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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The Impact of Homicide on Families
By Connie Saindon, MA, LMFT
After a murder, the family unit undergoes
permanent changes that are difficult for the surviving members to accept. As
each member of the family struggles with their own pain and grief, being a
source of emotional support and comfort to other members in the family network
can be problematic. Not only must each member navigate their feelings of loss of
their loved one; they must also deal with the way they died. Familial roles
undergo major transformations; family members' relationship will face challenges
for reconstruction. The murder may trigger other types of losses a family has
had that may need to be reprocessed. No other experience has prepared the family
or its members with how to deal with homicide. There is a sudden uninvited
intrusion in their lives that changes their existence from private to public.
Coping with so many unknowns may put previously "at-risk" family members
at more risk and take in new casualties. Murder can invite suicide, homicide and
alcohol or substance abuse? Careful assessment for these risks is needed along
with enlisting the family to watch out for each other.
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. Each year's statistics can be added exponentially to the
proceeding years' numbers of under treated co-victims. According to the
Department of Justice Uniform Crime Report released October 16, 1996, the city
of San Diego had 91 homicides and the number of homicides reported in the county
of San Diego for 1997 by the Medical Examiners Office was
Influential variables that impact the family:
A. RELATIONSHIP TO THE VICTIM - were they close, conflictual,
distant or cutoff?
B. ROLE OF THE VICTIM IN THE FAMILY - was this an estranged family
member, the head of the household, the only child, a gang member, and an
C. FAMILY & INDIVIDUAL MEMBERS DEVELOPMENTAL STAGE- a newly
formed family, young children, teenagers, empty nest, and seniors, etc.?
D. FAMILY HISTORY OF LOSS AND TRAUMA-another recent death,
previous divorce, illnesses?
E. RESILIENCE FACTORS-Risk and protective factors
F. SUPPORT NETWORKS-work groups, community, mental health
services, and religious/spiritual involvement.
G. BELIEFS ABOUT DEATH-they will see their loved one someday,
reincarnation, there is no afterlife.
H. THE FAMILY TEMPLATE-employment, leisure activities, hopes,
plans, divided loyalties, power, rules, and rituals.
I. DRUGS/ALCOHOL ISSUES-present involvement?
J. HISTORY OF MENTAL ILLNESS
K. NATURE OF THE MURDER-raped, tortured, age, witnessed.
Specialized Treatment is needed in the aftermath of a homicide to
lessen the long-term psychological impact for survivors and help co-victims cope
with their grief and devastation while restoring control in their lives.
Collaboration with professionals and agents from both public and private crime
victim's agencies is required to coordinate services and find more efficient
ways to assist this fragile population. The rewards and challenge for family
therapists in fostering individual and family resilience while healing wounds
after homicide is tremendous. The need for family therapists is increasingly
evident in both prevention of violence and treatment after homicide.
Treatment strategies that have shown success with this population are
the use of rituals and ceremonies to compartmentalize reviewing of the trauma.
Ceremonies provide symbolic enactments of transformation of previously shattered
relationships, and reestablish connections among family and society in general.
Ceremony is enhanced if participants are at the aesthetic distance of being both
emotionally engaged and yet aware of its symbolic nature. This is what is meant
by "containing" (as opposed to suppressing) emotions.
Most rituals have
the therapeutic properties of strengthening the bonds of individuals to their
community and in giving reassurance against the anxieties and fears of life.
However, for rituals to be therapeutic they must help individuals manage their
Patients suffer from the shifts between flooding
and numbing of emotion (Horowitz, 1976). Therefore ceremonies with allow for the
arousal of distressing emotions within a safely contained structure. This needs
to be done for each disturbance in their lives such as the fundamental break in
the relationship between them and society. Like the effect of a structural
change in structural family therapy (Minuchin, 1981), in which the family is
shown that it can interact in a new way, the ceremony re-organizes participants
into a healthier relationship, providing a model for
Therapeutic ceremonies can have significant
First: ceremonies compartmentalize the review of the
trauma, giving it respectful expression while freeing it up from everyday
life. Second: They provide symbolic enactments that can become
metaphors for transformation, greatly needed for trauma survivors who struggle
with feelings of hopelessness and the chronicity of their situation.
Third: These ceremonies are designed to reestablish connection to the
community of family and society. The structure and process is representative of
Dr. Rynearson's' model involves strategies such as:
1. Pacification techniques foster natural resilience in calming or
2. Partitioning strategies that help differentiate
the tendency that many have in merging with their loved one.
Perspective strategies that help integrate a "new normal" after homicide with
integration that this event has changed them forever.
a coordinated and comprehensive victim/witness program provides support for
victims of crimes who sustain loss due to homicide. However, the program offers
little in the way of funding for survivors who do not meet eligibility criteria
and has limitations regarding follow-up ability. Research has shown that the
effect of homicide goes on for years and the request for supportive services may
be initiated many months and/or years after initial notification of a homicide.
There are only three other programs in California that have specialized programs
for co-victims of homicide.
Several cities have been setting up programs
based on two successful programs that have received funding from the national
Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) to provide training on their model to various
states. One training is based on a program based in Seattle, Washington that has
been developed for 15 years at the Virginia Mason Clinic, Separation and Loss
Services. This program has been under the direction of Ted Rynearson, MD a
leading expert on homicidal bereavement. The second training is based is from
the Anti-Violence Project in Philadelphia under the direction of its founder
Deborah Spungen, MSS, MLSP, CTS. She promotes the term Co-victims of homicide to
better describe the impact on family members. Ms Spungen's daughter was murdered
in 1978. Both the synergism and replication of these programs for co-victims of
homicide has begun in cities that have been recipients of these trainings.
Future training will help other cities replicate these services as
Connie Saindon, MA is a licensed marital and family therapist in
private practice in San Diego. She is also an AAMFT clinical member and Approved
Supervisor. She is also the Executive Director, Homicide Support Project, San
Diego. Steven Shuchter is Medical Director of UCSD Outpatient Psychiatric
Services, San Diego, California and this effort. For further information about
this project call: (619) 685-0005 or contact
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