Living after murder.
During the first week after the murder happened, you probably felt a confusing mixture of feelings.
There may have been numbness, not really feeling much at all or disbelief that such a thing could have happened to your family.
Things may have felt chaotic as family members rushed around organising things, police visiting the house, maybe giving a statement to police yourself. Someone from the family probably had to identify your loved one’s body at the morgue. This was probably a confusing and uncertain time for you.
Viewing your loved ones, body.
It is usually a good idea for family members who want to, to view the body of the dead person. This can help the grieving process and helps you to really believe that the murder has happened; you can also say goodbye and anything else you want to say to them. Some people who did not take the opportunity to do this regret it later on and can have a harder time accepting that the person has really gone. Most people need to know exactly what happened to their loved one and it can help to see this with their own eyes.
We all have vivid imaginations and we often imagine something much worse than the reality; there is no limit to your imagination but there are limits to what your eyes see. Often well-meaning people try to protect you and discourage you from seeing your loved one’s body, thinking it would be too traumatic. Whether or not to view the body is your choice – do what is right for you.
If the deceased was badly injured or mutilated during the murder it is still possible to view them with the injured parts covered. However, it is equally important that you are not forced or persuaded into viewing your loved one if you really do not want to. There should be a social worker or counsellor at the morgue to help your family through the identification and viewing. They will talk to you before you see your loved one to explain what to expect.
The funeral is an important part of the grieving process. Most cultures recognise the importance of ritual after a death, when the deceased person’s family and friends can gather together and publicly grieve and the funeral is such a ritual.
The life of the dead person is celebrated and remembered; the more personal and meaningful the funeral, the better. Sometimes adults try to protect young people by discouraging or not allowing them to attend the funeral. This is not at all helpful to the grieving process and denies you the chance to say your last goodbye and to join in with the public grieving. If you did not or were not allowed to go to the funeral, you can still have a ‘funeral’ or memorial of your own, in a way that means most to you. You could play appropriate music, write your own speech, mount photos; light a candle – something that expresses how you feel about the dead person and what they mean to you.
The word ‘trauma’ refers to an unusual and unpleasant event occurring that is outside of your normal everyday experience. It was first used when talking about war veterans and their experiences of seeing fellow soldiers killed and the fear of their own deaths. It is now used to explain the experiences of people who have been in a life-threatening situation themselves or who have witnessed the death or serious injury of another person. It also includes the family and friends of a person who has been murdered – just finding out that a loved one has been killed is a trauma in itself.
There are many different symptoms of trauma that are experienced by the vast majority of homicide victims. These fall into three categories; those affecting your body, those affecting your thinking and those affecting your feelings. Physical symptoms are easily explained in terms of the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. When we (both humans and animals) perceive a threat to our wellbeing, our bodies react in ways that prepare us to either fight the danger or run from it. This process has evolved over many thousands of years and originally was very helpful in the survival of the species; our bodies still have these reactions today. Unfortunately these reactions are not very helpful with modern-day traumas and can cause unpleasant symptoms.
Many people think they are going crazy and some of the symptoms do feel like that – please be reassured that you are not going mad, you are reacting in a normal way to an abnormal situation. These symptoms are usually short-lived and go away on their own. While the symptoms last there are some things you can do to minimise their impact. If you are not starting to see some improvement within a few months, it is a good idea to see a counsellor.
Physical symptoms of trauma.
Feeling tired or unmotivated.
Trauma and grief are exhausting; they demand much of your energy so little is left over for daily tasks. Try to keep regular hours and get enough sleep until the tiredness goes – you may need more sleep than usual or try taking a short afternoon nap if possible.
Feeling unwell, minor complaints such as headaches, stiff neck, feeling sick, colds and flu.
When you are stressed, your immune system becomes weaker. This means that you are more likely to catch any viruses or bugs going around. Stress can cause tension headaches and stiff, aching muscles. Try taking a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement at this time to keep your immune system strong – particularly if you are not eating much.
Appetite disturbances, often not wanting to eat or, comfort eating,.
When you are traumatised your digestive system closes down temporarily (in caveman days this worked as it made the body lighter and therefore quicker when running away from danger). Some people report
not wanting to eat much for the first few days or weeks. This is OK; eat small amounts when you can, drink lots of fluids and take a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement.
Being easily startled by sudden noises or movements – feeling ,jumpy.
This is common in families of victims and is probably partly an automatic reflex to protect yourself and other loved ones. It may
also be because now something terrible has happened once; you feel that it could happen again. Most of us think that murder is something that happens in the movies or on TV, not to normal, ordinary people – it is unsettling to have this idea shattered.
Feeling unable to relax.
Your body has so much extra adrenaline going around it, it is no wonder it is hard to slow down or relax. You may well feel very tired after this, it may feel as though you have used up all your energy at once. Try to pace yourself.
Insomnia, nightmares, waking in the early hours of the morning or sleeping too much are very common problems. Everything can seem worse at night when it is dark and everyone else seems to be asleep. You often have more time to think than during the day, sometimes
life seems so busy that night-time is the only time you have to slow down. Frequent or recurring nightmares may mean that you are not giving yourself enough time during waking hours to think and talk about the murder and how you are feeling; therefore your brain continues to process it while you are asleep. Aim to go to bed and get up at the same time each day, wind down gradually during the evening, avoid stimulation such as loud music, exciting TV programs, and caffeine during the evenings. Some form of relaxation or meditation can help, there are lots of books and CDs around that can help. If you are having a hard time during the night, you can always call our support line and talk to someone about what is happening.
Cognitive symptoms of trauma.
Difficulty concentrating or paying attention.
Many people find that for a time the trauma that has occurred is the only thing they can think about, everything else seems unimportant. They are unable to concentrate as they did before, obviously this can cause problems at school/TAFE/uni/work. This is why it is important to let the Principal, school counsellor, exam boards etc know what has happened – they may give your situation special consideration.
Be gentle with yourself and don’t expect to be on top form for a while – you won’t be. ‘Flashbacks’ are common in people who are traumatised. A flashback is when a person suddenly re-experiences feelings they had at an earlier time or feels as though the traumatic event is happening again. This can be distressing and the person having the flashback needs to be calmly told where they are; whom they are with and that they are safe. If this happens to you, find someone you trust to talk to until you are feeling better.
Difficulty making decisions and solving everyday problems. This common problem is similar to that of having poor concentration – you can’t seem to think straight and think things through the way you usually do. It helps if you can write things down, maybe in a list of pros and cons if this helps you to see things more clearly, literally ‘in black and white’. Take each small problem or decision one at a time to avoid feeling overwhelmed or break down bigger decisions into small parts. Poor memory is a common trauma symptom. Many people find themselves being forgetful or absent-minded and this can be frustrating and annoying.
When we are traumatised we do not take in new information as well as usual and it is not properly stored in the memory. Try not to fight this; it is a normal part of our reaction to trauma. Use written notes, an organiser, your phone, or write a note to yourself on your hand until you don’t need to any more. Trying to remember things, forgetting
and then dealing with the consequences is more hassle than you need right now. Your memory will improve with time!
Emotional symptoms of trauma
Constant thoughts about the murder and wanting to talk about nothing else.
We seem to have a need to talk about what has happened and put terrible events into words. Words are almost always less scary than thoughts, the more often we say words the less power they seem to have. Also, when someone you love has been murdered, often nothing else seems to matter, everyday things seem trivial. Try to find someone who will not get fed up with hearing you repeat the same words and conversations over and over. Friends sometimes get overwhelmed by a person’s need to tell the same story over and over – this is where a counsellor may be useful.
Fear for your own safety and the safety of loved ones.
There may be a genuine concern, such as the offender not having been caught or being allowed out on bail and living nearby. This can be a really frightening situation to be in. If you are feeling afraid, speak to your family about what safeguards can be put in place. Even if
the offender has been caught and is in gaol, many people feel afraid for the safety of themselves and their loved ones. Before the murder happened you knew there were bad people in the world, but now ‘badness’ has touched you personally – it seems much closer.
You may think “it has happened once, it could happen again”, you may find yourself being more safety conscious or just feeling scared in general. We need to have a healthy sense of safety in the modern world but not to be so afraid that we do not live a full life or feel constantly fearful – there needs to be a balance.
Many people improve the safety of their homes after a murder; this helps them to feel safer, particularly at night. If you feel afraid at night it can help if someone can go around the house with you before going to bed ensuring that doors and windows are locked, alarms set, rooms are empty etc. You will not need to do this forever – just while you are feeling so vulnerable.
Inability to feel clear-cut emotions.
Some people find that they can’t identify what they are feeling – usually just at the time when everyone asks “how are you feeling?”. Your emotions have been overworked recently and the body reacts physically to different emotions in similar ways – for example crying and laughing are, physically very similar. Again, this is something that will come back in time when you are feeling less overwhelmed.
Nobody, not even a 6-foot body builder is a match for someone with a gun or knife. They were probably much stronger and bigger than you and they held the power in that situation. They have no power over you now. If you choose to go to court or if you are called as a witness, you will be able to see just how powerless they are. If they are in gaol they will be accompanied by at least two Corrective Services officers (prison guards) and there are always police around too.
You may remember the offender as someone very big and scary and may be surprised to see how weak he appears now. If you were the person to discover the body of the murdered person, this will probably be a horrifying memory for you. The memory may intrude on you a lot of the time, especially when you are trying not to think about it. Please see a counsellor and talk to them about this.
There are simple things you can do to help stop these images when they come into your mind. This usually involves talking about what happened to you over and over and bit by bit until the words and thoughts no longer hurt you as much. An important thing to remember is that everyone who witnessed the murder will see what happened in a slightly different way.
Our memories are not like video cameras that record everything we see exactly the way it happened. If five people witnessed the murder, there will be five slightly different stories about what happened. Many other things affect what we see and remember later, including our expectations, our past history etc, so don’t worry if your memory is not clear – this is common.
About one third of people ‘freeze’ when faced with danger. This resembles what a bird often does when a cat catches it. The bird knows that the cat is only interested in live prey so if it ‘plays dead’ the cat may be fooled, drop it and leave it alone. In very primitive human terms, this is like a person who thinks if they are unnoticed or very quiet they may be safer. This is not something you have to stop and think about but an instinct. Another third of people run or ‘flee’ when faced with danger. This has obvious advantages in getting away from the attacker and is used by many species when in danger. It can be the safest course of action under many circumstances.
The remaining third of people, when faced with danger, ‘spring into action’ or try to take control of the situation. This can be helpful to the person in danger but can also be dangerous if the situation is not safe. The people trying to help could end up being hurt themselves. However, this is the reaction that is often the most admired by other people. Each response then has its advantages and disadvantages.
The important thing to know is that these cannot be analysed from a ‘moral’ point of view or seen as good or bad. People do not choose which of these groups they fall into, it occurs naturally. If you are looking back and feeling shame, guilt or embarrassment about how you reacted to the murder – try not to be too hard on yourself. You did not have a choice in this. It is better to focus on things you can influence, such as how you deal with your grief and support others in theirs. Try not to spend your time and energy in regrets about things that were not your fault and you could not control.
When the young person finds out that their loved one was murdered, they may have some very difficult feelings. As well as the shock of learning the truth about the murder, they may feel lied to, betrayed, patronised or denied a chance to say goodbye to the loved one. It may feel difficult to trust family members again. If you feel that your family has not been honest with you, here are some ideas to think about. Try to find out why you were not told. Many adults believe that children are unable to cope with the intense grief that follows a murder. This belief is usually wrong. Adults have such a difficult time themselves after a murder that they may not be able to face telling the children and dealing with their reactions. It may be a fear that they will not be able to cope with your reaction. It is very painful for an adult to see a grieving and probably crying child and to feel responsible for that pain. Tell your family if this has affected your trust in them. Trust will have to be earned again; this is not automatic, particularly after murder when trust is shattered in general. Give your family a chance to show they are trustworthy again. Everyone makes mistakes, particularly at times of great stress – even adults!
Use an assertive statement to ask family to be honest with you in future such as “when you don’t tell me the truth about what happened, I feel left out and confused. Please include me in family discussions about the murder” Remember that your family were probably doing what they thought was right at the time under very difficult and painful circumstances. They may need you to educate them!
Grief after murder.
Many books have been written about grief. Many of them talk about ‘stages’ of grief, such as denial, bargaining, anger, sadness and recovery. Grief can include all these feelings but often they do not come in neat stages like this, they can come all at once, in any order at any time. This is normal! Many people say that grief is like a roller coaster, with frequent ups and downs, twists and turns. In the beginning the roller coaster is very bumpy with lots of ups and downs, there are bad days and not-so-bad days. Later on, the roller coaster becomes more even, the ups and downs are less frequent and dramatic, but they still happen.
‘Denial’ is a word that people frequently use but where does it fit into grief? Do some people just refuse to believe that a family member has been murdered? Denial takes many forms and comes in different degrees. Occasionally a person may totally deny the truth and talk, think and behave as though nothing untoward has happened or be mystified by the disappearance of the dead person but this is very unusual. Denial often takes a more subtle form, some people may play down the effects the murder has had on them by saying “we really weren’t that close anyway” or focus on the person’s characteristics that they disliked. Sometimes families can accept the death itself but not some of the details of what happened. They may only be able to accept what has happened slowly, bit by bit. This is OK and not usually a problem – there is no hurry to accept any of this and some people find this is the way they cope. Many people have thoughts of ‘bargaining’ with God or someone else – “please don’t let this be true and I’ll go to church every Sunday forever!”
This is part of the feeling of not quite being able to believe that the murder has really happened and trying to take back a bit of control over the situation. Many people know what has happened and can understand ‘in their head’ that the murder has occurred. They hear what they are being told and know that the person is not lying or mistaken, their loved one is dead. It usually takes longer to really believe that the person has gone and to understand ‘in their heart’. This usually begins to happen in the following weeks and months, when they miss the everyday presence of the dead person. Things like phone calls, letters, visits, coming home
to an empty house etc reinforce the absence of the person and make the loss more ‘real’. Gradually, families are usually able to face all aspects of the murder but they do it in their own time. Some people idolise or idealise their loved one, and choose only to remember their good points. It may feel like you are betraying your loved one if there were some things you didn’t like or would like to have changed. Remember that our weaknesses and faults, along with our strengths and talents, are what make us human. No relationship is perfect all the time or even most of the time and it is OK to remember that your loved one had their good and not so good points too.
Over-sensitivity and becoming angry or upset over small things that would not usually bother you is a common reaction to grief. It is part of the intense anger that is often felt after a homicide. Anger is a part of any grief but with murder it is understandably more so. You will often have enormous anger towards the offender, but you do not have the chance to express that anger directly to them. So the anger is often aimed at the wrong people – the police for not arresting the offender soon enough or not preventing the murder in the first place. The hospital for not saving your loved one’s life. The family member who has been murdered, for leaving you behind or for any contribution you may feel they made to their own death. Yourself and other family members for any number of reasons. People who remind you of the offender or who belong to the same ethnic or social background. Anger is a normal and healthy emotion but it needs to be dealt with appropriately. Anger can destroy relationships or lead to more violence if not managed somehow.
An angry person sometimes has a lot of ‘nervous energy’ and this can be relieved to a great extent by physical exercise. Sports or other activity can help release some of this energy. Some people find that it helps to write an angry letter to the offender, writing every swear word, everything you would like to do to them, everything that you feel – but don’t send the letter – tear it up, scribble on it, burn it or put it away somewhere safe.
Anger is a misunderstood emotion. Many of us, particularly girls, have been brought up to believe that anger is bad and should not be felt or expressed. As a result we feel bad for feeling angry and try not to show it. It is OK to be angry when someone you love has been murdered – most people do feel angry to some extent. It doesn’t mean that you stop loving the person you feel angry with or that other people stop loving you because you are angry. It doesn’t mean that other people must make you feel better – sometimes the anger is your problem, not theirs. Feeling angry sometimes is an unavoidable part of being alive and a human being, so we may as well accept and use anger constructively.Sometimes people show anger because they don’t know how to express their grief in any other way. They may feel that nobody understands what they are going through or how unfair life is. They want to be recognised as someone who is grieving and the depth of those feelings acknowledged.
If this is you, think about whether you could express your grief more directly – by talking or writing in a journal about how you feel about the murder and the person who is dead. If you find yourself being aggressive or violent, it is even more important to do something about how you express your anger.
Many people who are bereaved after murder have every right to feel angry at what has happened. Murder is always unfair, both to the victim and their family and no one deserves to suffer in this way. However, anger can be harmful if it is expressed in certain ways – such as yelling at loved ones, frequent arguments, and general irritability. Anger can sometimes boil over into actual violence; many people have lost their temper and hit out. Violence is never OK. Other people pretend that they don’t feel angry; perhaps they are scared of anger or think the feelings mean something else.
They hold all their anger inside and this can cause problems too. The anger might all come flooding out at once or may show itself in other ways, such as depression. People who feel a lot of anger are often physically over-aroused – they have too much adrenaline in their bodies. Therefore it can help to get rid of some of that energy by participating in sports or otherwise releasing the tension.
Some suggestions may be:
- Having a good loud scream. Do this somewhere private where you won’t scare other people or end up with the police rushing around to check you are OK!
- Scream, shout, yell out swear words until you can’t yell any more.
- Take out your anger on your pillow or teddy bear – better than breaking something or yelling at someone.
- Go for a long run or energetic walk until you are exhausted.
- Play some LOUD and fast music (when you are not going to disturb anybody)
- Dance wildly or sing at the top of your voice.
Coping with anger.
Here are some more suggestions to help you cope with anger. This could be anger about the murder or anger that arises in everyday situations – sometimes it is a bit of both even if you don’t realise it. There are three basic ways that we can deal with a problem with other people; we can be passive, aggressive or assertive.
- Passive people do not tell others what they want or need. They often expect others to ‘mind read’ and know automatically what their needs are and are disappointed when this doesn’t happen. They believe that their opinions are less important than other people’s and feel they are being a nuisance if they try to get your needs met. They are sometimes taken advantage of by others who know that they will do what they want them to do.
- Aggressive people state their beliefs and needs strongly and tend to believe that their opinions are more important than other people’s. They want to get their own way without considering the needs or rights of others. Methods used to get what they want may include manipulation, threats, ‘emotional blackmail’, tantrums, verbal abuse or violence.
- Assertive people express their opinions and needs clearly whilst respecting those of other people. They agree to compromise and work towards a ‘win-win’ situation when there is a problem or difference of opinion. They think highly enough of themselves to make sure their needs are met but understand that other people’s needs are equally important. They do not use verbal or physical aggression to get their point across. If you find yourself becoming
angry, try the following steps to manage the situation:
- When you feel your anger starting to rise – say STOP to yourself, in a loud voice inside your head. You could picture in your mind a big red STOP sign instead if you prefer.
- Get some space away from the person you are angry with. Don’t just walk off, as it might seem to the other person that you are simply running away from the problem, and that probably won’t help. Try saying something along the lines of “I am feeling really angry right now. Let’s get some space to cool down and talk about this later”. Then agree a time later on in the day to talk. Take an hour or two to cool down from your anger if you can before meeting with the person again. If you cannot take time out, even counting to ten or twenty in your head before you speak may help. Counting will at least give you ten seconds or so to think before you speak.
- Do whatever helps you to calm yourself. This might be some way of expressing the anger and ‘getting it out of your system’ – see above for a few suggestions.
You may prefer to try to relax instead by doing something enjoyable or peaceful such as meditation or a relaxation exercise.
- Think about the situation. Do you have real reason to be this angry with this person? You may find that there is a lot of anger just underneath the surface, and it only takes a small scratch on that surface – some small trigger – to release some of it. Even if, after some thought, you feel that you do have a right to be angry with this person, your anger may be out of proportion to what they have done. Of course, they may have done something really annoying and your anger may be justified – see the next page for ideas how to deal with this.
- When you are both ready to discuss the problem, think about the specific thing that you are angry about. It is often useless to bring other things into the argument or to get personal. This will only make the other person
feel attacked and want to defend themselves instead of working with you to solve the problem. Be clear about what specific thing you want to change and concentrate only on that.
- Use an assertive statement to get your point across to the other person. Be upfront and clear about what the problem is, how it is affecting you and what you want to change about the situation. Use a firm but polite tone
of voice and make sure your body language matches what you are saying. Stand tall and make eye contact – if you don’t look sure about what you are saying
your message will be less effective.
- Don’t be afraid to ask someone for help if your approach does not work or the other person persists in the behaviour that is upsetting to you. Look at the examples on the next page for a comparison of passive, aggressive and assertive styles of communicating.