Homicide is a crime that has a profound and lasting impact on the victim’s family, friends and community. The sudden and violent nature of murder can lead to particularly intense grief for those directly, and indirectly, affected by the loss.
Loved ones of the victim can experience additional distress as they work through the process of dealing with police, the media, the coroner and other organisations seeking information about the death.
The fact that someone has taken the life of the victim can evoke strong feelings of anger and a desire for justice.
Impact On Families
Individuals and families who have experienced the murder of a loved one often find the experience has an impact on all aspects of their lives. The shock and trauma of the homicide can affect their personal relationships, work, social life, physical and emotional well-being, values, and beliefs about the world.
In many families, a desire to protect children or young relatives from the trauma can leave them feeling scared and confused. Witnessing the sadness and shock of the adults around them can be difficult for children seeking comfort from their usually stable supports.
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 must then deal with police, the coroner, and funeral directors, which can feel extremely confusing and foreign.
It is often in these early stages that families require a lot of practical assistance such as dealing with every-day tasks, liaising with other agencies, 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, graphic thoughts about the violent way in which the person died. These thoughts may be about how they imagine the person suffered as they died, or actual memories from the scene of the crime or morgue. In some cases, loved ones of the victim 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 example, the family and friends of homicide victims may:
- feel isolated and alone, particularly when society places some of the blame on victims and attaches stigma to the death
- feel as though no-one understands the depth of their grief, and have unrealistic expectations of the time it takes to heal
- face persistent, unsettling grief if the body of their loved one has not been located and questions around the death 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, feeling 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 as the provide information about the death and investigate the crime.
The police may not be able to provide families with the information they want while an investigation is ongoing. They may also regard some family members or friends as potential suspects, which can cause significant distress.
Finding a trusted police officer who will provide accurate and clear information can be an important support.
Dealing With The Coroner’s Office
The police may need someone to identify the body of the victim which 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 post-mortem will also be performed to establish the cause of death. This may also be traumatic for families and can mean a delay in the release of the body and timing of a funeral.
Dealing With The Media
When someone is murdered, the media want to report details of the story to the public. This can mean that they approach family members seeking comments, a photograph of the deceased, or further information about the crime.
The media can be persistent in their endeavours to obtain information, which can create enormous stress for families. They can also print inaccurate information or appear to blame the victim, which can be distressing.
Sometimes media coverage is an important means of reaching community members who may have information that will help with the police investigation.
The media may print further reports on the case after court hearings, during 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 for the family of the victim, even many years after their loved one died.
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. This can be a challenging experience for many reasons:
- 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. While it is often difficult, it may be important in the long-term
- some people may feel frustrated if they believe that the punishment the offender receives is not adequate in relation to the impact of the crime.
For homicide victims’ families, dealing with the criminal justice system can be a frustrating and drawn-out process. They may need considerable support, information, and assistance to navigate the system.
- If the offender is ultimately released from prison, family members may feel anxious at the possibility of meeting them face-to-face.
- Similarly, if no offender is found guilty, people might feel that justice has not been served.
Funerals are an important part of the grieving process. They can provide a comforting ritual that allows family and friends to farewell their loved one in a meaningful way. In the case of a homicide where the victim has sustained injuries, people are often not encouraged to view the body. However, this may be particularly important to some people, and 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 their loved one’s body from the coroner’s office.
If no offender has been identified, the police may attend the funeral and the media may attempt to get a story. Police attendance can feel like an invasion of privacy but may be a necessary part of their investigations.
With time, people can learn to cope with a traumatic event such as homicide. Support is often the key to helping people get through this experience, and can be provided by trusted friends and family, or through counselling or support groups. Be patient and gentle with yourself as you grieve, and reach out for professional support if your feelings become overwhelming.
A state-wide service across South Australia providing free and confidential therapeutic counselling and practical support to victims of crime.
Provides information and support to help everyone in Australia achieve their best possible mental health, whatever their age and wherever they live.
Homicide Victim Support Group of SA Inc
Offering support and advocacy for those affected by homicide.
Page last updated: 29 December, 2021