Family members may not quietly and peacefully accept what has happened...Family members have no choice--they must cooperate with the media, the police and sometimes the courts.
E.K. Rynearson, MD
Virginia Mason Medial Center
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Co-victums of Homicide: Special Needs
by Connie Saindon, MA, MFCC, CTS
"No one understands the magnitude of
this." "You end up a body with no life in it." --Co-Victim of Homicide,
As traumatic as homicide is, the aftermath is often worse. Even
though the actual number of homicides is down, Co-victims of homicide are an
under-served group. The violent death of one of its members leaves a family in
emotional and social turmoil. Homicide can impact individuals as well as
communities such as schools, neighborhoods and workplaces. The trauma and grief
experienced by survivors can cause emotional scars that last a lifetime. Of the
three causes of violent death (homicide, suicide, or accident), homicide often
has the most intense impact.
There is abundant clinical evidence
indicating that following a homicidal death, family members are at risk for
developing sustained and dysfunctional psychological reactions. And since the
nearly 30,000 homicides annually in the United States affect between 120,000 and
240,000 relatives and other survivors, the magnitude of these numbers suggests
that homicidal bereavement represents a major public health problem.
society wants to pretend that murder and drunk driving don't happen." Says Sam
Knott at a recent tree planting ceremony in honor of his daughter Cara who was
murdered by a California Highway Patrol office in 1988.
Rates reported in
Death: Current Perspective, by E. Shneidman, Ph.D. match national reports of 25%
of all murders are familial homicides and 50% more are
boyfriend/girlfriend/acquaintance homicides. These are similar to the findings
for rape, that only about 25% of all rapes and homicides are committed by
strangers. This is contrary to popular beliefs cautioning us to be wary of
Conceptual models of bereavement have not included explanatory
or predictive principles specifically associated with homicide. Finally, many
co-victims of homicide are alienated and distrustful of government and law
enforcement personnel. This can lead them to feeling confused and increasingly
paralyzed. A critical lack of sensitive and appropriate services only
exacerbates their difficulties in dealing with this horrific
Responses to this event include (1) PTSD with experiences of
intrusive reenactment and avoidance (2) victimization and (3) compulsive
inquiry. Families face shifting roles and responsibilities and change patterns
of functioning by increasing their closeness or distance with each
The need for specialized services is increasingly more evident in
both prevention and treatment. Specialized services are needed to provide
assistance to families in the aftermath of a homicide to lessen the long-term
psychological impact for survivors. In addition, services are needed to help
family and friends of homicide victims cope with their grief and devastation in
ways that foster their resilience while healing wounds. Information from both
private and public groups needs to be shared to find more efficient ways to
assist this fragile population.
The treatment model consists of
comprehensive screening and two time-limited 10-week groups following the model
in Seattle and materials from the Philadelphia model. Adjunct counseling as well
as partnering with area services from both public and private sectors add to the
response to the needs of co=victims of homicide.
The first intervention
is a 10-session group that deals with the "nuts and bolts" (legal terms, how the
criminal justice system works, Victim assistance services, dealing with the
media, etc.). Meetings are once per week with definite goals and a clear agenda
(as distinct from open-ended groups which may tend to bog down).
second 10-week group intervention deals more with the intrusive imagery, dreams,
flashback, grief, loss and trauma. It too follows a structured format.
Pre and post-screening is conducted to determine treatment effectiveness and
provide findings for a National research effort. Instruments include Impact of
Event Scale, Alcohol Screening, Death Imagery, Beck Depression, and a "New"
Traumatic Grief Instrument.
Community Collaboration is essential with law
enforcement agencies, businesses, social service agencies and private mental
health providers to ease survivors access, reduce duplication of services and
provide the "best" care for this under-served
Rynearson, MD (1994) Psychotherapy of
bereavement after homicide. Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research,
3(4), 341-347. Spungen, D, (1998). Homicide: The hidden victims- a guide
for professionals. Thousand Oaks, CA:Sage Publications, Inc.