The Specific Kind of Grief Murder Leaves BehindReading Time: 6 minutes
My Boyfriend Was Murdered in College. I Found Out Later What That Does to You., My work as a psychologist has brought me specific insight into the problem faced by ‘co-victims.’, Grief after murder: The differences in bereavement after a violent crime.
True crime stories have always been popular, but cold cases in particular attract a lot of attention now. Podcasts such as The Coldest Case in Laramie and Bear Brook detail twists and turns in who-done-it style journalism, exposing dead-ends and biases in investigations that have left possible killers free for decades. The entertainment-quality to these narratives often end up overshadowing the reality that resolution still matters, even when perpetrators who eluded arrest have since died. For the people who are left behind by these crimes, information of any kind can be incredibly helpful.
One in ten Americans suffer from homicide loss. While the horror of mass murders, understandably, garners widespread attention, single incident murders are more common by nearly one hundred-fold. Homicide rates have been up 30 percent since 2019, the largest increase recorded in U.S. history, after having peaked in the ’90s and steadily fallen until recently. The National Office of Crime Victims points to the impact of murder on those not only whose lives are lost but to the surviving loved ones as well, homicide’s co-victims. It actually considers co-victims of murder a neglected group of crime victims.
The pioneering psychiatrist Erich Lindemann estimated that a circle of six people, on average, suffer direct harm from a single traumatic loss. Traumatic grief from homicide loss can last a lifetime, particularly when a crime remains unsolved. A crucial dimension of justice involves recognition of the harm that’s been endured, not only what has happened, but also when systems fail to protect or serve. Waiting for truth is difficult, and can even be traumatic. As a psychologist who’s lost a loved one to murder, I know all this to be true. I was a senior in college in the late 1980s when my boyfriend was killed. The person who stabbed him was never found. Police interviewed me two days after the crime. I heard from them next nearly 30 years later, when new DNA technology offered another chance to examine the crime.
I was well into my career when that letter’s arrival ignited a parallel personal quest. I started to explore more deeply what my field knew of the psychological effects when trauma braids grief in this way. Few people around me seemed to understand what I’d felt for 30-odd years. I thought doctors or therapists would get it, but they too had asked in one way or another, ‘You’re still affected by that?’ With the letter’s arrival, I realized how much I wanted others to know about the long reach of traumatic loss, and the ways in which justice and healing are entwined.
Losing a loved one to murder creates grief unlike that felt from other losses. Those bereaved from homicide are forced to bear sudden death’s shock, and anguish from knowing that violence was inflicted with purpose by another person. Horror infuses bereavement with trauma. Media coverage can perpetuate harm, while legal systems can shame or support those who mourn. When murders remain unsolved, the absence of context to understand what happened leaves a deep void filled often only by nightmares. Unfulfilled hope for justice can leave wounds that rarely heal, causing persistent psychological and physical symptoms or illness. Because murder is more prevalent in marginalized communities, there are more co-victims in these populations as well.
Since the mid-1990s, researchers have challenged the idea that grief follows a particular sequence of feelings, even as much of the public clings to these notions. But the nature of grief, even from expected or natural causes, is far more complex. Most acute grief expressions following natural or expected deaths wane after a year and a half, though we may long for the person we’ve lost for the rest of our lives. Those who have lost a loved one to murder, however, are five times more likely to meet criteria for prolonged grief disorder a condition in which the bereaved have difficulty in reengaging with the present for a much longer period of time. Other experts, however, worry that this diagnosis may pathologize those who have lived through the murder of a loved one, because a long trajectory of grief is common—not necessarily disordered—after this kind of traumatic loss. The emotional palette of homicide bereavement is very different from nontraumatic loss as well. Sadness, regret, guilt, and longing are primary feelings in grief that follow death from expected, or natural causes. Anguish, rage, and shame, in contrast, predominate in homicide loss.
The differences between these emotions are visible in our bodies: When we’re sad, our expressions hang or our posture may droop. In anguish, our faces contort. In all kinds of grief, our minds may seem cloudy, our chests might feel tight, or our stomachs hollow. When we lose a loved one to murder, though, our fight-flight-or-freeze stress response kicks in ferociously. The shock can leave our minds not just foggy but blank. We may suffer intrusive mental images, whether or not we witnessed the violence. Even imagined details of the crime can evoke painful physical sensations. I’ve heard therapy clients express feeling they may vomit when they talk about the trauma associated with violent death, for example.
The loss of a loved one often creates anxiety as we are reminded of our own, inevitable death. In homicide loss, that anxiety turns into terror. I was afraid every time I stepped out my front door in the first weeks after my boyfriend’s murder. When perpetrators are unknown and still free, fear may never recede. Terror can infect our feelings for our other loved ones, as we fear for their safety as well. I became more afraid for my children as they got older and took off into the world on their own.
Feelings of guilt or regret common in grief may be supplanted by shame when homicide victims and co-victims are blamed, directly or by insinuation, for the crime that they’ve suffered. In The Coldest Case in Laramie, we hear how police raise questions about the victim’s alleged promiscuity. I felt some sense of shame for years after the murder, especially since no arrest had been made. The void left so much for people around me to question. We live in a world that blames victims, especially when truth remains hidden. I wasn’t aware that anyone thought I might have a role in my boyfriend’s death, but I could sense the shape of their questions whenever I told them I had lived through this crime.
‘You were involved with someone who got murdered? Was there a fight over drugs, money or sex?’ Rumors swirled and hints lurked that he did something wrong. And perhaps, by default, so did I.
The less we know about the death of a loved one, the more we may be haunted by the gap we’re left with instead. Unexplained loss gives us no context to integrate the fact of a death into the reality of our lives. Instead, the absence of information leaves a phantasmagoria inside us, akin to what my colleague, the psychoanalyst Andrea Bleichmar has described, an ever-shifting torment of shadowy images and fantasies.
For me, that phantasmagoria included years of nightmares that jolted me awake. While trouble falling or staying asleep is common in nontraumatic bereavement, there’s usually improvement over time. Nightmares aren’t common among bereaved people, except for those whose grief stems from such trauma. A symptom of post-traumatic stress syndrome, some experts regard nightmares as the mind’s effort to make meaning and help feelings become less intense. Chronic nightmares suggest that this adaptive process hasn’t yet worked, and are the result of ongoing hyperarousal. An absence of meaningful information gets in the way of the psychological repair work of integration.
When the police finally contacted me again about my boyfriend’s murder, this time, the officer expressed his condolences for my loss. I was surprised how much his sympathy mattered, even 30 years later. And unlike back in the ’80s, this investigator stayed in touch. We’d talk every six months or so about new leads in the case. His contact affirmed that my boyfriend had mattered. I felt like I did as well. And as I learned more about the murder from the renewed investigation, my nightmares began to abate.
For me, grief after homicide loss left me feeling like I was cut off from other people, living in a separate plane of existence. This was unlike my feelings of grief after other losses. After the murder, I felt submerged under water, as if bobbing for air only now and then. I still jump with a scream when I’m startled. Some aspects of trauma may always linger, hard-wired, in our systems. But justice in the form of clear information about the death of our loved one, shared with respect and compassion, can help settle our bodies and minds.
Recently, I met with investigators who explained the leads they’d gathered, their best understanding of who killed my boyfriend and why. The most likely perpetrator is now dead, with prosecution not possible. Even so, I noticed shifts in myself after this meeting, as if tension, locked up so long ago, had been released. In the absence of an arrest, trial or verdict, this kind of justice—with others serving as witness to my traumatic bereavement—helped restore some sense of peace.
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