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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 dysfunction.

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 pathological.

5. Conflict of Value and Belief Systems

The murder of a loved one violates one of our society’s 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 survivor’s 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 victim’s 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 one’s own life as one of its most cherished ideals, so that when one’s 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 the death.

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 victim’s 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 people’s 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 victim’s personal effects, etc.

11. Criminal Justice System Contacts

Most people’s 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

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"Someone I Love Was Murdered"

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