Homicide is a crime that has a profound and lasting impact on the victim’s family and friends. The grief that people experience in relation to death through homicide may be intense due to its sudden and violent nature.
People can feel further distressed by having to deal with the police, the media, the coroner and other organisations.
The fact that someone has taken the life of the deceased can evoke strong feelings of anger and a desire for justice.
Impact On Families
The effect a homicide has on individuals and families may be long-lasting and many aspects of life may be impacted. These may include personal relationships, work, social life, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, values, and beliefs about the world.
When families and friends initially learn of the violent death of a loved one they often experience intense shock due to the sudden and unexpected nature of the death. Families are also trying to deal with the police, media, the coroner, and funeral directors, and this can be extremely confusing and foreign.
It is often at this stage that families require a lot of practical assistance such as dealing with every-day tasks, liaising with other agencies involved, notifying other family and friends, and organising the funeral. Dealing with all of this as well as trying to comprehend the loss of a loved one can feel overwhelming.
People may also experience intrusive thoughts about the violent way in which the person died; these can be graphic and intense. These thoughts may be about how they imagine the person died and/or suffered, or actual memories from the scene of the crime or morgue. Also people may feel that their own safety is at risk.
As time goes on the full impact of the loss is felt and deep emotions such as sorrow, fear, anger, and guilt are experienced. People begin to understand what the death of their loved one means and how much they miss them.
Every individual’s experience of grief is unique, although several common experiences have been identified:
- for the family of homicide victims, the grief reaction may be more intense as there are other issues they must deal with
- often families of homicide victims feel isolated and alone. Society places some of the blame on victims and attaches stigma to the death
- many people bereaved though homicide also feel as though no-one understands the depth of their grief, and have unrealistic expectations of the time it takes to heal
- for families where the body of the loved one has never been located there may be ongoing issues that cannot be resolved
Dealing With The Police
Dealing with the police can be difficult for families, particularly in the early stages when people are in shock, confused, and trying to cope with their loss.
The police may have apprehended someone for the murder or may still be investigating. Either way, the police will need to have contact with people closest to the victim to provide information or to gain information to assist with their investigations.
The police may not be able to give out all of the details due to their ongoing investigation, and they may also regard some people as suspects, which can be very difficult to cope with.
It is important that people identify someone or several police officers who can be contacted to provide accurate and clear information.
Dealing With The Coroner's Office
The police may need someone to identify the body of the victim and this normally happens at the morgue or forensic science centre. This can be particularly difficult for families as they may not be adequately prepared for the experience, the victim may have physical injuries, and no-one may be allowed to touch or spend time with the body.
An autopsy or postmortem will also be performed to establish the cause of death which may be traumatic for families and can mean a delay in the release of the body and hence, may delay the funeral.
Dealing With The Media
When someone is murdered the media want to report the details to the public. This can mean that the family is approached for a comment, a photograph of the deceased, and further information about what happened.
The media can be persistent in their endeavours to obtain information, which can create more stress for families. They can also print inaccurate information or appear to blame the victim, which can be distressing.
Sometimes media coverage is important to assist with the police investigation or when a person is missing.
The media may print further reports on the case after court hearings, the trial, if the offender applies for early release, or even years later when the offender is released. They may also refer to the case if a similar one occurs. These reminders may raise feelings of pain and grief.
Dealing With The Criminal Justice System
If the police have apprehended someone for the murder then there will be court hearings and possibly a trial:
- most people have never had to deal with the courts and have little knowledge or experience about how they work. It can seem frustrating, as there are often many delays, a lack of information, and few rights for the victim and the victim’s family
- families will have to decide if they want to attend the court; whilst it is often difficult, it may be important in the long-term
- some people may feel frustrated as they believe that the punishment the offender received is not adequate for the life they have taken and the lives they have affected
For homicide victims’ families, dealing with the criminal justice system can be a frustrating and drawn-out process:
- people may need support, information, and assistance throughout the court process
- there may also be ongoing issues such as the release of the offender from prison, parole, seeing the offender in the street, and so on
- similarly, if no offender is found guilty, people might feel that there is no justice
Funerals are an important part of the grieving process as they provide a ritual to say goodbye to the deceased in a meaningful way. Sometimes in the case of a homicide where the victim has sustained injuries, people are not encouraged to view the body. However, this may be particularly important to some people and is the last opportunity to see the person. Therefore, careful consideration should be given to this decision.
It can often be very difficult for families when there is a delay in the release of the body of their loved one from the coroner’s office.
In addition, if no offender has been identified, the police may be present at the funeral and the media will probably attempt to get a story. Police attendance can feel like an invasion of privacy but may be necessary for the police investigation.
- support can be provided by trusted friends and family, or through counselling or support groups
- another important aspect is receiving accurate and clear information, so informed and appropriate decisions can be made
- other strategies such as relaxation, writing a journal, having time out and so on may also help but it is often an individual choice about what helps