Part IV — Emotional Support in the Initial Stages and Beyond
In this fourth and final article in the series on homicide loss, I look at the psychological and emotional challenges co-victims face, and how friends and family can support them. For a more complete understanding of the material covered, it should be read in conjunction with the other articles already published. The series has been divided by subject heading for ease of reading, but ideally all four articles should be considered as a whole.
The Challenges Faced by Survivors of Homicide
The devastation and psychological aftermath that families suffer following the killing of a loved one are extreme and long-lasting. If it’s their child that has been murdered, the trauma will most probably last a lifetime.
Many of the problems faced by survivors of homicide are also true for non-homicide loss parents and individuals mourning the death of a loved one, but many are not. This is what makes loss through homicide a particularly harsh and unique grief journey.
Initial shock at the news is followed by all manner of emotional responses as individual as the co-victim themselves. These can range from: panic attacks, utter physical exhaustion, repetitive thoughts about the manner of the killing, dealing with added stressors if their child was kidnapped, tortured or raped prior to being killed, insomnia, inability to concentrate or carry out the simplest of tasks, rage, numbness, guilt, depression… to name but a few. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the most common symptom. Yet other mental health issues are often diagnosed requiring treatment and therapy.
And on top of all of these psychological responses comes the grief.
The inability to function can leave co-victims at the mercy of events. It puts a tremendous strain on relationships and on their ability to work or carry out the simplest of tasks. Survivors feel unable to deal with police questioning, organizing the funeral, attending the coroner’s hearing (if there is one), reading the autopsy and medical examiner’s reports, handling media coverage, understanding legal procedures, the payment of bills, collecting their child’s belongings from the police… the list goes on and on and on.
If the child murdered was young or an adolescent, the chances are that he or she may have siblings living in the same household. This puts added pressure on parents who feel they must help their surviving children come to terms with what has happened, at the very time when they themselves can barely function.
Equally, if the victim was an adult, other tragic situations may arise. These may range from young children being orphaned (who the grandparents will often try and look after if legally allowed to do so) to losing a friend or main caregiver, if the parents are old or infirm. In domestic violence cases where a mother is murdered, it’s not uncommon for the partner to also kill the children, then himself. Families can lose two generations, not one, in these harrowing situations.
Faced with such tragedy, you may well ask yourself whether you have the strength or know-how necessary to help. Believe me, you do!
No one is expecting you to have the answers, because there aren’t any.
You may be as confused by the justice system as the co-victim, and as bewildered by other aspects of what is happening, but you won’t be in shock or experiencing complex grief. And that’s the crucial difference.
So don’t hesitate, turn up! You are a tower of strength in the eyes of the suffering co-victim. You’re a genius who understands forms, letters, emails and can make phone calls, drive a car and bring round groceries. Do what you can, and offer to help whenever the opportunity presents itself. Even the simplest of tasks can be too much for a survivor of homicide. I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t remember any passwords to write emails or access my bank account. I was utterly incapacitated in the months following my son’s murder. Even one year later, I still found daily tasks required super-human strength to be completed. And I am not the exception, I am the norm.
Never underestimate how much support a co-victim really needs.
Do they need the dog walked? Walk the dog. Do they need to choose flowers for the funeral, the hymns, or clothes to wear? Drive them to the florist, the church, the shops, and help them make decisions.
Are they physically falling apart? Do they look ill? Accompany them to the doctor, get them their prescriptions, phone them to check how they’re doing. They can’t sleep? Buy them herbal teas, books, or scented candles. Chat with them online if it’s late just so they know you are there. Their house is a mess? Help clean, iron, cook.
Do their still-living children need to be picked up from football? Be the one who waits for these children. They are also traumatized, and need love and support. Are their elderly parents also grieving and needing a hand to hold? Pop by the residential home and spend time with these grandparents who are co-victims themselves. You get the picture.
Anything and everything you do to support them will be invaluable, and they’ll be eternally grateful.
When they cry, hold them. And if they rage, don’t try to fix it. If there’s one thing a co-victim knows, it’s that this cannot be fixed.
If homicide survivors cannot face being out in public or can’t join family reunions, take some food round and watch a movie with them. If media intrusion becomes a problem, tell the papers to stay away, or help put together a statement for publication. Work as a team with others and share the responsibilities. Do so not only for the first few days. Ensure that you can keep the support coming for several months and in many cases, longer.
Everything I list here is common sense. Yet, often the biggest hurdle friends and neighbours need to overcome is their own fear of the unknown regarding violent death, their own hesitations about not wanting to intrude or that they simply do not know what to do. Whatever it is, just do it. Survivors of homicide are broken, and any kindness shown them will not only help them to keep going in the practical sense, but will translate in their hearts and minds into psychological support.
If we’re to build strong communities, we need to learn to reach out to those who need our support.
What greater crisis can a human endure than their child or loved one being killed by another? Is this not the ultimate test of our capacity for compassion for one another?
The feeling of loneliness experienced by survivors of homicide is so overwhelming, and the grief so intense, that any demonstration of love and support helps to ground us.
Little things can mean so much.
Sending a short, kind SMS can help immensely when you are so sad that you don’t see the point to life anymore. With today’s internet, letting the homicide survivor know that you are thinking of them couldn’t be easier. So take the initiative, and chat to them on Messenger, WhatsApp, or FaceTime, regularly. It really does help because often, in those initial stages, conversation eludes us. Replying with an emoji is about as much as we can manage.
If we lose it and shout and scream, take a deep breath and don’t take it personally. Outbursts of anger and expressed anguish are normal; all this pain has to come out somehow. We are drowning in so much horror that simply breathing is a super-human effort. The energy needed to do even the most basic of things is beyond us.
As I wrote to another loss parent some months ago, people around us have absolutely no idea how exhausting it really is for a grieving parent to simply function on a normal level. When you add to that the extra work and stress that accompanies the aftermath of a homicide — the criminal justice system, the medical and police reports, the media, the reality of the violence inflicted on our child or loved one — we are left utterly debilitated. This invariably results in complex grief.
The fact is that the tragic aftermath of a homicide will usually remain hidden from public view.
The media doesn’t cover this aspect of murder, and people don’t tend to ask because of fear or lack of confidence. Homicide survivors find it difficult to describe the magnitude of their sorrow – let alone publicize it – because they are so devastated and traumatized by the brutality and violence of the murder and the loss of their child or loved one. Additionally, society’s reaction to their suffering (and often to the murder itself) can result in co-victims keeping to themselves. Years of deep psychological trauma, court appearances and unexpected financial costs are part of a narrative that the majority of people not directly affected by the homicide will probably never see.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
In addressing the many different issues often faced by survivors of homicide, I hope to have given insight into the very particular challenges faced by victims’ families. In so doing, I hope to allow for greater compassion and understanding. It would be wonderful if every single reader of this series came away feeling more able to help a homicide survivor. In some small way, it would give meaning to my own grief journey, by honouring the memory of my eldest son and that of all those children and adults taken too soon.
Please feel free to share this four-part article. This will help spread awareness regarding child loss through homicide and the problems faced by survivors of homicide.