In this the second article in the series on homicide loss I look at the challenges faced by co-victims in dealing with society’s response to their loss.
Our society is fascinated by crime. Murder sells, violence sells, drama sells. Photos and films repeatedly glamourize the action and thrill of police and detective stories, as well as the lives of the criminals themselves. Documentaries and news reports depict real live crime scenes and carnage before moving onto the next violent incident.
So long as the violence is kept at arm’s length, it certainly seems that society enjoys a staple diet of blood and guts where the perpetrator of the crime is the repulsive yet devious, fascinating villain. The more violent or heinous the crime, the more the accused will become a cult figure, fed by society’s morbid curiosity and its need for controlled excitement and fear.
Yet what about the victim and those directly affected by a homicide? Aren’t they, in fact, the real heroes and heroines?
To my mind, if the quiet courage needed to keep living after your child is murdered were publicly understood and acknowledged, governments would have no option but to honour co-victims with a Medal for Valour.
Yet the difficult and complex stories of survivors following a crime rarely, if ever, make it into the news. Entertainment is one thing but the destruction of innocent families’ lives through murder quite another. Co-survivors are the invisible victims. We have suffered the loss of a loved one in the most brutal and violent way imaginable yet for the most part, we as individuals are shunned by society because homicide stigmatizes.
Co-victims of murder and homicide often feel abandoned by the indifference of the police, the justice system and the community they live in. Victims’ Rights Acts are a relatively new development — for example, victim impact statements are now accepted as part of the sentencing process and in some cases, co-survivors can apply to know about parole hearings — but these changes feel like having absolutely no rights at all. We are far, far away from having justice systems that are inclusive of the victim’s family and allow them to have legal representation during court proceedings.
I would suggest that we, as a society, need to reframe violence and homicide and turn our approach on its head. I admit that’s no mean task. It’s not the murderer, the carnage, the violence that needs to be plastered across our screens, but instead the dignity, sorrow, connection and love displayed by the co-survivors as they mourn their loved one and try to rebuild their lives. Instead of repeatedly hearing about a murderer, could we not remember the victim and honour their life? Is that not the community we wish to live in, a place that respects victims of crime and homicide and openly acknowledges the loss of the parents and family members?
I am certain that people can be encouraged to look behind a murder story instead of reducing it to a mere spectacle. They simply need to be shown how.
Yet this does not answer the question as to why individuals keep their distance when a homicide occurs. Why does the average person instinctively ignore the inner disquiet they feel when they hear of a homicide and turn away?
Fear. Pure and simple.
Co-survivors act as a stark reminder of each and every individual’s impotence in the face of evil, of violence, of innocence, smashed. We, the co-victims, complicate the narrative — we are the messy suffering left behind by homicide. And this is the part society does not want to see.
Basically, no one wants to think homicide could happen to them.
The thought that any of our children, our loved ones, could be the next victim of a shooting, a stabbing, a strangulation is too terrifying to process. So we don’t go there.
I get that. If we lived in a permanent state of fear, we would never let our children out of our sight. We instinctively remain in denial about the risk and reality of murder. Somewhere deep inside of us, we believe that homicide is something that happens to other people. So friends and strangers turn away and pull up their inner defences. Avoidance and detachment resulting in even more loneliness and hardship for the co-victims.
And tragically, this ‘other people’ attitude can go even as far as victim blaming. In blaming the dead (at least in part) for getting killed, strangers manage to maintain the illusion that murder could not happen to them. To this day I am disturbed and saddened at the finger pointing and rumours spread by those who seek to reassure themselves in this way. Even after a guilty verdict, people may still shake their heads and gossip, suggesting that ‘it’s not the whole story’ as if by magic they know something the Court does not. I’ve been there, I know.
Not only that, but co-victims themselves can become the target of abuse and internet trolling. The parents of children murdered in the USA at Sandy Hook school who have suffered abuse and death threats may be an extreme example of this, but they are sadly not the exception — there are many cases of co-victims being singled out for criticism and being verbally attacked or threatened. I myself have received nasty mail with no return address or legible signature. My crime? That the man who killed my 23-year-old son was found guilty of intentional homicide last August.
Part III and Part IV in this series focus on the difficulties faced by co-victims like myself. Crisis, trauma and the justice system and Emotional support in the initial stages and beyond aim to shine a torch on what parents and families of victims go through and how best to support them. Perhaps the insight gained will give readers the confidence to help a co-victim who is facing the most traumatic and devastating experience of their life. And believe me, reaching out to them and showing them that they are not alone will truly be the greatest gift of all.
For Part I of this article on homicide loss, please click here.
For Part III, click here.
For Part IV, click here.