Violent Death of a Son

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

My son was stabbed this Spring and lost his life two days later, and they let the guy walk free.  I continue fighting for justice for my son but I am so lost without him. I feel I am literally going crazy. I can’t sleep, I don’t eat properly, and I have lost 25 pounds since May. I am truly devastated. I used to be the happiest fun loving person and always smiled but that is no longer true. How do I recover?


Dear Briana,

The short answer to your question is undoubtedly “gradually.”  With your son’s sudden and violent death, your world has been shattered, and it will take some considerable time to put it back together.  Even when you do, it will have a big piece missing, which time alone will not replace.  And yet, as far too many tragically bereaved parents might tell you, there can be life after loss, and perhaps even a sense of renewed purpose, which emerges slowly from the fragments of the life that was.  Here are a few steps to consider as you do so.

Begin with self care.  There can be no prospect for a meaningful life if it is founded on self neglect.  If your profound sleeplessness and weight loss reflect your despair, seek treatment for your depression.  Grounding your actions in self compassion, ask yourself what would help, even a little, to restore some sense of equilibrium.  Seek a healthy routine of awakening and going to bed at the same hour, eating regular meals and watching coffee and alcohol consumption.  Give yourself the gift of a routine you can depend on, especially if others in your family also depend on you.

Make connections.  Homicide can destroy more than one life, as it can isolate and stigmatize survivors, leaving others in the social world too often in the role of horrified onlookers who withdraw out of a sense of helplessness, or–still more hurtfully–intruding with morbid curiosity or even blame regarding the circumstances of the death.  To counter these wounding dynamics, actively reach out to others who you believe will understand, whether to trusted friends and family, to others who have known tragic losses of their own in a support group environment, or to professionals who should he able to hear what others will not, and be willing to sift through the anguishing experience alongside you as you attempt to relearn life in the wake of this trauma.  Your writing to me is already a first step.

Revise and restore your “world assumptions.”  Among the invisible losses that often accompany the visible one following homicide are the “deaths” of many taken-for-granted core beliefs:  Beliefs that the world is just, that people can be trusted, that we have the power to protect those we love, and that our future is in some important measure predictable.  But the murder, suicide or sudden accident that takes the life of our loved one challenges all of these beliefs in an instant, and it can be a hard and deliberate process learning to live on the basis of very different assumptions.  We may, for example, need to come to terms with the reality that justice is uncertain, and that seeking it for ourselves and others is a lifelong quest, that trust is rebuilt in one intimate relationships at a time, that we can comfort and honor love ones even if we can’t protect them, and that the future can and must be reinvented when the old story lines of our lives are shattered by unforeseen events.  This can be long and hard work, and require patience and courage in the face of great pain.

Turn tragedy into tribute.  Finally, consider the examples of those mothers who, faced with their own devastating losses, sought justice for others in founding or joining Mothers Against Drunk Driving, advocacy groups for the treatment of depression, support groups for suicide survivors, or organizations to assist Parents of Murdered Children.  In these and countless other examples, mourners have found meaning and purpose in pursuing noble missions as tributes to those they have loved and lost, in the course of which they again found value in their lives, connections with others, and a path toward a changed, but deeply significant assumptive world.  Your passion, combined with your pain, can become a powerful force for good, in a broken world that badly needs it.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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