Kimberly Woodard, LCPC
A World Turned Upside Down: Losing a Loved One to Homicide
Grief is a normal and expected response to the death of a loved one. Grief can impact an individual in many ways- emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Grief responses to homicide can include:
A sense of shock, or emotional numbness, as if the death and its aftermath are unreal, or happening to someone else;
Denial, or a refusal to accept that a loved one has died and will not be returning home;
Intense emotional pain;
Unrelenting fear that can make it difficult to leave home, or result in a nagging feeling that you, or someone else close to you, will die unexpectedly;
Guilt based on the belief that you could have prevented the death of your loved one;
A prevailing anger that is directed at the perpetrator, the deceased, well-wishers, the world in general, or others whom you believe could have prevented the death;
Feeling abandoned, or isolated, as members of your social network avoid you, or acknowledging your grief;
Changes in weight, physical pain (headaches, back problems, chest discomfort), exhaustion, changes in sleep patterns, nausea, etc.; or
Panic episodes (dizziness, increased heart rate, dry mouth, a loss of control or sense of going “crazy”) that are frightening, and unpredictable.
The unexpected, and often violent nature of a homicide loss can leave mourners reeling, as their minds swirl with questions of why their loved one died, what they may have been feeling as they died, and what they could have done to prevent the death. The process of adapting to the loss, or mourning, can be disrupted when a loved one dies as the result of a homicide.
There is no logic to grief. The intensity of a grief response is unique to each individual, and so is the process of mourning. Grief may be felt more intensely at certain times, such as the anniversary of a loved one’s death, on holidays, or on celebratory occasions to mark major life milestones (graduations, weddings, birth of a child, etc.). It can be less intense at other times. Normal bereavement- the period of time that an individual experiences grief and adapts to life without their loved one who has died- typically lasts 6-12 months. For individuals who have lost a loved one to homicide, however, the mourning process can become complicated, and prolong the period of bereavement.
What Prolongs Homicide Bereavement?
How an individual responds to the loss of a loved one to homicide can complicate the mourning process. While many of the responses listed below are to be expected following the death of a loved one to homicide, they can complicate the mourning process if the individual does not feel capable of managing them on their own. This is particularly true if the individual:
Thinks about the death of their loved one constantly, and is unable to accept the death, remains emotionally numb to the pain of the loss, or harbors a desire to join their loved one in death;
Remains preoccupied with avoiding people, places, or things that remind them of their loved one;
Feels unable to trust others, a pervasive sense of loneliness or hopelessness, or believes that life has no meaning; or
Continues to have persistent feelings of anger, shame, and guilt related to the death.
It can also be difficult to mourn the death of a loved one when the mourner feels that they have been abandoned by those closest to them in their hour of need.
A homicide can have a ripple effect- triggering an emotional crisis not only for the immediate family members and friends of the deceased, but also for people who make-up their network of social support. The thought of a sudden, and largely unforeseen, nature of homicide upends our natural belief that, The world is safe, and I am safe in it.
In order to continue to feel safe and make meaning of a senseless death, people need to create a narrative that helps them believe that they are immune from being killed. They do this by blaming the victim of a homicide- He should have known better- or blaming the friends and loved ones of the victim- They should have done more to keep her safe. Their judgements are communicated to the mourner in ways that can be explicit (statements made to the mourner directly), or subtle (avoiding the mourner altogether, or not acknowledging their grief). These judgments compound the mourner’s grief response, helping to sustain the mourner’s feelings of anger, guilt, and shame, and making it difficult for them to adapt to the loss of their loved ones. The process of mourning a loved one lost to homicide can also be complicated by how the community responds to the death.
Media coverage of a homicide can sometimes amplify feelings of anger, guilt, shame, and isolation for the individual who is mourning the deceased. This is especially true if they are inundated with images of the perpetrator, or insensitive commentary from people who did not know their loved one at all. A lack of media coverage can engender the same feelings in the mourner, heightening their sense of isolation, as they believe that no one cares about their loved one’s death. The criminal justice system’s response to the death can also trigger anger, guilt, and shame.
Regardless of whether or not the perpetrator is known or unknown, or has been arrested and charged with the death, the loved ones of a homicide victim lack control over the investigation and prosecution processes. And while many jurisdictions have enacted victim’s rights legislation which extend certain courtesies and privileges to the family members of homicide victims during the investigation and prosecution of a homicide case, there are limitations in the criminal justice system’s ability to provide what the family members may need to help them cope with their loss. Moreover, these processes can take months or years to reach a final disposition, and in the end, the family members may feel even more anger and resentment with the outcome of the criminal case.
For mourners where the homicide perpetrator is known to them, and is a relative or close acquaintance, the mourning process can be impacted by splinters in the family system as various members align with, or against others. When the perpetrator remains unknown, and the case grows cold, the mourner can feel like they are in a suspended limbo, making it difficult to adapt to the loss in the wake of so many unanswered questions, and a lack of resolution.
When is It Time to Seek Help for Homicide Grief?
If it has been longer than a year since your loved one’s death, and you: (1) continue to experience intense feelings of anger, guilt, shame, and fear; (2) cannot stop thinking about your loved’ one’s death and have been avoiding people, places, and things that remind you of them; and (3) continue to have difficulty resuming your normal daily routines (going to work or school, socializing with others, engaging in activities that used to bring you pleasure), then you should consider seeking help from a professional.
A trained mental health professional can help you adjust to your loss by helping you to:
Understand and process your intense feelings of anger, guilt, shame, or fear;
Feel less isolated by offering you a safe, empathetic, space in which you can express all of your feelings without fear of judgment, or unwanted advice about how you “should” feel or behave;
Find relief from any panic episodes, or symptoms of post-traumatic stress that you may have;
Make meaning of an arbitrary act of violence that may have shaken your sense of personal security and wellbeing; and
Find a path forward that allows you to function, while also incorporating your loss into your life.
If you, or someone you know, is in need of support while you mourn a homicide loss, please contact The Waverly Center for Psychotherapy, LLC.