Survivors of Homicide
Complications of Breavement
1. Cognitive Dissonance
Homicide survivors find it difficult to understand that a loved one has been murdered. The
murder does not make sense. The mind demands more information than can be processed or
stored, and questions about the events leading up to the murder may be asked repetitively,
seeking both understanding and confirmation that it is not true. Nothing has prepared most
of us for this level of psychological trauma.
The mind is overloaded with the events prior to, during, and after the murder. Survivors
often engage in a constant mental repetition of the events--what happened, when, how,
where, who did what, and most important, WHY? Even though the questions may be asked
repeatedly of many different people, none of the answers is good enough.
2. Anger and Murderous Impulses
Anger is a normal healthy emotion and can be conceptualized as a continuum from
"anger" to "rage" to "violence." To fantasize about acting
out rage is acceptable, normal behavior. To act out rage is unacceptable, violent
behavior. Homicide survivors are usually frightened by their murderous feelings/fantasies
and rage and are often afraid that they are "going crazy." For a homicide
survivor, the normal anger of grief is compounded by rage. Retaliatory thinking is typical
and expected under the circumstances and loses some of its intensity and power if it can
be verbalized in a setting where others are not frightened of listening to the imagery of
rage. A fantasy does not have to be acted out when one can talk about it in a supportive
atmosphere. The threshold of instant irritation and self-control is usually low, and
survivors do not have the internal controls to endure even small irritations. Anger at the
murderer is sometimes displaced onto others.
3. Fear and Vulnerability
Homicide survivors often express a pervasive sense of fearfulness and apprehension. They
no longer feel safe; instead, they feel vulnerable to further physical or psychological
assaults. Chronic phobic reactions sometimes develop, leading to nearly complete
4. Emotional Withdrawal
Survivors of homicide learn to isolate themselves and to develop behaviors that allow them
to avoid unpleasant reminders of the murder (e.g., a ringing phone is a reminder of the
call announcing the murder, television is a reminder of the news reports about the murder,
etc.) It is common for survivors to avoid mental health professionals and members of their
families who may have become reminders of the murder. Survivors of trauma may experience
an emotional separation from previous important relationships. Bonds that may have linked
them with other people are shattered by a loss of the sense of commonality, i.e., others
are not survivors of a homicide, a condition that has become a central fact of
survivors lives. This leads to disorientation, demoralization, and loss of
connection. Survivors often feel ashamed of their fears and sense of vulnerability,
followed by a discounting of their feelings as unimportant, insignificant, and without
value. Survivors withdraw to try to make sense out of the tragedy, and there is little
emotional energy left for others. Even if there were, the survivors may question whether
or not they are worthy of assistance.
It is important for survivors to build bridges back to the world of the living,
reestablishing connections with their families, friends, and communities. This cannot
happen until they integrate the experience into their own psychic framework. The
exaggerated grief responses of homicide survivors are normal responses to abnormal events,
not pathological reactions. However, if these responses go unacknowledged, they may become
5. Conflict of Value and Belief Systems
The murder of a loved one violates one of our societys most important principles,
the value of life. Survivors search for reasons for the sudden, unexpected, intentional
act of destruction that caused the death of their loved ones. Each survivors level
and intensity of grief differs according to his/her personality, coping ability, previous
experience with crisis, support system, and relationship with the deceased. In an attempt
to regain a sense of control, survivors sometimes begin to blame themselves and/or others,
believing that if "someone" had done "something" differently the death
would not have occurred. If one survivor blames another for the death or if one survivor
accepts blame, an entire system of relationships is put at risk. It is important to
remember that the murderer is responsible for the murder of the deceased, not any else.
6. Guilt and Blame
Guilt is related to a sense of control over, and the search for a reason for, the murder
of a loved one. An understandable explanation is necessary for the mind to absorb the
meaning of the victimization. "If only . . ." is an endless refrain. Survivors
may blame themselves or others in a desperate attempt to make sense of the tragedy and to
maintain a sense of control over their lives. The murderer has robbed survivors of the
belief that they have any control over the daily activities of their lives. (S)He has not
only taken the life of the victim, (s)he has changed the lives of others forever.
Survivors may assign or accept unrealistic responsibility for the murder. This is
particularly true for parents, when the victim is a child. Survivors may also blame
victims for allowing themselves to be killed or for putting themselves in a vulnerable
position. Others, outside the immediate circle of family/friends, may also assign
responsibility, either implicitly or explicitly. If, at the time of the murder, the
victims relationship with others was stressful (e.g., following an argument) the
magnitude of unresolved grief will be more severe.
Even when no obvious blame exists, each survivor may begin a process of withdrawal from
the others while at the same time protecting one another--especially the younger and more
vulnerable survivors. Communication becomes inhibited and strained as each survivor feels
a sense of isolation and personal loss.
7. Loss of Control
Our culture has historically held freedom and the right to control ones own life as
one of its most cherished ideals, so that when ones sense of control of his/her own
life is attached, feelings of powerlessness follow. The murderer violates the fundamental
right to life; the criminal justice system violates the survivors right to
information about the crime,; and the media violate the survivors right to privacy.
Homicide survivors report more feelings of abandonment, loss of control, and powerlessness
in greater frequency, intensity, and duration than any other bereaved group. This is even
more exaggerated when the murderer is not identified and there is no sense of closure to
8. Stigma of Murder
Our society too often believes that the victim has behaved in such a way as to
"cause" his/her death. This is usually the result of the observers need to
find an explanation for the death. By "blaming the victim"--i.e., by labeling
the victim as "careless," "bad," "drunk," etc.--they can
create the fiction that this could never happen to them. The families/friends of victims
are then also stigmatized because they did not stop the victims from engaging in this
behavior, thus averting the tragedy. This irrational thinking prevents others from
acknowledging their own vulnerability. It is this emotional distancing and stigmatization
by others that leaves survivors feeling abandoned, ashamed, powerless, and vulnerable.
Even if the murder victim was engaging in "high risk"`behavior, e.g., drug
abuse, prostitution, drunk driving, etc., this does not lessen the survivors sense
of loss. In fact, a greater sense of personal failure may exist when the relationship with
the victim was ambivalent.
9. Intrusion by Other Systems
Many survivors feel that their "secondary victimization" by law enforcement, the
criminal justice system, the media, and others is nearly as painful as the victims
death. After a murder all of these systems intrude into the most personal matters of the
survivors lives during a time of great emotional turmoil.
10. Law Enforcement Contacts
Many peoples previous experience with law enforcement officers does not extend
beyond receiving a traffic ticket. However, following a murder, law enforcement is
immediately and aggressively involved in the process of apprehending the murderer. Even
though officers may try to be kind and sensitive, their job requires them to deliver
devastating news, present difficult questions, and ask survivors to participate in
apprehending and convicting the killer, e.g., participating in a "line-up,"
providing a victims personal effects, etc.
11. Criminal Justice System Contacts
Most peoples previous experience with the criminal justice system has been limited
to prime time TV (often inaccurate), courtroom novels, and jury duty. As victim survivors,
they are forced by personal experience to learn the roles of various court personnel, the
infinite details of legal proceedings and the possibility of plea bargains and early
release programs. Many victim survivors believe that their experience with the criminal
justice system constitutes a second murder of the victim.
12. Media Contacts
Homicide survivors do not have the privilege of confidentiality. The sensationalism used
by the news media to make stories of murder "exciting" to the viewing public has
an entirely different effect on the survivors. Each time the story is retold, the
survivors are forced to relive the murder. Often, these survivors learn about new
developments in the investigation on the evening news.
13. Other Systems
Health care systems, schools, and other organizations may inadvertently add to the stress
of survivors. This may be due to under staffing, lack of understanding about survivors,
discomfort with the violence inherent in murder, etc.
From Redmond, LM. Surviving: When Someone You Love Was Murdered. Clearwater, FL:
Psychological Consultation and Education Services, Inc., 1989