Web-only Feature

Web-only Feature

Working with Survivors of Homicide Victims

What to Know When Providing Therapeutic Support

The Intersection of the Community, Media, and Criminal Justice System

After an individual is murdered, society turns its attention to the victim’s family members or loved ones. Communities often become captivated by the circumstances surrounding homicides. The media may feed the curiosity of the public by providing ongoing updates on cases, background information on the victim and perpetrator, and heart-tugging snapshots of loved one’s experiences.

Once the dust has settled, life moves on. But, not for families who are still grieving. This leaves families hoping to move forward with their lives, but simultaneously feeling the emptiness from where a fundamental piece of their family used to be.

In fact, the evolution of publications on victims’ family members is quite fascinating. Articles on this topic did not start appearing in the literature until roughly the 1980s, when the DSM-III incorporated the PTSD diagnosis. Thus, there remains the question – were survivors regarded as being traumatized or severely affected, prior to this diagnosis? And, what attention, if any, was given to these family members in their grieving process?

As therapists, we too may not keep survivors of homicide victims in the forefront of our research, clinical, and advocacy work. Though research and articles are available, these resources are relatively limited. This article will review the difficulties experienced by survivors of homicide victims and provide clinicians with tools that may be helpful when working with this population.

Unsupportive interactions

Survivors may be met by supportive and unsupportive interactions with others. There are often instances of others acting impatiently and with irritation at the time taken to grieve (Asaro, 2001). These feelings may be expressed by others both directly and indirectly with statements such as the following:

“I think it’s time that you move on now”;

“It’s time that you let them go”

“You can’t keep using that as an excuse”

“That is all you talk about now. Can we focus on something else?”

Clinicians can recognize the negative impact that unsupportive comments may have on survivors. As a way to help combat these experiences, it may be beneficial to work on creating their own boundaries and developing assertiveness skills. For example, statements such as, “I understand that you believe I should move on, but when you push me to move forward, I feel uncomfortable and misunderstood. What I need from you is support as I focus on healing” may be a way for survivors to state their problem, the impact it has on them, and their needs to others.

As a clinician, it is also important that you walk with the survivor through the ambivalence they may be experiencing while validating and empathizing with their experience. Survivors may be faced with the desire to move forward with their lives while believing that moving on may result in feelings of loneliness and fear that their loved one will be forgotten.

Discussing the loss

When opportunities are provided, and presented as supportive and safe, discussing the loss may be difficult for survivors for a variety of reasons.

Circumstances surrounding the homicide may result in survivors experiencing feelings of shame. If the victim was involved in “deviant” behaviors that may have contributed to their death, survivors may feel shame regarding the victim’s involvement. The perception of others that they allowed the victim’s behaviors may contribute to feelings of shame and guilt.

As a result, victims may feel stigmatized when discussing the loss with others. The shame and stigma associated with the death of the victim may result in survivors feeling inhibited when discussing the loss. Difficulty discussing the loss, feelings regarding the loss, and interactions with unsupportive individuals may result in feelings of isolation and loneliness for survivors. Feelings of isolation and loneliness may present as anger when others forget the death of their loved one and do not allow them the opportunity to discuss their emotions (Asaro, 2001).

Behaviors such as listening, companionship and help with problem-solving have been noted as supportive behaviors by survivors (Bard, 1982). These skills may be used by clinicians as a means to help survivors feel comfortable and safe sharing their experiences. This may provide a corrective experience for survivors who have been made to feel shameful.

Clinicians should remain mindful that survivors may be battling with the sudden aspect of the loss, which left them with no control. Rather than pushing for survivors to recount the trauma in a more formal exposure-based manner, clinicians should allow survivors to have control over how and when they share their experiences.

Interactions with police and the legal system

Police officers are an integral part of the experiences of victims’ families. They are often the first contact families have with the criminal justice system, ranging from families contacting officers due to concern for their loved ones to officers notifying families of the death of the victim (Englebrecht, Mason, & Adams, 2014).

Once cause of death is deemed to be homicide, officers proceed with administrative and procedural requirements in order to seek justice for victims. As a result, exchanges with officers can be lacking in emotional connection or patience as family members process the shocking news.

As cases proceed through the court system, judges, juries, attorneys, and so on are focused on legal aspects of the case rather than emotional ramifications and impacts. In other words, family members’ emotional experiences are often neglected in lieu of procedure and administration.

The indirect victimization of survivors of homicide victims may result in their experiences with the criminal justice system, grief, and coping to differ from victims of other crimes (Green & Pomeroy, 2007). As cases proceed through the court system, family stress may be negatively impacted by perceptions of a lack of involvement in the victim’s case and belief that the victim’s case is being mishandled. Court cases ending in plea bargains, short sentences, or probation for perpetrators may result in families perceiving the court system as being accommodating to perpetrators, resulting in difficulties understanding why a system they believed would protect the interests of the victim is not harsher on perpetrators (Englebrecht, Mason, & Adams, 2014). With the realization that the court system may not be what they consider to be fair, survivors may experience feelings of discouragement and anger.

It may be helpful for clinicians to be aware of the different options available for families to involve themselves in the victim’s legal case. Family contribution opportunities include testifying, providing evidence for the prosecutor’s case, meeting with the prosecution, producing a victim impact statement at sentencing, and meeting with the parole board to discuss imminent release of the perpetrator.

While these options provide space for survivors to contribute and share their experiences, they may also prompt difficult emotional responses. Survivors may experience nervousness prior to and during testifying. As they testify, being asked questions related to the victim and details of the case may result in feelings of sadness or symptoms of trauma such as hyperarousal, intrusion and flashbacks as they are reminded of their loss and the gruesome details of the victim’s death. Survivors may experience guilt or disappointment if they are unable to provide evidence that would benefit the victim’s case. Meeting with the prosecution may be discouraging if they receive news of setbacks regarding the case. Producing a victim impact statement can be a tearful experience as survivors detail their relationship with the victim, the negative impact the death has had on them, and their feelings toward the perpetrator for stripping them of a life that can never be replaced or returned. When meeting with a parole board, survivors may be faced with a great sense of responsibility to advocate for justice for the victim and feelings of nervousness regarding the possibility that parole may be granted to the perpetrator.

Clinicians should be aware that emotional experiences continue throughout the court process. Be prepared to discuss these emotional responses and to provide skills that may help survivors cope. It may be useful for clinicians to acknowledge that the justice system may not be what they consider to be fair while also helping survivors navigate how they can best make a difference using the options available to them that allow advocacy for the victim and closure for themselves. Due to the uncertain nature of the court system, clinicians may also help survivors by preparing for worst case scenarios such as assignment of an intolerant judge or the perpetrator receiving a plea bargain resulting in survivors losing the opportunity to testify as a means of advocacy. Rehearsing the victim impact statement with survivors may also ease nervous feelings related to presenting it in court and prepare them for the emotions they may experience while addressing the court. Incorporating distress tolerance and emotion regulation skills is also recommended.

Interactions with the Media

The media can be an effective tool to distribute information to the public, but for family members of homicide victims, experiences with the media can be rather intrusive. During a time where families may require privacy, the sensational circumstances of the victim’s death and the family’s grief may be exposed and exploited.

Once shared with the public, the circumstances surrounding the homicide may result in either support or criticism from the public. Victims viewed as innocent or relatable receive rallying support. On the other hand, victims who have been found to contribute to their deaths by engaging in “deviant” behaviors receive diminished support from the public and criticism of their families who are perceived to have condoned the victim’s behavior (Riches & Dawson, 1998).

Consider the case of JonBenét Ramsey, an American child pageant queen who was murdered in her home at the age of six on December 26, 1996. Her case swept the nation, captivating audiences as they followed the case development. Her beauty, young age, innocence, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding her case garnered support as hopes for the perpetrator’s capture grew. Years later, her case is periodically broadcasted by news outlets, documentaries, and online commentators.

On the other hand, consider the case of Emmett Till, a 14- year- old African American male who was lynched in Mississippi while visiting family on August 28, 1955. Emmett was brutally murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. Ms. Bryant claimed that Emmett grabbed her, made lustful advances, and whistled at her as she worked behind the counter of a grocery store. In retaliation, Ms. Bryant’s husband, Rob Bryant, and his half- brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett from his uncle’s home before murdering him and throwing his body into the Tallahatchie River. His case went to court two weeks after his burial against both perpetrators. It took less than an hour of deliberation before the “not guilty” verdict was issued, with jurors stating the state had failed to prove the identity of the body. In 2017, it was revealed that Carolyn Bryant admitted Emmett never touched, threatened, or harassed her. Unlike the occurrences of lynching before Emmett, his story received widespread attention, but most of the coverage occurred within the first few months of his case. As the years pass, there is fewer coverage of the anniversary of his death and his case is rarely mentioned when discussing the early history of the civil rights movement.

Clinicians should be prepared to help clients evaluate the costs and benefits of engaging with the media and limiting their exposure to the media. Costs may include further traumatization, added stress, and criticism by others. Benefits may include closure, contribution to justice for the victim, and receipt of support from others. A survivor who may not be emotionally ready to engage with the media runs the risk of coming across as “unhinged”. While this may gain sympathy from the public, the experience may be psychologically harmful. If a survivor denies the opportunity to engage with the media, they may run the risk of later feeling that they missed an opportunity to advocate for the victim. As a way to cope with their loss, some survivors find it useful to engage in advocacy efforts (Englebrecht, Mason, & Adams, 2016) that may include interviews with news outlets. With this, they are able to find meaning in their loss and work towards helping others who may relate to their experiences. On the other hand, the violent nature of the homicide portrayed by the media may aggravate psychological symptoms experienced by survivors.

As clinicians working with survivors attempting to navigate their interactions with the media, it may be important to assess their stability and how exposure would likely impact them. Consider the phases of healing survivors may experience. Initially, survivors may struggle navigating their lives as a result of the loss and the psychological ramifications. During this time, skill development, crisis management, and focus on relieving symptoms may be necessary. At this point, survivors’ may be susceptible to further emotional damage. As survivors gain stability, clinicians may find it useful to explore the grief of survivors and process the emotions tied to their grief such as anger, sadness, and shock. Unresolved grief may make it difficult for survivors to gain closure using the media, but their stability may contribute to their ability to engage in a coherent manner. As survivors work through their grief, they may be able to gain strength from their loss and look to use their experience to provide meaning. Their interactions with the media may be focused on advocating for the victim as a means to help others with similar experiences.

If possible, a helpful option may be to limit exposure to violent details of the homicide presented by the media, while allowing for advocacy if the survivor is comfortable to do so. While it may be difficult for survivors to interact with the media, some survivors may become increasingly comfortable engaging with the media and gain strength as they use this as a means of advocacy.

Summary

Survivors of homicide experience the difficult and unexpected task of adjusting to their “new normal” as they grieve the loss of their loved ones. While clinicians have the skills to provide support, knowledge of the hardships survivors may face strengthen the impact clinicians may have when working with survivors. The negative experiences survivors may encounter when interacting with members of the community, the criminal justice system, and the media, may compound feelings of isolation. Understanding clinicians have the potential to provide corrective experiences for survivors as they process their grief and work towards finding closure.

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Cite This Article

Janvier, S. (2020, July). Working with survivors of homicide victims: What to know when providing therapeutic support. [Web article]. Retrieved from https://societyforpsychotherapy.org/working-with-survivors-of-homicide-victims

References

Asaro, M. R. (2001). Working with adult homicide survivors, part II: Helping family members cope with murder. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 37(4), 115-24, 136.

Bard, M. (1982). A retrospective study of homicide survivor adaptation [Final Report, Grant No. R01 MH31685]. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Mental Health.

Englebrecht, C. M., Mason, D. T., & Adams, P. J. (2016). Responding to homicide: An exploration of the ways in which family members react to and cope with the death of a loved one. Omega, 73(4), 355.

Englebrecht, C., PhD., Mason, D. T., PhD., & Adams, M. J., EdD. (2014). The experiences of homicide victims’ families with the criminal justice system: An exploratory study. Violence and Victims, 29(3), 407-21.

Green, D., & Pomeroy, E. (2007). Crime victimization: Assessing differences between violent and nonviolent experiences. Victims and Offenders, 2, 63-76.

Riches, G. & Dawson, P. (1998). Spoiled memories: Problems of grief resolution in families bereaved through murder. Mortality3(2), 143-159.

Rynearson, E. K. (1984). Bereavement after homicide: A descriptive study. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 141(11), 1452-1454.

Sharpe, T.L., Osteen, P., Frey, J.J., & Michalopoulos, L. M., (2014). Coping with grief responses Among African American family members of homicide victims. Violence and Victims, 29(2), 332- 47.

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