We have been conditioned throughout the ages to accept that each life is destined for the inevitability of death, which is as natural and predictable as birth. The normal repetitive circumstances of death are disease and old age. When death is due to the unnatural circumstance of homicide, it is sudden and without forewarning. It is now widely accepted that there are specific elements associated with homicidal deaths that distinguish the impact upon the surviving family members from other forms of dying. They include:
The intent to harm. One of the most distinguishing factors between homicidal death and other forms of dying is the intent of the murderer to harm the victim. Co-victims must deal with the anger, rage, and violence that has been inflicted upon someone they love.
Stigmatization. Because society sometimes places blame on murdered victims for their own death which translates into blame on the victim's family when it is believed that they should have controlled the behavior that led to the death, "co-victims of homicide often feel abandoned, ashamed, powerless, and vulnerable" (Redmond 1989).
Media and public view. Regardless of public sympathies surrounding homicidal deaths, they almost never remain private. Co-victims are quickly thrust into public view and become fair game for public consumption. While some journalists exercise consideration and objectivity in their reporting of homicidal events, the degree of intrusion into the lives of co-victims of homicide constitutes a major homicide differential.
Criminal or juvenile justice system. Unlike family members of individuals who die of natural deaths, co-victims of homicide are the most likely population of victims to be thrust into a complex system of legal players and jargon. Co-victims must quickly become acquainted with a world of crime scenes, evidence, and autopsies. Co-victims of homicide have much to learn about the investigative, prosecutorial, and judiciary branches of the criminal justice system in a very short time. They are often expected to quickly comprehend a system that may in some instances be insensitive and specifically designed to protect the rights of the accused (with little regard for the victim). In addition, co-victims may encounter many cognitive and environmental stimuli that remind them of the crime such as contact with the defendant and/or reviewing the traumatic details of the crime in the courtroom. This experience often results in the kind of avoidance behavior that leads co-victims to cancel or not show up for appointments with criminal justice system officers or victim advocates.
Bereavement. As early as 1983, E. K. Rynearson, M.D., determined that bereavement after homicide is so prevalent that it deserved clinical attention. His clinical studies involving the family members of murder victims revealed that all of his subjects had previously experienced bereavement following the natural death of a relative; and the psychological processing of homicide was accompanied by cognitive reactions that differed from previously experienced forms of bereavement. Rynearson's research forms the basis for the shift from viewing the co-victims' grief issues separate and apart from the impact of trauma associated with the death of a family member. Traumatic grief over homicidal death distinctly differs from other forms of grief.
Reprinted from 1999 National Victim Assistance Academy Text, Chapter 11: Homicide, authors: Carroll Ann Ellis and Janice Lord, editors: Grace Coleman, Mario Gaboury, Morna Murray, and Anne Seymour
- Financial considerations. Expenses related to funeral, burial, medical treatment, psychiatric care for family members, and other costs are all part of the aftermath experienced by co-victims. These considerations are grave and contribute in a major way to the continuing distress experienced.
- The criminal or juvenile justice system. Co-victims of homicide have a vested interest in participating in the criminal or juvenile justice system and understanding the complex issues of a cumbersome legal system.When members of a homicide support group (Fairfax Peer Survivors Group) in Fairfax, Virginia, were polled about their needs during the legal process, the single most important issue for them was their ability to obtain information from the prosecutors, detectives, and other professionals. They wanted to know exactly how, when, and why their loved one was murdered and who committed the murder; wanted to know if their loved one suffered; wanted to know the truth about the events of the death and elements needed to support the charge; and, expected to feel better if the case was successfully prosecuted.Discounting the family's contribution to a case discounts the pain of their victimization. Co- victims feel devalued when they are not allowed input into plea decisions and when they are barred from criminal or juvenile justice proceedings. They are distraught when the imposition of a technical rule, e.g., a "gag order" which prevents them from attending the trial, may in turn eliminate their last opportunity to do something for their loved one (Sobieski 1994).
- Employment. A co-victim's ability to function and perform on the job is diminished. Motivation is sometimes altered. They experience emotional bursts of crying or losing their tempers. They are impatient with trivia. Having to explain or apologize can create additional stress. Some co-victims use work as an escape to avoid working through their grief. They resist dealing directly with their pain by placing it on hold while at work.
- Marriages. It is common for marital partners to have difficulty relating, and they may even separate after a death due to homicide. (Divorces, however, are not as common as once believed.) Each partner may grieve differently. They may blame each other for the loss, particularly in the case of the death of a child. They may each wish to turn away from the memories that the other partner evokes. They are sometimes unable to help each other because they cannot help themselves.
- Children. Parents often fail to communicate with their children by either ignoring them when they are preoccupied with their own issues or hoping to protect them from unnecessary trauma. The children, in turn, fear adding to their parents' pain and simply withdraw. Children who witness the killing of someone they love experience profound emotional trauma, including post traumatic stress disorder, and may not readily receive adequate intervention.Furthermore, young people who report having to perform tasks associated with the fatal injury, such as telephoning for police or emergency medical services, or responding to the immediate needs of the injured person or the perpetrator, are often traumatized. When the issue of blame or accountability for the death is not resolved through police investigation, children may re-examine their behavior, believing that if they had done something differently, they could have prevented the death. Without support and an opportunity to explore the feasibility of such alternatives, children often continue to unnecessarily blame themselves.
- Religious faith. Questions for, anger at, and challenges to God surface regarding the reason for the death. How could a loving God allow it to happen? Where is the loved one? Some conclude, at least for a while, that "if there were a God, then God would not have let this happen. Since it happened, there must not be a God." Faithful co-victims seeking to understand sometimes look for answers from unorthodox sources. Over-simplistic comments and "answers" by clergy and church members sometimes create problems for co-victims who take their spiritual pilgrimage seriously.
- The media. Many homicide co-victims are subjected to the intrusion of what they perceive to be an insensitive media. The competitive quest for sensational, fast-breaking news items may override the need for privacy of anguishing families who may be experiencing prolonged scrutiny, inaccurate reporting, and gruesome reminders of the violence associated with the death.
- Professionals who do not understand. Co-victims report that too many professionals (police, court personnel, hospital personnel, funeral directors, clergy, school personnel, psychologists, and psychiatrists) demonstrate by their comments and actions that they do not fully understand the impact of death by homicide upon the remaining family members.
- Substance Abuse. Working with co-victims through the Separation and Loss Services, a program he founded in 1989 to address the special needs of co-victims of homicide, Dr. Ted Rynearson estimated that 30 percent of his clients had substance abuse problems (Rynearson and McCreery 1993).
- Co-victims should be allowed to grieve in whatever manner they wish and for as long as they wish.
- Co-victims should be allowed to cry freely. It is a healthy expression of grief and releases tensions.
- Co-victims should be allowed to talk about and personalize the victim. Allow the co-victim to criticize the victim and to talk about the good times and the bad times.
- Allow co-victims to get angry at the criminal or juvenile justice system, the criminal or juvenile murderer, the victim, or simply the unfairness of life. Anger needs to be expressed.
- Let the co-victims know you remember, too, by remembering them at holiday times, on the anniversary date of the murder, and the victim's birthday.
- Allow the co-victims some occasional "time out" from day-to-day pressures. Encourage them to take a day off from work or a day out of the house, etc., and if possible, offer to help with the children.
- Reassure the co-victims that the murder was neither their fault nor the victim's fault.
- Tell co-victims that you are sorry the murder happened and it is horrible that someone they loved was killed.
- Support co-victims in their efforts to reconstruct their lives, even if it means a major change in lifestyle.
- Let co-victims know that you will remain their friend and they mean a great deal to you.
- Learn as much as possible about the case before speaking with the family. If the information is not flattering to the deceased but may affect the investigation of the case, alert the family to these facts as tactfully and sensitively as possible. Prepare them for media reporting of such information.
- Determine co-victims' needs for contact. Some will require constant contact, while others will want minimal intervention. Temper your need to help if assistance is not needed or wanted.
- Become familiar with the stages of grief and additional stress factors.
- Personalize the deceased. Ask the family to tell you stories or show you pictures. Ask about the victim's hobbies, dreams, and desires.
- Protect the co-victims from unwanted media attention but assist those victims who wish to speak to the media.
- Determine if co-victims need assistance with funeral arrangements or other family notification responsibilities. If yes, offer to help.
- Realize that financial considerations are paramount in any murder, but especially those in which the victim contributed significantly to the family's coffers. Help co-victims to file for insurance benefits, crime victims compensation, co-victims benefits under Social Security, etc., and to seek restitution orders through victim impact statements and pre-sentence investigation reports.
- Provide co-victims with the names of mental health counselors or support groups.
- Provide co-victims with information about the investigation and criminal or juvenile justice process. Keep them informed of its progress. (Please note that although most victims will want to know even the smallest detail, not all victims will want this information. Find out the victim's desire for information and act accordingly. It is helpful to identify one family member who will disseminate information throughout the family; however, do not focus all of your attention on this one family member.)
- Realize that each family member will have individual needs. Work with all family members to determine their need for information and support. Do not forget to include grandparents, siblings (where age appropriate), or other extended family members.
- Be aware that coping with the trauma of homicide can lead to substance abuse problems for co-victims. Make appropriate referrals, when indicated, to qualified mental health professionals who specialize in the assessment of substance abuse problems.
- Review, as necessary, all autopsy and/or murder scene photographs to determine the suitability of family members remaining in the courtroom. Some co-victims will want to remain no matter how graphic the evidence is. Remember, the final decision is up to the co-victim.
- Consider using a family friend or distant relative to identify the victim in any court proceedings if using an immediate family member will disqualify him or her from remaining in the courtroom throughout the trial. (Check beforehand with the prosecutor concerning state laws or court rules allowing this.)
- Provide all court services to co-victims that are available to victims of other crimes such as court accompaniment or secure waiting rooms. Assistance in preparing victim impact statements, documenting restitution, or completing pre-sentence investigation reports is appropriate.
- Alert the prosecutor or law enforcement representative of co-victims' concerns for safety or other emotional or physical concerns.
- Inform co-victims of their rights to file civil suits against the offender or third parties, where applicable.
- Prepare a brochure explaining the emotional ramifications of murder on the co-victims and, with permission of the co-victim, send materials or meet with co-victims' employers so that allowances can be made for missed days from work due either to court or emotional needs.
- Be prepared to provide long-term victim assistance in cases involving the death penalty.
- Help co-victims understand the appellate process and provide guidance through any/all appeals that the offender may file. An excellent resource guide to the appellate process is available from the Office of the Attorney General in Missouri.
- Provide guidance to co-victims about rights and services available in the post-sentencing phases of their cases. Nearly all states and the federal government have corrections-based victim advocates who provide information and assistance regarding victim protection, notification of offender status and location, restitution, victim input, and parole release hearings.
- Ensure that co-victims know their rights regarding parole release hearings (in applicable cases). These include notification of parole consideration hearings; victim protection to address real and perceived fears; restitution and other financial/legal obligations; the provision of victim impact statements (including both a record of the VIS at sentencing as well as oral, written, videotaped, or audio taped VIS at parole hearings); and information and referrals to supportive services in the community.
- In death penalty cases, determine if the co-victims have the right to witness the execution. Many states provide specialized services and separate viewing areas for co-victims. It is also important to provide follow-on supportive services, such as accompaniment to the cemetery in which the victim is buried, and media intervention.
- Determine if surviving family members have any desire to meet face-to-face with the criminal who murdered their loved one. While this concept may seem much too painful to some people, the state of Texas has over 300 surviving family members of homicide victims who want to meet with the murderers of their loved ones through its highly structured victim-offender mediation program. It is the victim's choice and, if the opportunity is available, it is important to offer co-victims this option.
- For surviving family members who have reached a point of reconstructing their lives in the aftermath of homicide, determine if they would like to participate in programs such as victim impact panels. Some of the most powerful speakers about victim trauma and the injustices victims endure, for both convicted offenders and justice professionals, are people who have suffered the most immeasurable loss of a loved one through violent means.
P.O. Box 3696, Oak Brook, Illinois 60522
A nationwide self-help organization for parents and family members who have experienced the death of a child or sibling. Assists them in positive resolution of the grief experienced upon the death of a child. Provides referrals to local chapters, publishes pamphlets and books on parental and sibling grief, and maintains a resource catalog.
511 E. John Carpenter Freeway
Irving, TX 75062
MADD is more than just moms – we're real people – dads, young people, and other concerned individuals who want to stop drunk driving, support the victims of this violent crime, and prevent underage drinking.
NOVA, 510 King Street, Suite 424
Alexandria, VA 22314
Toll-Free: 1-800-TRY-NOVA (1-800-879-6682)
The National Organization for Victim Assistance is a private, non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization of victim and witness assistance programs and practitioners, criminal justice agencies and professionals, mental health professionals, researchers, former victims and survivors, and others committed to the recognition and implementation of victim rights and services.
699 Prince Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) serves as a national clearinghouse and resource center on issues relating to child victimization, specifically the abduction and sexual exploitation of American youth. Opened in June, 1984, the National Center works in cooperation with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) at the U.S. Department of justice in an effort to reduce crimes against children and better address the needs of victim families and the professionals serving them.