Homicide Bereavement

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The process of grief and bereavement is very different when a death is the result of homicide. This is also true of other violent deaths such as in cases of war, suicide and terrorism. The vast majority of people, who die violently, die alone. The survivors of homicide victims are left not only with the sorrow of the loss but with the profound powerlessness of not having been able to protect, rescue, or comfort the one they loved. Individuals and families can become trapped in the trauma of their loss as their lives become defined by the violent death of their loved one. As the devastating reality of the murder is replayed over and over in the minds of the family it also often appears in the headlines of the news. As Rynerson (2001) describes “when the violent dying is deemed a criminal act (terrorism, homicide or criminal negligence) the media, medical examiner, police and judicial system begin a mandatory, public announcement and inquiry of the dying to find and punish whoever was responsible. The public retelling of the violent dying story is very different than the public respect for the family’s privacy in retelling a natural death. Once declared criminal, the public and media demand a spotlighted reenactment of the dying that in, some cases, becomes voyeuristic. Public repetition of the dying reenactment may heighten the distress of friends and family members”.

When death is the result of natural dying due to illness or aging there is more often than not a more natural process of the grief that may involve opportunities to be with the dying person prior to their death in order to address unresolved issues, say good bye, care for their immediate needs as they move towards the end of their life. Ideally this often involves the presence of family members, friends, and community members who may share in this experience.

Following these types of deaths, these same survivors will gather together in their grief to comfort one another, provide support, participate in rituals that honour/celebrate the life of the deceased and mark the event of their death. The natural ebbs and flows of the grief process will move over time and eventually those left behind find ways to remember the life of the deceased.

What separates death by homicide from other forms of death is “homicidal grief falls within the syndrome of complicated mourning because the mode of death prevents mourners from moving through the process or stages that are critical for resolving grief and mourning” (Armour, 2002). Because of the very nature of homicide/violent death, this experience for the co-victims is often traumatic, which further complicates the bereavement process.

Given that the experience of losing a loved one to homicide is experienced as a traumatic event, there is a natural tendency to want to “avoid” and “defend” against this which can then interrupt the natural process of grieving. In the presence of a violent loss, the trauma of this experience causes the brain to function in a manner that makes it difficult for integration (Siegal, in Currier and Neimeyer, 2006).  Alternatively many co-victims become so focused on the death of their loved one and the manner in which it occurred that they struggle to connect with the lives of their loved one pre death and/or develop a relationship with them in some capacity post death. They essentially become stuck or “frozen” in the moments of the death. Any kind of question or memory directed toward the co-victim regarding their loved one will inherently be woven through the story and details of their death.

For the longest time he felt so far away from me.
I worried about him missing and needing me.
I longed for him, until one night I dreamt about him.
he was so close to me, I remember I reached down
and touched his face and held it in my hands for a long
time and I knew I’d been with him. The longing didn’t
seem so intense after that.

(~mother of murdered child)

When co-victims become stuck in the death of their loved one, their ability to move through the natural stages of grief and healing is impeded and their lives and relationships can be affected. It is as if the violent death has “just occurred” even with the passage of time, which further intensifies the trauma response.

Deborah Spungen has identified in Homicide: The Hidden Victims A Guide for Professionals (1998) common themes and responses to the murder of a family member. They include: isolation, grief, loss, shock, stress, anger, blame (both victim and self), betrayal, guilt, denial, need for revenge and emotional regression. She also indicates that the experience of violent death disrupts the sense of safety which will often manifest itself in guilt in the parents of a murdered child.

I felt that I was there when he came into the world, I should
have been with him when he left.

(~mother of murdered son)

The experience of guilt in connection to being unable to ensure the safety of their murdered child combined with fear for the safety of any remaining children can also interrupt the grieving process for the parent.

The other unique and complicating component of death by homicide is that the statistics show that victims of homicide knew the person who took their life. According to Statistics Canada in 2011, 48% of the homicides were committed by “an acquaintance or a friend”. In 32% of these cases it was a family member (Statistics Canada, 2011). Therefore the ability of family members to support one another may vary based on exposure to the murder and closeness to the victim as well as the person who perpetrated the violence.

In addition, the underlying dynamics of the various relationships amongst and between the family members with the murder victim will also influence the way in which the trauma of a homicide death is processed. This can be particularly difficult and challenging when the murder has been the result of domestic violence. Oftentimes the theme of blame permeates through the family as well as the social, cultural and justice systems. The issue of blame is not limited to murders that occurred in the context of domestic violence. This theme of blame is also prevalent in situations where the murder victim may have been involved in a high-risk lifestyle that is fraught with violence. Not only does guilt and blame become an element of the death story within the family but can also be underscored by the criminal justice system, media, and the larger community.

The perspective of blame further serves to marginalize, isolate and disenfranchise these co-victims and perhaps reaffirm for them their culpability in the death of their loved one. In many situations they may not be able to access services of support or compensation if it has been determined that their loved one was involved in a criminal or otherwise high risk lifestyle.

Given the experience of stigma and isolation that can accompany homicide deaths, it can be helpful for co-victims to participate in groups with others who have experienced a similar loss. A therapeutic service such as this provides a vital opportunity for survivors to come together to share their unique pain with others who deeply understand their experience. The goal of such a group would be to assist people to regain a sense of safety and separateness from the dying experience of their loved one, and to create an environment where people can commemorate the living memory of the deceased. By connecting with other survivors through a restorative therapeutic process, individuals can regain an image of their loved one that transcends the nature of their death so that they can then reengage in their own living.

In the rising of the sun and in its going down,
We remember them;
In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,
We remember them;
In the opening of buds and in the warmth of summer,
We remember them;
In the rustling of leaves and the beauty of autumn,
We remember them;
In the beginning of the year and when it ends,
We remember them;
When we are weary and in need of strength,
We remember them;
When we are lost and sick at heart,
We remember them;
When we have joys we yearn to share,
We remember them;
So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now part of us as
We remember them.

(~Jewish Prayer book)

Books/Publications/Websites:

Homicide: The Hidden Victims A Guide for Professionals, Deborah Spungen

Retelling Violent Death, Edward Rynearson

A Grief Like no Other: Surviving the Violent Death of Someone You Love, Kathleen O’Hara

Homicide Survivors – Dealing with Grief (Prepared by the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime) http://crcvc.ca/docs/homsurv.pdf

Canadian Parents of Murdered Children and Survivors of Homicide Victims

http://www.cpomc.ca/survivor/homicide_grief.shtml

Victims of Violence http://www.victimsofviolence.on.ca/rev2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=318&Itemid=66

Manitoba Organization for Victim Assistance (MOVA)

http://www.mova.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=48&Itemid=65
References: 

Armour, Marilyn Peterson (2002). Experiences of Covictims of Homicide: Implications for Research and Practice. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. Vol. 3, No. 2; April 2002. Pp: 109-124.

Currier, Joseph M., Holland, Jason M., & Neimeyer, Robert A. (2006). Sense-Making, Grief, and the Experience of Violent Loss: Toward a Mediational Model. Death Studies. 30: 403-428.

Rynearson, Edward K. Retelling Violent Death. (2001) Taylor & Francis: USA.

Spungen, Deborah (1998). Homicide: The Hidden Victims A Guide for Professionals. Sage Publications Inc: Thousand Oaks, California.

Statistics Canada. Homicide in Canada, 2011. Samuel Perreault. Component of Statistics Canada catalogue. No. 85-002-X. Released on December 4, 2012. Accessed website May 2013.  http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2012001/article/11738-eng.pdf

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