This training session consists of five distinct modules encompassing:
- The family death notification process following a homicide;
- Health and social issues following the murder of a loved one;
- Dealing with the media;
- Dealing with the criminal judicial system and Corrections Canada; and
- Support systems available to survivors of homicide victims.
The training session will be of particular interest to those who have direct contact with survivors of homicide victims including police services, victim services, court services, correctional services, media, students who will be entering the areas referred to above and those developing government policy at the provincial and federal levels. There are no specific prerequisites for the course other than an interest to better understand and respond to the multitude of unique life-changing experiences endured by survivors of homicide victims.
By the end of this training session, attendees will have a clearer understanding of the scope of emotional, physical, financial and other struggles that survivors of homicide victims encounter over the days, months and years following the murder of a loved one. Attendees will have a better understanding of methods to deal with various conditions survivors are experiencing. Situations presented will range from survivors not being considered when important decisions affecting them are being taken; to the degree of compassion, care and support provided over the grueling circumstances associated with the aftermath of murder.
This training session will take you through the impacts of various, key events and experiences following the murder of a loved one. In doing so, it will offer suggestions as to how best to deal with various situations, although, in saying that, it is evident that there are no easy solutions or magic pills when dealing with the aftermath of murder.
Notification – The Most Defining Event
The most defining event of a homicide, other than the murder itself, is how a family is notified of the victim’s death. Empathetic and informed homicide notification is an essential part of the survivor’s reconstructive process.
The homicide notification is probably the most difficult information that a police officer or emergency response professional will ever have to convey. It is also the most traumatic information that a parent or loved one will ever receive.
Delivering a death notification properly will lessen the negative impact of secondary victimization on the psychological well-being of the family survivors of a homicide victim.
The unexpected and violent death of someone we love, as a result of murder, has little competition for the worst experience of our lives.
For survivors, the beginning of their reactions to the death of their loved one is the death notification process. It is important that death notifications be handled as sensitively as possible because it is the critical point of trauma for most survivors. Properly done, it can begin a healing process. When it is done improperly or without insight into the survivor’s possible reactions, it may delay the process of reconstructing the survivor’s life for years.
If you are involved in the actual notification of death, please consider the following suggestions from survivors of murder victims and MADD Canada:
- Always notify in person;
- Know whom you will be notifying and their relationship to the deceased;
- Provide a private, quiet area;
- Don’t go alone when you go to notify a family;
- Have a telephone and a restroom readily available;
- Have as many of the family members in the room as possible before informing them of the victim’s death;
- Prepare the family members first that you have some terrible news to give them;
- Have only one professional actually doing the speaking;
- Introduce yourself and identify the family member who was murdered to make sure that the correct family survivors are present;
- Sit with whom you are speaking – do not stand above them and/or look down on them;
- Speak face to face with the family and maintain eye contact. Speak clearly and directly;
- Try to put yourself in the victim’s place and be as sensitive as you would want someone to be if it were your loved one who was murdered;
- Use the word “dead”. It is universally understood;
- Never use phrases such as “passed away,” “gone to a better place,” “they are with their maker,” etc. Such comments are easily misunderstood;
- What not to say: “I know what you are feeling”; “Time heals all wounds”; “You’ll get over this”; “You must move on with your life”;
- Be aware of individual and cultural differences regarding the grieving process. Some cultures may respond calmly, whereas others may express anger, disbelief, or respond in a loud, belligerent, violent or destructive manner;
- Tell the family members everything you know – do not hold back any information within the scope of your responsibilities;
- Know where the victim is (hospital, morgue, other);
- Know the circumstances of the death (where, when, how, etc.);
- Know the condition of the body;
- Know if a suspect is in police custody;
- Know who is in charge of the investigation;
- Do not provide information that would jeopardize a murder investigation, or information that should only be provided by the police or other appropriate authorities;
- Have grief resources available (brochures, phone numbers, web sites, etc.) to give to the family including contact information for the Victim Services Coordinator in your area for further information and support;
- Do not be judgmental as the reaction of the bereaved will vary according to the person’s relationship to the victim and to that person’s own personal and unique response to tragedy;
- If the family enquires regarding pain and suffering experienced by the victim, make every effort to respond to their questions in a compassionate, honest, thorough and professional manner. Families need and want the truth. If you do not know the answer to a question say so and indicate that you will do your best to get an answer;
- Leave your business card, including your name, office phone number, file number.
Finally, be aware that the moment in time that you are sharing this information with family members will never be forgotten. The face and voice of the professional delivering such a message will forever remain in their memory.
According to the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia’s Traumatic Grief Symposium Handbook, the notification that a loved one has been murdered is often the catalyst for traumatic grief. The death notification provides the trauma which must be addressed as part of the homicide recovery process. An ill-conceived and poorly delivered death notification predisposes the survivor of a homicide victim to later complications in the areas of trauma and grief. The death notification becomes intertwined with the trauma of the event and resurfaces with the other traumatic memories of the murder.
There are many immediate physical and emotional reactions that a survivor of a homicide victim can experience after receiving a death notification. Knowledge of some of the common reactions will prepare the caregiver to better respond to the survivor’s needs.
- Low energy level and exhaustion
- Sleep/appetite disruption
- Illness or body aches
- Feeling faint
- Protest and anger
- Fear and feelings of powerlessness
- Poor judgement and decision making
- Short and long term memory problems
- Lack of concentration and forgetfulness
- Difficulty in communicating
Any individual making death notifications needs to avail him/herself of some form of critical incidence debriefing in order to address the stress that results from the experience. Debriefing may be either formal or informal, but it is most important that it be done as quickly as possible. The important point is that it should be considered an integral part of the death notification protocol and routinely performed.
As mentioned previously, the most defining event of a homicide, other than the murder itself, is how a family is notified of the victim’s death. It is probably the most traumatic information that a parent or loved one will ever receive. Empathetic and informed homicide notification is an essential part of the survivor’s reconstruction process.