a loved one causes survivors to adjust their lives in order to compensate and cope. Grief can be a long, painful process, but it can be managed with assistance from friends, family, and/or outside support.
Grief may provoke intense stress reactions such as:
- Grief spasms
- Terror Guilt
- Sadness Irritability
- Dissociation (that is, experiences are “spacey,” or on “automatic pilot”)
- Overwhelming sense of loss and sorrow
- Insomnia, Sleep disturbance (nightmares)
- Hyperarousal / Hypervigilance (jumpiness)
- Muscle tension
- Increased heart rate or blood pressure
- Nausea, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps
- Change in appetite
- Fainting, Dizziness
- Respiratory problems
- Decreased libido
- Impaired concentration
- Impaired decision-making ability. Difficulty setting priorities
- Memory Impairment - Disbelief/Denial
- Confusion Distortion
- Decreased self-esteem
- Decreased self-efficacy
- Reduced ability to express emotion
- Intrusive thoughts and memories (constant thoughts about the circumstances of the death)
- Worry/Anxiety Vulnerability
- Interpersonal Alienation/Isolation
- Social withdrawal
- Increased conflict in relationships
- A desire for revenge
- Faith in humanity may be shaken
- Feeling distant from God
- Suddenly turning to God
- Questioning one’s basic beliefs
(This list does not include every single emotion, there certainly are more. These are the more common experiences documented.)
Do not be embarrassed or confused by these feelings. They are ALL natural reactions to an unnatural event like the murder of a loved one.
Factors Influencing the Grieving Process
Homicide grief expert Lu Redmond (1989) has estimated that there are seven to 10 close relatives (not including friends, neighbours and co-workers) for each victim.
He describes many factors that influence the grieving process for homicide survivors including:
- The ages of the survivor and the victim at the time of the homicide
- The survivor’s physical and emotional state before the murder
- The survivor’s prior history of trauma
- The way in which their loved one died
- Whether the survivor can make use of or has any social support systems
- Cultural and social factors may also have a great impact on the grieving process.
There is no one way to grieve
The grief process is unique to every individual, however over decades of research and interviews with parents, POMC have been able to identify some important steps for healing: -
- Surround yourself with supportive people
- Allow yourself to cry
- Allow yourself time to recover
- Be honest about your feelings
- Find a safe way to release your anger
- Write down your feelings if that helps
- Admit that you may need help
- Do not compare your grief with that of others, as everyone is unique
- Do not blame yourself
- Treasure your memories and share them with others
Dealing with Fear
Safety issues are of primary concern to homicide survivors, as they know all too well that bad things can and do happen to good people. The reality hits that no one is completely safe and that no one is immortal. Homicide survivors may experience anxiousness and fear when another family member is late to return home or does not call when expected. They may be fearful to stay home alone or walk alone at night. If the assailant is unknown, survivors may be fearful that another family member will be harmed. Anxiety is as much a part of life as eating and sleeping.
Dealing With Insensitivity
Our culture does not teach us how to approach someone who has suffered the devastating trauma caused by a homicide. Our natural tendency is to avoid dealing with such persons either out of fear of doing something wrong or being inadequate for the task.
The reality of what happened to us may pose a threat to your own family. If it can happen to us, it can happen to you so it is safer to cling to the myth that murder only happens to strangers. A thoughtful choice of words can prevent an awkward or senseless remark intended to give comfort from provoking more grief, guilt or anger in the victim. You can’t catch murder from comforting the victims.
POVC offers considerable advice here, sharing real examples, thoughts and replies from parents that are homicide survivors:-
- People may say: “I think about you all the time.” Don’t think about me. Call me. Write to me. Ask me to spend some time with you. Even if I refuse, you have told me you care.
- Don’t tell me to call you. I’m much too tired to do that. Please call me. Don’t tell me you will call, write or keep in touch if you can’t do so. I expect you to keep your promise and feel betrayed when it doesn’t happen.
- “I don’t know what to say.” You don’t have to say anything. Just being here is enough. Listening to me is even better.
- “You’re so strong.” No, I’m not! I have shed more tears than I knew I had. I weep mostly in private, in my car, in the shower, in my bed at 2 am, with caring friends and while writing. Watching me cry may make you feel uncomfortable and inadequate. Remind yourself that I need this release if I am to heal. Expect me to be irrational. I’m not thinking clearly. I feel guilty when told I’m strong. A slightly different comment can be more helpful, “It must take all your strength to keep going.”
- “I don’t know how you do it.” Of course you don’t. Neither do I. I do it because I have no real choice.
- “You look so good.” What? I feel guilty. An alternative can be “I’m glad to see you are taking care of yourself.
- The most insensitive remark a parent shared was, “At least now you won’t have to worry about his behaviour problems.” Dealing with teenager behaviours is a natural part of life. Burying a child is not!
Survivors supporting survivors
Many homicide survivors have found it helpful to speak with others who have been through a similar experience. Being able to openly express the pain of their loss, and reveal “revenge fantasies” (a normal reaction to violent victimization) helps on the journey of healing.
Support groups can be very normalizing for families and friends of victims, allowing them to feel that they are not going crazy and that others are experiencing and surviving the same complexity of emotions. As homicide survivors cannot always relate to people who have lost a loved one due to accidental or natural causes, it is often helpful to speak with other homicide survivors because they understand the specific and unique suffering that is taking place.
It is important to note that some survivors have reported feeling worse after attending the first few support group sessions. This is usually because many painful emotions have been brought to the surface. As difficult as this may be at the time, many survivors state that this process ultimately helps them through the grieving process.
Support groups are a means for survivors who are further along in the healing process to help others who are newly bereaved or who are having an especially difficult time coping. By providing and receiving support, survivors are able to help each other and see the good that is able to come out of the pain they have experienced. People who have experienced the murder of a loved one have stated that they often feel an immediate and close bond with other homicide survivors, even if they do not meet face-to-face.
How to offer help
- Listen – be a good listener. Do not offer “psychological” assessments.
- Encourage the survivors to express their feelings if they are feeling up to it.
- Be non-judgmental – do not be shocked if survivors express anger and feelings of revenge.
- Help find resources – it may be helpful for you to gather information about community resources such as support groups for the survivors.
- Help out with daily chores – people in grief may not have the energy or focus to take care of daily living tasks.
- Be wary of suicidal thoughts – it is important for people who may be having suicidal impulses to seek professional counselling with a therapist trained in trauma counselling. Do not tell the survivors that you know how they feel.
- Do not blame the victim or the survivors. Stay clear of associating any blame to the actions of the survivors, especially those around the day of the event. The survivor will replay that day repeatedly, wondering ‘what could I have done differently?’
- Let these survivors heal at their own pace – do not rush them.
Coping with such a traumatic loss is unpredictable. The best we can do is to keep in mind “recovery is not an overnight phenomenon” as shared by Eric Schlosser, A Grief Like No Other.
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