Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My daughter was murdered by the father of her children. Her children at the time were a toddler and an infant. It’s now seven years later. My daughter was just 21 years old. I had to get my granddaughter’s things out of the apartment she was murdered in, so it was very traumatic to see. I have PTSD because of it. I didn’t cry or break down at her funeral because of the children. I can’t sleep I think about her so much. I’m very dedicated to trying to get better gun laws and advocate for domestic violence. I think those help some. But I need help for myself. Where do I turn?
Even in the brief and unelaborated form in which you have summarized this horrific story, it is hard to read–and all the more so for those readers who themselves have suffered the loss of someone to homicide or other forms of violent death. As you imply, there are many factors that make the already searing pain of losing a child that much more anguishing, including the following:
–Suddenness of the loss. With no time to prepare, you were blindsided by death, denied any possibility of providing protection or comfort to your daughter, or even the opportunity to say goodbye.
–Violence of dying. Especially having seen the apartment in which your daughter was murdered, presumably by gunshot, you were immersed in indelible images that likely return unbidden, and very likely a vicarious sense of what you fear she may have suffered in that terrible final confrontation.
–Complicated issues of human intention. Unlike accidental deaths, even those that are horrific, your daughter’s death was the result of the decision of a specific human being to end her life. This commonly triggers rage as well as grief, which, in combination with the PTSD you understandably suffer, can greatly disrupt your ability to mourn your daughter and process the meaning of your physical separation from her.
-Questions of justice and the legal system. Homicide loss shares with suicide and other tragic deaths the tendency to shatter our assumptions of security and ability to protect those we love, and sometimes even undermines our trust in a divine order or caring God. Compounding this in the case of murder, an imperfect and protracted legal system can keep the trauma activated for many months or years, while rarely delivering a verdict that feels just to survivors. Moreover, most legal proceedings even deny public voice to survivors, compounding their sense of marginalization.
–Family systems complications. In your case, two small children effectively lose both parents, and the older of them might actually have been aware of the killing. However well you or other loving family members step into the void, it may always feel like a family with a hold in the middle, one joined by shared grief as well as shared love.
In our studies of homicide survivors, we’ve observed several common struggles. These include a high percentage who qualify for complicated, intense grief responses and clinically significant depression, and a smaller, but substantial number who meet criteria for PTSD. We also observe a large proportion of those who are religiously inclined having severe struggles with their faith, as reflected in an anger at God and an estrangement from the faith community. And finally, we encounter many survivors who suffer from a shrinking social world that pulls back from them in horror or helplessness–or worse, steps in intrusively out of morbid curiosity or with subtle or overt blame for the victim or the family as a whole. The result is an anguishing fog of grief and other intense emotions, a common feeling of distrust, isolation and betrayal by society or specific others or groups, and a sense of helplessness, fear, and uncertainty about how to move through the horror.
And so, you ask, where can you turn for help, and toward a healthy way forward through the tragedy? Here are a few recommendations:
–Seek others who have been there. Both face-to-face and online support is available from groups that share some or all of the dimensions of your loss: The Compassionate Friends, Parents of Murdered Children, and faith-based groups like Victims to Victory. Some of these groups are national or international, and others are local, but an internet search will usually help you find support services accessible to you.
–Know when to seek professional care. Even the best peer support may not be able to provide the sort of specific trauma interventions, family therapy or therapy for complicated grief that a growing number of professionals can offer. Note, however, that these skills do not necessarily come with a PhD, LCSW, or LPC credential or license. Before setting up an appointment with a provider for services, explain your experience succinctly as you did in this letter, and ask him or her if he or she can offer trauma and grief specific interventions, or whether you might be served better by someone with specialized credentials. Most professionals will respond candidly, and are usually well positioned to help steer you to someone who can offer the relevant help.
–Look for empowerment and purpose beyond the trauma. Functioning as a surrogate parent for children who lost their own mother can be a gift beyond measure, just as true engagement in challenging and changing the social conditions that give rise to an epidemic of deadly violence can add meaning to life through altruistic social action. Acts of meaning cannot erase the needless pain engendered by senseless violence, but it can help transmute it into something noble in the wake of great tragedy.