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The Impact and Trauma of Death by Violence

(Based on an original article by Angela Driscoll,  MIAHIP, an early supervisor and mentor to the Families of Murder Victims programme, published in ‘Eisteach’ Winter 2000 issue)

Established by former organisation Victim Support in 1996, now known as Support After Homicide (SAH), is funded by the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime. The service for bereaved families has continued unbroken since 1996.

In her article Angela Driscoll writes about the impact and trauma of murder, ‘a heinous crime that casts a long shadow on the victim’s family and friends and changes people’s lives forever’.

In the early 1990s violent crime was on the increase, particularly in the Dublin area. Families/friends of murder/manslaughter victims often turned to the Victim Support organization, seeking information and emotional support.  There was therefore a growing need for a dedicated service for bereaved families.

Bereavement through murder or manslaughter, by its traumatic nature, presents a set of very particular problems and difficulties.  Families are suddenly brought into contact with various statutory bodies of which they may have little or no experience.  Sudden violent death leaves people completely unprepared for the many issues they will have to face and deal with.

On her role within the developing service, Angela wrote:

I joined the fledgling service in 1998 as an External Consultant, to provide supervision, support and training to volunteers working closely with families bereaved by murder.

Trained volunteers work at the coalface of the service.  The work is exacting – demanding time, emotional and intellectual energy and stamina.  There is a high level of commitment among volunteers, who, despite the difficult nature of the work, find it fulfilling and satisfying.  They know that by offering emotional and practical support, they are helping families in a very real and important way. 

Impact when Someone Close is Murdered

Violent death is traumatic because it is sudden and unexpected.  It is the combination of the sudden and the violent that is so overwhelmingly shocking.  Violent death is outside the range of normal human experience.  People are unable to cope with the events and emotions that follow the trauma.  Normal routines and continuity of families’/friends’ lives are disrupted.  Everything is utterly changed forever.  For many people such an event marks the loss of innocence.  Our perception of the world and the people in it changes.  Our view of ourselves too can change.

Psychological Effects of Murder

Inner turmoil.  Relatives and friends struggle to make sense of the murder, finding it difficult to believe that it is true.

Anger.  Victim’s family and friends feel huge anger and often desire to wreak revenge upon the murderer(s).

Shattered Beliefs

Murder happens to other people – not to us, not to our family.  Somehow we believe that death will not visit our household.  We believe ourselves to be safe.  We believe that most people are intrinsically good, and will not harm us, or our loved ones.  Death by violence shatters all our beliefs.  We also tend to want to believe in fairness and justice.  So if there has been a wrongdoing, there will be quick retribution from police and the courts.  When this does not happen, family/friends of a murder victim can feel let down, helpless and shattered by the unfairness of it all.  Relatives are filled with anguish and blame.  They feel they could have done something to prevent the murder.

Becoming Withdrawn

Relatives of the victim often isolate themselves.  Filled with a sense of helplessness and fear, they feel no one can possibly understand the enormity of their loss (and in a sense, they are right).  By virtue of their circumstances, they feel different, ashamed, marked out.  Feeling insecure and abandoned, they can withdraw, cutting off contact with others.  There is the stigma of violent death.  A family can feel stigmatized, objects of public curiosity.  The drama of murder can arouse in people a sense of avidity; they can ask prying questions, jump to conclusions, become careless with families’ feelings.  So relatives feel a need to protect themselves, adding to their sense of isolation.

The Media

The media have a job to do, we all accept that.  However, we also know of the pain and anger experienced by the surviving family and friends when insensitive journalists intrude into their private grief in pursuit of “the story” thus adding to their shock.  They can experience it as unfeeling and callous.

Law Enforcement Agencies/Court System

Many families find the experience of being involved with the law, a difficult and painful one.  It can seem to outraged families that the law is there to protect the murderer and not avenge the murder victim.  They can feel overwhelmed with strong feelings of injustice and anger and being victimized a second time.  At this time, families and friends of murder/manslaughter victims often turn to the victim support organization to ask practical questions, seeking information in

preparation for what they may encounter.

Other Reactions

Different members of the family may react in varying ways, and this different way of coping or showing distress may of itself, cause problems and tension.  Murder can split up families, thus creating more victims.  Post- traumatic stress may take several years to manifest. Often families are numb for a long time after the event.  It is as if body and mind can only bear just so much of the horror and pain of it all.  Unfortunately, families/friends attending a court case, a few years after the murder was committed, will re-live those traumatic events.  The impact is felt all over again.  A verdict of murder is not always given – sometimes the verdict is manslaughter or death by Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH).  This can be devastating for family/friends who often see this verdict as a miscarriage of justice.

Physical/Emotional Impact

The body stores all emotional experiences, both good and bad.  When we experience trauma, the body feels that impact.  Often the distress experienced, manifests itself immediately.

  • Heartbeat increases, palpitations are felt
  • Breathlessness, shallow breathing
  • Nausea, indigestion, diarrhea or constipation
  • Muscle tension, clamped teeth, aching neck and shoulders, headaches
  • Tiredness, sleep patterns change
  • Over-eating or loss of appetite
  • Increased smoking, alcohol, drug consumption

It is worth noting that unless members of the family/friends who are showing signs of distress can avail of support and counseling at this time, the body will store the distress because there is little or no release.  Much further down the line, the body will somatise the experience and the person can begin to experience frequent illnesses such as flu, colds, sore throats, urinary infections, sometimes leading to more complex illnesses.  Depression often develops.

Changes in Personality

The complexity and upheaval caused by a murder can make people behave in ways that are uncharacteristic.  They may lose their ability to communicate, or communicate their distress in ways, which cause difficulties for others.  They may lose their ability to show affection/care for others.  Bitterness and hatred prevail, their perception of people and life changes; problems begin to surface in their personal relationships.  Many feel the murder/manslaughter has changed their lives forever.

Impact on children, bereaved by, or who witness a murder

Unfortunately there is a dearth of child bereavement counseling services, which means a waiting list of 3-6 months for children bereaved by violence to receive counselling.  This is far too long for anyone to wait for a service, but most particularly for a child.  It is most important that children bereaved by murder and manslaughter be given priority for counseling to alleviate emotional problems that may well occur in later life.  Children who have lost someone who was closely loved are devastated by the murder because it shatters their sense of security.  Sometimes parents who are equally devastated are unable to respond to their children’s emotional needs.  The child may feel doubly abandoned.  A child may withdraw to a silent, pained place within.  Equally a child may begin to act out the shock and pain in angry, aggressive behaviour. Unless violently bereaved children are helped, the painful, bewildered and confused feelings are repressed (or acted out).  The emotional upheaval experienced can cause deep, lasting damage to the psyche, which can manifest itself in addictions of different kinds, depression or suicide.

The difficulties for families in the Investigation Process

The process of the murder/manslaughter investigation is one of great difficulty for families, impacting in a number of ways that cause further distress.  Shocked, uncomprehending and traumatised by the violent death, family/friends struggle to understand the complexities of a variety of issues connected with the murder.

Firstly, there is an urgent need in people to have clear and accurate information.  This is of vital importance for the family.  While Gardai dealing with the case endeavor to help the devastared family in a sensitive way, a lack of communication and misinformation about legal procedures can and does happen.  Misunderstandings, in what is a complicated and involved process, may inevitably occur, causing further pain to families; sometimes they feel the original trauma is being compounded.

Most members of the public only have a vague understanding of the investigation process.  So when a bereaved family first comes into contact with this process, they have a lot of questions that need answering.  For example – what is the role of the Director of Public Prosecutions?  What exactly does the State Pathologist do?  When can the body be released for burial?  What is the role of the coroner?  Indeed, identifying the body is extremely distressing; relatives may want to touch or kiss the person.  If the Gardai are still collecting forensic evidence, this may not be permitted.

Then there is the agonizing wait for the person(s) who committed the crime to be caught.  Once a suspect has been identified, he/she is taken to the Garda station for questioning.  The alleged offender may then be detained; the duration of detention of a suspect depends on the grounds on which they have been arrested.  It is a constitutional right for a person to get bail.  Even for serious, indictable offences such as murder, the accused often gets bail.  Families are horrified and upset when the accused is allowed out on bail.  Sometimes the accused lives close by the bereaved family and is seen out on the streets as a “free” man.  This is very hard for the family/friends to live with.  Families need a lot of support at the time of the court case; they need help to be realistic and accept the outcome of the trial.  This can be very hard for some people – they can feel victimised again at what they see as the unfairness of the system.

Attending the trial day after day, places great strain on family and friends.  Painful memories come flooding back and they re-live the anguish of the events again.  The fact that members of the public may attend the trial can be difficult for some family members.  As mentioned previously, sometimes the charge of murder changes to one of manslaughter.  This impacts on an already aggrieved family.  Again when an offender is released early for good behaviour, this leads to bitter resentment because the family feel the full term of the sentence should be served.

The Grieving Process

When I began to think about how murder/manslaughter can exacerbate the normal grieving process, I realized that although there are many books written about death and dying, there does not appear to be a great deal written about this particular area.  Is the mourning process different for those who have been bereaved by violent death?  If so, what are the differences likely to be?  Does murder compromise the normal mourning processes and rituals?

Many of the same feelings and emotions are present as would be if the person had died unexpectedly or of natural causes.  Shock, anger, denial, loss, sadness, anxiety, guilt and self-reproach, loneliness, fatigue, yearning for the lost person.  William Worden in his book on “Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy” writes about the 4 tasks of mourning.

  1. To accept the reality of the loss.
  2. To work through the pain of grief.
  3. To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing.
  4. To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life.

It seems to me that these “tasks” are tough enough, but when the death of someone who was loved and cared about, comes about by murder, then the dimensions of grief are bound to be complicated.  Equally, being able to grieve adequately for someone also depends on the type of relationship the survivor had with the person, it is often assumed that the dead person was always loved; maybe so.  But that love can be highly ambivalent, with unexpressed hostility.  This can inhibit the tasks of mourning and portend excessive anger and guilt for the person left behind.  Getting on with the tasks of mourning is almost impossible until the legal aspects of the case are resolved.  The judicial system moves slowly and legal procedures often take a long time to reach completion.  These delays prolong grieving for family members – there is unfinished business – no closure is possible.  But then I wonder – can there ever be proper closure?

I came across a paper written by John O’Donoghue entitled “Murder and Mayham”.  He writes “ the grief subsequent to a murder is distinct because of the many specific exacerbants particular to it”.  He goes on to pose the philosophical questions – What is the meaning to life?  How can the bereaved family make sense of someone, often a stranger, needlessly killing their son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, father or partner?  What of justice or evil, what role do they have in this whole affair?  These may not seem like the more immediate features of grief, but they are the ones that often sustain the grief for many years.

In his paper entitled “Psychiatric Problems following Bereavement by Murder or Manslaughter” psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes writes about people who have suffered major bereavement “(they) commonly lose the sense of invulnerability that enables most of us to move about the world without undue anxiety.  It is hardly surprising that some of those bereaved by murder experienced chronic fear, shut themselves away, avoided people and places associated with their loss and were unable to go to work”.

The nature of the death of the victim is of vital importance to the bereaved.  How exactly did they die?  Did they suffer?  What were they conscious of immediately before death?  Was there a sexual component to the crime?  To think about the suffering of the deceased is unendurable.  The self-reproach – “if only I had been there, I could have prevented it.  If only I had not let her go out that evening…”  People torture themselves with questions like these and it can go on this way for years.  So it is this, which makes murder/manslaughter such a painfully protracted grief to bear.

The fact that the offender will eventually be released back into society after serving his/her sentence is equally hard for many families.  Their family member is dead, never to return, and yet the person who took that life, is now free to continue their own life. 

I have also given some thought to the family of the offender.  What must it be like for them?  They too have suffered greatly as has the person who committed the crime.  The ripple effect of murder encompasses many.  Within both sets of families, the stresses and strains brought about by the murder can bring about individual reactions to the death.  Murder can split families asunder.  The experience is devastating, the consequences are severe and can be long lasting.  Some families become closer, others do not.

There is not enough research done on the psychological effects of murder (certainly not in Ireland) and specialist counselling services for families bereaved by murder need to be researched and developed.

Summation

Again I quote from Murray Parkes  “ …. the combination of sudden, unexpected, horrific and untimely death, with all the rage and guilt which followed, and often, the overwhelming of the family as a support system to the bereaved, is bound to intervene with normal grieving”.  Although he is supportive of therapeutic intervention, and asserts that it undoubtedly helps victims, he points out that it should not blind us to the fact that nothing can undo the memories or fill the gap left in the family by a murder.  However horrific the circumstances, most people do eventually come to terms with them, order does somehow emerge from the ghastly chaos, and despite everything, life does go on.  The awfulness of the paradox is evident – the life force is easily, casually, snuffed out and yet for those left behind, life relentlessly moves on, propelling us forward.  What was utterly extraordinary becomes ordinary, and the family and friends begin to accept reality, however anguished that may be.  A new, different self-image begins to emerge; others are seen differently also.  There is a loss of optimism, of confidence and there is the beginning of a gritty realism – a deeper, more painful understanding, that in spite of our so-called civilized guises, we still pose a dangerous threat to each other.  The dark, destructive murderous forces can, and unfortunately do, break through, wreaking havoc with destroying families and relationships.

And yet, and yet, despite all of this, we still find ways to reach out to each other, we instinctively know how to comfort and care for the bereaved person, our hearts and souls are touched by the distress we witness, their tears become our tears.  Murderous intent is replaced with the power of love.

I would like to dedicate this article to all the volunteers,who unselfishly, and with love, honour the victims and their families, by giving so abundantly of their time and energy and who make a very real difference to people’s lives and how they are finally able to overcome the impact and trauma of murder.

Angela Driscoll is a Member of the Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy; an Accredited Supervisor of IAHIP; a Consulting Psychotherapist / Supervisor, and Practitioner in treatment of Trauma in the Body

References

O’Donoghue, John, Murder and Mayhem

Murray Parkes, Colin, Psychiatric Problems Following Bereavement by Murder or Manslaughter

Worden, J, Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy

Editor’s note

In 2016, the support programme for bereaved families and friends of murder victims, which began in 1996, now known as Support After Homicide, marked 20 years unbroken service to families. 

Ann Meade MBE, MIACP, MGII,

Founding Member.

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