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Home Articles After Abuse Coping With a Violent Death: For Survivors of Homicide

Coping With a Violent Death: For Survivors of Homicide

Someone you loved was killed. Learn ways survivors of domestic violence can cope with this tragedy

  • Sep 28, 2020
  • By Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD.
  • 24 shares
  • 569 have read
Coping With a Violent Death: For Survivors of Homicide

You probably remember the moment you heard the news—or maybe you witnessed the killing yourself. You knew your life would never be the same. 

At times, it may feel impossible to cope with so great a loss, and yet you do. The minutes turn into days, the days into weeks, the weeks into months, and time moves on. Your pain, loss, anger and confusion may change somewhat over time, but can still interfere with your ability to live your life fully. 

The following are nine issues survivors of homicide, specifically domestic violence homicide, may encounter in their journey toward healing.

Strong Feelings: You are apt to experience a range of feelings, including sadness, fear, anger, guilt and despair. These strong feelings can be distressing and make it hard to go about your daily life. Engage in practices to lower the intensity of the feelings when they become overpowering. These can include: meditation, prayer, walking, writing or talking about the situation or your feelings, and distracting yourself with something that takes all your attention such as reading, a new hobby, and being with others. Name your feelings, recognize that they make you uncomfortable, and remember that they will not last forever. Explore at-home healing techniques.

Routines: In the wake of a violent death, your routine, including sleep, eating, work, and exercising, are probably disrupted. This can impede your ability to think clearly. As soon as possible, resume your former routines or start new ones. Having a daily routine sketched out will help you put one foot in front of the other and survive from one day to the next. The structure of a routine helps most people feel more stable.

Survivor’s Guilt: You may wonder why your loved one was killed and not you. You may wish you had taken steps—or different steps—to protect them. You may review all the things you wish you had done differently and ask yourself, “What if…?” You may feel responsible—in some measure—for your loved one’s death. Survivor’s guilt, or trauma-related guilt, is a real thing and it can be helpful to name it and learn more about it. However, it is also important to place responsibility where it belongs—on the shoulders of the person who directly harmed your loved one. Maybe you could have done something differently, maybe not. But the responsibility for the death lies with the person who snuffed out a life—and that was not you.

Anniversary Reactions: Survivors often find coping particularly difficult during holidays and important annual events such as birthdays, anniversaries and the dates of their loved one’s death. These are called triggers. You may be flooded with strong feelings and overpowering memories or flashbacks. Handle anniversary reactions by anticipating them and turning them into something positive. For instance, a set of siblings joined together annually on the birthday of their mother who was killed by her boyfriend to commemorate her life. Some years they would look over photographs. Other years they would cook her favorite foods, or visit her favorite places, or invite her best friends over for a meal. They tried to honor her memory by being together, rather than isolated, even as they felt both sadness for her death and gratitude for her life.

Justice: People who have had a loved one murdered often thirst for justice. But “justice” does not look the same for everyone. Some want accountability—this could be in the form of jail time, the death penalty, or divine retribution for person who committed the fatal acts, or an explanation as to “why” their loved one was killed. Some want revenge and want the murderer to suffer in the same way their loved one did. Some want to see society transformed so others will not fall prey to domestic abusers. And some assert that the process of justice is as important as the outcome: that is, they want to be fairly treated by the police, attorneys, reporters, and others. Most survivors will never feel a truly satisfying sense of justice because the loved one cannot be brought back to them. Therefore, they may need to seek closure in other ways.

Psychotherapy/Counseling: Trauma-focused therapies can transform your life, and some of these therapies work rather quickly. Look for a trauma expert and consider approaches such as EMDRthought field “tapping” therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and trauma-focused, cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Patience: People you care about may be in a hurry for you to “move on.” They want to rush you because they do not like to see you suffer. Allow yourself time to grieve. This looks different for every person and the amount of time it takes varies, too. Think about yourself as “moving through” grief—almost as if it is a muddy river that you have to wade through, slowly. You will encounter unexpected rocks—it is not a smooth straight trip across. You should be concerned if you do not see yourself moving—if it feels as if your grief one day is no different from your grief the month before—or even less bearable. As long as you are coming up with new insights and ways to cope, then you are progressing. If not, change something up. Consider a group for people who are grieving, psychotherapy, prayer or maybe reading about grief.

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Forgiveness: Some survivors claim that learning to forgive the person who murdered their loved one was an important part of their recovery. Others believe that some acts are unforgivable—especially when the perpetrator has not shown genuine remorse. This is an individual path…no one should push another person to try to forgive. Survivors can recover without forgiving.

When You Once Loved the Killer: Surviving a domestic violence murder is different from surviving another violent death because you may have had (or even currently have) feelings of love toward the murderer—who may be a close friend or family member—even as you condemn their acts. Know that you are not alone. A professional counselor is probably the best person to help you sort through this confusing mix of feelings.

While all these ideas can be helpful, they do not take away the tragedy of losing a loved one to a violent death. Some survivors find solace in volunteering at their local domestic violence shelter, to assure that these kinds of incidents will not happen again.