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Secondary Victimization (A Survivor’s Perspective)

Death is not the greatest loss of life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live

Norman Cousins

The Ultimate Tragedy

The death of any child of any age is devastating. However, the pain and anguish is compounded when the death comes at the hands of another human being. In the aftermath of murder, parents and family members face a number of very complicated issues, even as they try to make sense of the incomprehensible reality that someone knowingly, intentionally killed a child who was loved.

Complicating Issues Including Triggers

In the aftermath of murder secondary victimization raises its ugly head, often as a result of the judicial process and the media interest that goes hand in hand. Our lives are no longer private! The family unit undergoes major changes and the potential to live happily is forever transformed.  As each surviving family member struggles with navigating through his or her own pain and grief, offering emotional support to the other members can be challenging and sometimes impossible. Part of the family has died along with the victim. Complicated issues are compounded by a series of episodes or ‘triggers” some of which are foreseen while others are not.

The National Organization of Victims Assistance (NOVA) in the U.S. suggests that many survivors will re-experience crisis reactions over a considerable period of time in response to “trigger” events which elicit similar responses to those that were brought about during the death notification. Each survivor may suffer different “triggers” such as:

  1. Identification of the Assailant: At the time of seeing the murderer for the first time following the murder.
  2. Sensing: An individual may see, hear, touch, smell or taste something similar to something that one was acutely aware of during the trauma.
  3. Anniversaries of the Event: The date, time and hour of a crisis situation are imprinted in long-term memory. On these dates it is not unusual to observe as severe a reaction as experienced at the occurrence.
  4. Holidays, and Life Events in the Family: Parents whose child has died report an overwhelming sadness at holidays, graduations and weddings of their friends’ children many years later.
  5. Hearings, Trials, Appeals and Other Criminal Judicial Proceedings: After a number of years, the lack of acknowledgement expressed about the victim as a real person creates additional stress. The criminal judicial system is a chronic stressor.
  6. Media Articles about a Similar Event: Articles may draw attention like a magnet even when the person knows there will be an adverse reaction. The mind continuously seeks to comprehend the meaning of the psychological trauma. Survivors may relate exact details and similarities from television shows to one’s own family reactions.

Challenges to a Survivor’s Health

A 2011 review in England and Wales, entitled a “Survey of Families Bereaved by Homicide” was conducted by SAMM National (Support After Murder and Manslaughter) on behalf of The Commission for Victims and Witnesses. Again, secondary victimization was evident as all respondents stated that the bereavement had had some kind of impact on their health and that of their family – whether physical or psychological. 83% indicated that their physical health was affected. 53% of respondents reported that the hardest thing to deal with, apart from the emotional stress, were physical and psychological health issues, including symptoms commonly associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 86% reported suffering from sleep-disturbance; 83% feelings of numbness or detachment; 83% repetitive thoughts/nightmares; 76% depression; and 67% feeling constantly on guard/startled. 21% suffered other problems including uncontrollable anger, an inability to communicate, and panic attacks. 21% also reported experiencing alcohol addiction. 66% of respondents reported that they had children left bereaved by homicide and that a high proportion of the children were affected psychologically and were perceived to need professional help.

Holistic Approaches to Lessen the Impact of Secondary Victimization

The challenges that lie ahead for the families and loved ones of a murder victim are complex and unique to each individual.  These challenges do not stop at the end of the trial, if indeed there is one.  When a loved one is murdered all components of your physical, mental, emotional, psychological and spiritual being are put under tremendous pressure. In the case of parents, the murder of one’s child will lead to a number of psychosocial issues unparalled by any other loss. It is critical at this time to take care of you as best you can; body, mind and spirit. Becoming empowered and taking back control of your life will help you better prepare and cope with the “trigger” events which cause emotional shockwaves that can destabilize the family equilibrium. Some find that keeping their lives simple helps to relieve the stress they are under while others realize that keeping active works best. Some locate a natural setting or a calming place within their home to comfort themselves. Remember that everyone grieves differently and it is essential to do what works best for you. To associate with others who support you during this difficult, healing, journey, without being judgemental, is vital. Seeking peer support, individual or group therapy where you are free to express every emotion can be a healthy coping mechanism.