A Review of How the Covid-19 Pandemic Has Impacted Parents of Murdered Children and Survivors of Homicide Victims
Living in A Pandemic within a Pandemic
In commemorating victims and survivors of crime, and as a component of Victims and Survivors of Crime Week 2021, Justice Canada generously provided funding, through its Victims Fund, to organizations who wished to participate in support of this year’s theme: The Power of Collaboration.
In considering the objectives of the Victims Fund, victim supporting organizations are raising awareness about the issues facing victims and survivors of crime and their families in relation to services and assistance currently in place.
In response to the increasing number of service calls received over the past eighteen months, and as a recipient of this initiative, CPOMC developed a project to examine how the pandemic has impacted parents of murdered children and survivors of homicide victims.
We are living in an historic period. In the same way that we want to know how Canadians are managing life through this pandemic, CPOMC wanted to, specifically, know how the access and availability of victim supports and other services such as social, community and mental health services were being received by parents and surviving family members of homicide victims.
The criteria for this review focused on two well-defined groups. The first group included only those parents and family members, who were newly bereaved. Newly bereaved was defined as, those individuals who had suffered from homicide crime victimization within the last eighteen to twenty-four months. The second group of participants was comprised of those individuals, who had been bereaved for more than two years.
The review consisted of two parts. 1) The completion of a questionnaire, and 2) a telephone interview or a video interview which then explored responses in more depth. Of the participants who responded, over eighty percent completed both the questionnaire and the follow-up interview.
The scope of the questions was broad including but not limited to the relationship to the victim, length of time since first bereaved, what type of support services were being utilized prior to and at the time of the pandemic, such as police, community, or court-based victim support services. Also included were whether the participants had obtained other assistance such as support from community outreach programs, faith or spiritual counselling, and mental health supports. In the case of using any of the above-mentioned support services, CPOMC also wanted to know how accessible services were, and if access had changed because of the pandemic? The family structure was considered in terms of those living alone, or with other family members including children living at home at the time of the homicide. The experience (pros and cons) in relation to the use of new technologies such as video conferencing, teletherapy or tele counselling and telehealth was also explored.
CPOMC’s objective was to identify specific new challenges encountered by parents and survivors of homicide victims because of the pandemic, and based on the outcome of the findings, raise the awareness of areas of services that could be improved upon going forward.
The responses from the first group of survivors (those bereaved within the last eighteen to twenty-four months) revealed that they had been greatly impacted by media reports. The media reports’ primary focus emphasized the growing numbers of deaths and the wide-spread collective suffering caused by COVID-19. Considering that these daily media reports affected all populations negatively, it was quite revealing how this was interpreted by the newly bereaved. Some participants responded that they felt that their personal tragedy was minimized, compared to the tens of thousands of deaths occurring world-wide. Feeling over-whelmed by these uncontrollable circumstances, resulted in a reaction, by the newly bereaved, to stifle their own personal grief considering the larger tragedy. However, the reluctance to express their own grief has complicated an already difficult grief process. Most noted were feelings of frustration and anger followed by feelings of guilt. The overshadowing of the pandemic, it was felt, dwarfed their personal recent loss. One family’s response was indicative of this, and was aptly put in the following statement:
In the grand scheme of things, we felt our personal tragedy paled in comparison to what was happening around the world. Yet, our pain of having our child murdered is very real and very deep. Our family will never be the same again. We feel so alone in all of this.
This review, also, revealed that the loss of control was especially concerning to the newly bereaved, where families were unable to interact with other family members and loved ones in a time of crisis and tragedy. The inability to travel to be with other family members, not just within Canada, but internationally removed an important element of receiving and giving support. In addition, an important way of expressing grief is through the symbolism of funerals or memorials. The inability to participate in this way was acknowledged as a source of great stress and loss of control.
For those families who were still awaiting the results of active investigations, working around the restrictions of the pandemic created lengthy delays in the judicial process and was especially impactful.
In the second group of participants (those survivors bereaved between two and twenty-three years) it was reported that the pandemic triggered emotions that resulted in re-igniting episodes of grief, triggering sensations of those traumatic events that took place many years ago. It appears that the exacerbated stressors associated with the pandemic, reawakened feelings and sensations linked to the original trauma. The consequences of which were once again affecting their emotional, mental, and physical well-being, another unique finding from this review. Once again, this observation was one that was directly related to the uncontainable fall-out from the global pandemic.
An unexpected finding was that the unrelenting and complex pandemic added another layer of challenges for those already carrying in many cases a life-long mental health struggle associated with a homicide death. Grieving the death of a child or a loved one from homicide is a multifaceted and life-long process. Establishing the “new normal” in the aftermath of murder can take years. This new multilayer of grief due to the pandemic has, tragically for many, reset the process to the beginning. The question therefore on many lips was how to adjust once again to a “new normal” post COVID-19.
In the pre-pandemic era, having support and comfort from an objective support group or service organization, guided by someone who could navigate the grief conversations, was seen to be a genuine source of healing. Throughout the pandemic, many organizations provided support opportunities through digital and technological options such as video conferencing platforms. Unfortunately, some respondents either did not have access to these supports or found them to be greatly lacking due to the interface limitations compared to having direct in-person interaction. Similarly, other community-based services such as tele counselling or teletherapy and telehealth were also identified as not sufficiently meeting their expectations.
In some cases, telecommunications were made difficult due to the high costs associated with access. Although access to remote services is available in most areas of the country, not all people have the financial means to purchase equipment including computers and cell phones etcetera to take advantage of these technologies.
Unfortunately, even pre-pandemic, the availability of mental health resources for surviving family members of a homicide victim was limited, due in part to underfunding, limited programs, and a lack of trained personnel. The pre-existing shortfall in grief-informed and trauma-informed victim support to families of homicide victims only widened once COVID-19 struck.
During this review, both groups acknowledged other areas that affected them throughout the pandemic. Based on a rating, these are identified in order of frequency and importance.
- Loss of safety and control
- Separation from family members
- Worry about loved ones
- Feelings of isolation due to social distancing, a lack of information and resources
- Fears for the future
- Financial anxieties
The pandemic has been referred to as an epidemiological crisis, but it is just as much a psychological one and especially for those who have already suffered unimaginable loss through homicide. Research confirmed that while the process of working through grief related to homicide is a personal journey for each family member, it also revealed that these families are also struggling with all the anxieties, stressors and exhaustion created in a time of collective sorrow. Pre-pandemic, we could depend to a much greater degree on our healthcare, education, social and economic systems, this is no longer being perceived as stable or readily available.
A commonality that emerged from the respondents, when questions referring to these systems was discussed, was the belief that their sense of control, and the ability to stay safe, protect and provide for their family members was no longer predictable.
People in general are feeling any number of things right now. As we continue to live through this global pandemic, a palpable sense of collective grief has emerged and continues to worsen. One of the greatest fears expressed was the fear of the future. Such uncertainty about what the future holds, has triggered anticipatory grief for the community at large. When we add these two additional conditions of collective and anticipatory foreboding to the personal grief and trauma associated with losing a loved one to homicide, we can certainly understand the description adopted by some survivors as “living in a pandemic within a pandemic.”
When we talk about homicide grief, we must understand that it is transient, and it is common for people to fluctuate between periods of sadness, mourning and acceptance, sometimes over long periods of time. However, these periods, generally, become less frequent the longer people have been bereaved. Therefore, it was quite concerning, at the time of this review, when it became evident that many of the participants who had been bereaved for a very long time had experienced a resurgence to the level of distress and anxiety initially experienced in the early days of homicide crime victimization. Seeking solace with other family members or close friends was not possible due to social distancing and other COVID-19 restrictions.
A common theme expressed over and over by parents of murdered children as they journey through the grieving process references a condition referred to as a “loss of purpose.” This feeling, over time slowly subsides, but the loss of control produced by the pandemic has caused this sense of hopelessness to resurface after many years, and it has become, based on the data that CPOMC reviewed, the impetus that re-ignited their grieving process.
The review also revealed that the deficit of support resources available to survivors, which existed pre-pandemic, has only increased. More funding is desperately needed to help parents and family members of homicide victims deal with the emotional and psychological damages that such a heinous crime leaves in its wake. Currently, when there are growing demands, because of the pandemic on mental health resources, victims of crime and their family members are falling further and further behind. If parents and survivors of homicide crime victims can be expected to return to a “new normal” post pandemic, we need to ensure that all victim service organizations advocate for adequate funding to ensuring that current programs do not get reduced or spread thinner. If we consider all those, who need to access mental health services because of the pandemic in addition to survivors of homicide victims, the challenge then becomes to ensure all populations are fairly treated, and not at the expense of any one group of individuals. Only in this way can everyone thrive.
Nietzsche is famously quoted “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
During this crisis it is important to grieve what has been lost. For those parents and survivors of homicide victims, life has been upended through homicide crime victimization. The pandemic has augmented that upset by shaking the foundations that provide a stable social and healthy environment. It is also important to find meaning and hope in how life has changed. Living in the aftermath of a homicide is an emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual struggle, and never more so than over the last eighteen plus months. The challenges associated with living in the aftermath of a homicide within a pandemic have been amplified. The losses associated with the pandemic coupled with the loss from homicide challenges the survivors with finding a why to live with a purpose going forward. Finding solace during this time through social connectedness is important in reorienting the meaning of purpose within the framework of processing one’s grief. As a result, many participants in the review expressed a greater appreciation for the routines that have been lost and those things that are truly valuable and meaningful in life.
One main conclusion that CPOMC derived from this study was that homicide loss and loss resulting from the pandemic have similar influences. Generally, pandemic influences are not as profound as the loss of a child or loved one to homicide, but nevertheless they have the capacity to trigger the re-emergence of the grief cycle and post traumatic stress disorder.
Some of the similarities are:
- Homicide loss or loss resulting from the pandemic can affect anyone regardless of their social status, financial situation, their religion, or their culture.
- Homicide loss or loss resulting from the pandemic has the power to make us feel overwhelmed with fear and anxiety.
- Homicide loss and loss resulting from the pandemic has made us feel the world has changed and we now see things from a different perspective.
- Homicide loss and loss resulting from the pandemic has forced us to cocoon ourselves within the confines of our home.
- Homicide loss and loss resulting from the pandemic changes our view of safety and security for our family and ourselves personally, economically, socially, and spiritually.
- Homicide loss and loss resulting from the pandemic can initiate the use of unhealthy coping practices through the abuse of or the misuse of substances.
- Homicide loss and loss resulting from the pandemic can make us feel disconnected and isolated.
- Homicide loss and loss resulting from the pandemic can cause psychological and physiological illnesses that will have far-reaching consequences.
- Finally, homicide loss and loss resulting from the pandemic has also taught us an invaluable lesson. It is the powerful resilience of the human spirit, when a collective abundance of kindness expressed in wonderful, creative, and novel ways shows us how to survive together.
CPOMC wishes to express appreciation for all those participants whose input was invaluable in developing a snapshot of how the pandemic has added complication to an already complex grieving process in the aftermath of their personal tragedy.
For those who have been newly bereaved thank you for giving your time and commitment during a period of acute grief.
For those who have been bereaved for a longer time, thank you for your courage to revisit and relive a very painful experience, providing valuable context to this review.
Once again, CPOMC is greatly appreciative of Justice Canada’s Victims Fund which has provided the financial support to complete this review.