Homicide and grief
Losing a family member or friend to homicide is one of the most violent and cruel forms of death a person can experience. It is unlike any other type of death in that it is violent, sudden and unexpected. It involves lengthy legal interventions, including police investigations and at times complex legal proceedings that may or may not bring justice to the surviving family members. There is often also public media exposure that is usually unwelcome and intrusive at a time when families are needing privacy and safety in order to grieve their loss. Rituals for grieving, like being able to say goodbye before the person died, funeral ceremonies and space to reflect the loss are often denied, interrupted or intruded upon, leaving family and friends bereft of not just the person they are mourning, but also the rituals that are meant to support them.
Added to this are often the countless questions that are raised in the context of a homicide, both from immediate family as well as the broader community.
William Worden writes that whilst bereavement is universal, grief is not. Every death will be grieved uniquely, however these added factors will shape how we will grieve and process the loss.
If you have experienced the death of a family member or close friend due to homicide, the following information may assist you as you seek to find a way to process the enormity of your situation.
A death by homicide will elicit simultaneously a trauma and grief response. These two responses will vary based on many factors, including the attachment to the person who died (ie what type of relationship you had with the person) how you are able to process the grief and trauma you are experiencing, and what supports you have which will enable you to walk through this horrific experience.
Upon hearing of a death by homicide, your body will automatically respond in a way to protect you from the enormity of the information that is being told (or of what it may have seen). The body may go into a hyper state of alertness, shutting down any unnecessary functions in order to simply survive the crisis. This can be seen in the following ways:
- Physical shock
- Hyper alertness
- Increased adrenaline, heart palpitations, nausea, vomiting, sweating, hyperventilation
- Panic attacks
- Constant crying, or the inability to cry
The range and level of emotion that is experienced at the time of hearing of a death by homicide as well as in the weeks and months that follow will be dependent on many factors. Emotions can feel extreme, irrational and unfamiliar. Some of the emotions you may experience can include anger, rage, fear, terror, frustration, confusion, guilt, blame, self-blame, shame, humiliation, sadness and even overwhelm.
It is normal to experience dreams and nightmares of the deceased person, particularly in the early months following the homicide. This is part of your body trying to process the enormity of what has happened. If these continue as troubling nightmares post 6 months, it may be helpful to speak to a counsellor to enable further processing of the death.
You may also notice your emotions are triggered by certain events, dates or conversations. For example, where a legal process is in place, this may trigger some raw emotions, even if this is years after the death has occurred. It is important to allow your emotions to be expressed and supported.
Supporting your grief and trauma responses
Having someone close to you die as the result of a homicide is a traumatic experience. It is important to note that a traumatic event in a person’s life does not necessarily lead to a person become traumatized or that their trauma will become embedded within them (PTSD). Trauma only becomes a pathological condition when it is not processed adequately after the event. Ways in which to support the trauma that you are experiencing can include:
- Expressing your reactions and responses when you feel ready to do so. This can be with a person you trust (friend, family member or counsellor), or through a more internal and private process of writing or allowing yourself to articulate your thoughts and feelings within you
- Engage in some type of physical exercise or movement on a regular basis. This will assist in both creating routine as well as processing the trauma itself through the movement of your body
- Recognise what your grief needs and try to accommodate it. For example, if you need a day in your pyjamas or if it feels too soon to return to work, listen to what you need. Find ways of being able to work with your grief, particularly in the early days and weeks
- Don’t be afraid to reach out for further supports. Sometimes, family and friends are not our greatest support. When someone that loves you sees you hurting, the want to “fix” things. Talk to your GP or a support agency about what support they can offer you during this time.
- Be patient and gentle with yourself. Trauma and grief take time to process and work through. These experiences are not something that we “get over”, rather we learn how to live with the losses and impacts the death will have on our lives.
Our support to family victims can include:
- Financial assistance for funeral expenses via Victims Services
- Trauma counselling
- Supporting children through grief
- Family dynamics and relationship impacts
- Crime scene clean-up issues
- Managing the media
- Court support and advocacy
- Victim Impact Statement
- Coroners Court