A guide for grievers, and the significant others, friends, and loved ones who support them.
By Sarama Keum-Sun
Part 1: Making Sense of the Tsunami
No one has ever told you what to expect. No one, not even story—society’s great cultural transmitter of knowledge. Movies, TV, and books have not prepared you with any realistic depiction of what it is to lose someone to violence. And, if you’re like me, no one you know in real life has ever experienced this before, either.
Thus, one of the first things to expect when you become a homicide survivor is the feeling of isolation. And utter confusion. If you have never experienced homicide, what is happening will likely not make sense to you. If this is you, I hope this article brings you some clarity as you weather this earth-quaking storm. Later I will cover what to expect when navigating the criminal justice system.
My storm began nearly 4 years ago with the double homicides of my mother and sister. At this point in my life, I am something of a professional griever. I have been credentialed by informal life experience rather than an higher institute of learning, so please do not use these words in lieu of professional care.
In fact, the first thing I recommend is finding a trauma-informed and/or grief therapist.
You will be in shock for an indeterminate amount of time following the loss. You may be swept away with logistical matters: funeral arrangements, estate concerns, insurance—all the paperwork and bureaucracy our society mercilessly thrusts upon us in our darkest hour. It is exhausting, so it is entirely reasonable to feel a strong desire to take a break from the madness that has become your life.
Follow that instinct. What many people overlook is that emotional hardship is a high energy demand.
Be gentle with yourself. Treat your body as though you are recovering from a major illness. Drink water.
Eat, or if you absolutely cannot, drink smoothies. Find a way to put some nutrition and calorie intake in your body. If that means ice cream and popsicles, that means ice cream and popsicles. (For me, it was fruit and vegetable smoothies and pancakes loaded with butter and syrup.) Rest. Binge on Netflix. Find a safe place to cry. Nap. Take baths. Be liberal with the Epsom salt. Magnesium relieves anxiety and soothes tense muscles.
But I gently urge you to seek out a therapist within the first few months following the homicide. And if you were unable to do so at the time, and many months or years has passed, I urge you to do this now. My life experience has taught me that it is not time that heals all wounds, but time with intention. The slogan, “What you resist persists,” may be trite and overly simplistic, but I think it carries a lot of truth. There are mental health professionals that will attest to the effects of unresolved trauma; you may be experiencing one now: the next event in your life may find you first rehashing the thing that happened years ago.
Finding a therapist is not always an easy process. It sometimes takes a few different tries to find a therapist that fits. If you are daunted by the process but you have a friend or loved one willing to help (or if you, the reader, are a friend or loved one willing to help), delegate this task.
If therapy is cost-prohibitive, there are other options. Your area may have a state-funded mental health center, or a non-profit offering aid for free or discounted prices. If you are a church member, you may be able to find counseling there. More recently there are text-a-therapist crisis lines.
Many area hospices also offer free grief support groups. This is not one-on-one therapy, but it does afford you the oh-so-valuable connection.
Networking will be your biggest tool in the surviving these waves. Cast your net far and wide. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Look for support and community.
I am writing this article because I believe in the power of lived experience shared through personal connection. Look for this in homicide-support groups in your area. You can search for groups on the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children. Don’t be fooled by the name; they provide resources for all homicide survivors, not just parents. They are one of the largest organizations in the field, and other organizations will often refer you to them.
But, if you’re like me, in-person groups may not be available in your area. Do not abandon hope, you will find support groups on FB, most of them begun by other survivors like ourselves searching for connection. Siblings of Murdered Siblings is one such support group that also provides care packages and support for those navigating the trial process.
Do not underestimate the power of being heard and validated. Value the need to be understood.
Not everyone’s experience with homicide is the same. Every circumstance is different; every person is different. Reactions will vary, but generally they will fall upon a spectrum of common responses.
Whatever you are feeling right now is right. It is valid.
Whether they are voiced or unvoiced, we will feel the weight of outside expectations. These will range from your friend’s expectations she developed based on her reaction when her parent died, to the often inaccurate grief depictions you have seen on TV. They might even include items from this article.
I spent a lot of time wondering if I was acting how someone in my situation was supposed to be acting. When I went to file my taxes, which had been directly impacted by the homicides, I wondered if I was supposed to be so calm and impassive in front of the CPA. I wondered if the fact that I was crying at work was unprofessional— since I was supposed to leave my baggage at the door—or if my co-workers would find my lack of tears disturbing. I wondered if it was ever okay for me to laugh, smile, or feel any moment of peace.
There is no universal rule for how a person in your situation should be acting or feeling. None. Trust in yourself. And if you can find something that brings you happiness in the moment, allow yourself these small treasures.
Anyone who would deny you of joy because they feel it is not an appropriate expression of grief is confused about what you deserve.
While some may expect you to be constantly sad, conversely:
People will expect you to be okay long before you will be okay.
This expectation is motivated by both altruism and selfishness. First, your loved ones do not want to see you suffering. But also, most people are very uncomfortable with strong negative emotions. The depths of our feelings are scary to experience and scary to witness. When the people around you fear the pain you are in, they may resort to judgment as a defense mechanism. They want to believe that such pain will never happen to them, so they create the belief that it won’t because they are more this and less that, and they would do this and would never do that—and all of this falls back on you in victim-blaming. The implication is that you are somehow lacking and your bad feelings are your fault.
This is NOT true. I cannot stress this enough. Bad feelings are an unavoidable part of the territory, and life in its entirety. Negative emotions are healthy and normal responses to trauma.
I am sorry if you discover there are people in your life who view you or your bad feelings as a burden. I hope ardently that you will be able create space from these people and seek out those who are able to bear witness.
Tip for supporters: You do not need to have any answers. In fact, trying to “fix” the bad feelings is often the exact opposite of what is needed. If you see your loved one floundering in a wave, abandon the thought that you must encourage them to kick or they will drown. Instead, say: “This wave is really big right now. I will swim beside you until it breaks.”
And please, dear supporter, make sure to continue checking in on your loved one well after the 2-3 months the average supporter gives. The healing process will take a long time. Remember,
There is no timeline on grief.
We have all heard this. Being an already experienced griever before my mom and sister were murdered, I knew this to be true. However, I still imposed upon myself a deadline of when I should be “over it.” Mostly, because suffering sucks, and nobody wants to do it for long. I became the most vocal critic in my healing journey because I kept trying to fix what could not be fixed. In the end, it was me who had to allow myself permission to not be okay.
As I became impatient with what I perceived as my failure to thrive, I realized I had to reevaluate my parameters. The grieving period for traumatic loss is a prolonged process—seeking justice not only keeps the wound open and extends the grieving process, but also adds another layer of trauma (which will be discussed in a different piece.) Traumatic loss presents with unique challenges, which I have cataloged for you below.
Grief from Natural Loss vs Traumatic Grief
The following are observations formed from my contrasting experiences with natural loss vs violent loss. Before the homicides, I had already buried my father, step-father, and only aunt and uncle, who all passed due to natural causes. Yes, there are similarities, of course. But the fact that differences between homicide and natural death are so little-known contributes to the isolation of traumatic grievers.
The loss is sudden and unanticipated:
When I was 14, I lost my father to a heart attack. This unexpected loss was only the first in a string of abrupt and severe life changes, which made for a difficult and miserable adolescence. But while the displacement of his sudden death was severe, there was a major difference:
You expect that people will die of natural causes. If you have ever worried about losing a loved one, you have run through any number of possibilities in your mind, most likely: cancer, heart failure, a car accident.
You never, ever—EVER—thought you would lose your loved one to homicide.
For most people, homicide is something you experience on Dateline. Homicide is something that happens to other people, not you. Until it does.
Lack of Acceptance:
When my father passed, I was able to rationalize and eventually make peace with his death. I was able to understand why he had died: we all know bodies wear out. I was able to tell myself, “My father had a genetic predisposition for cardiovascular disease. He did not exercise. He was overweight and ate fatty foods.”
This same kind of understanding was not available when my mother and sister died. I could not rationalize why my mother—healthy and active in her early 60s and enjoying the beginnings of early retirement—and my little sister—just entering the world in her early 20s—were no longer on this planet. Their death was not due to the force of nature we all succumb to in the end.
There is little willingness to accept that my family died because a person took power that did not belong to them and decided they should.
For supporters: Please refrain from such platitudes like, “It is all part of God’s plan.”
Because after experiencing homicide, you are not sure there is any plan at all.
Disruption of Belief Systems:
Belief systems serve as our navigational compass. They inform where and how we move in the world—and we all have them, whether you are religious, atheist, or agnostic. A person with broken belief systems is sort of like a cat without whiskers.
The fact that my father had died, even suddenly, did not disrupt my belief systems. I was even able to sustain the belief that everything happens for a reason: “If he had not died then, this good thing would not have come into my life.” “Through his death I was able to gain strength, knowledge, and empathy.” It was a classic, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
None of this applies in homicide.
Homicide is a direct betrayal of the universe.
Homicide called into question all of my belief systems. I could no longer believe that everything happened for a reason, as no knowledge, strength, and empathy I gained could be worth the cost of two lives.
Tip for supporters: “Everything happens for a reason” are fighting words.
I had also previously lived with the belief that if you work hard, do good, and love well, good things will come your way. You will achieve your dreams, or find that happiness everyone is looking for. This belief was buried so deeply, I didn’t realize it was there until it was wrenched away from me. My mother and sister were good people who worked hard and loved well. But bad things happened to them, regardless. My little sister, especially, would never achieve the goals she articulated in her diary.
When this foundational belief was shattered, it was replaced with a new knowledge: Life has very little to do with what you deserve. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how good you are, how much you love—everything you have worked for can be taken from you.
Homicide means losing the solid foundation on which you built your life, and having it replaced with a rolling, turbulent fault line, constantly beset by massive and devastating waves.
It is difficult to build secure footing on the knowledge that nothing is promised and everything can be lost in an instant. Nothing can erase that knowledge once learned, so I recommend focusing on rebuilding your trust elsewhere—namely in yourself, and love. (Yes, that’s cheesy and trite, but whatever.) Life is fragile and fleeting, but in this moment, you exist. And so does love. Both you and love have limitations: you are not capable of fixing everything. But trust that you are capable of many great things, and that the small things are as powerful as the large.
Loss of Safety and Control, and the Resulting Obsession of Loss:
For many people, our homes are our shelters, both emotionally and physically. Human nature is comforted by close proximity to what is familiar, what is “yours,” what you believe is in your control.
My mother and sister, like many others, were murdered in our family home. As a result I found myself obsessively examining the circumstances that lead to my family’s deaths and wondering what I could have done to prevent it. Or I was constantly scanning my horizon for physical threats. Or I was trying to anticipate any possible scenario that could bring unforeseen harm to myself or a loved one.
I was trying really, really hard to have a crystal ball. What finally brought me relief from all the pressure of expectations no human can possibly fulfill, was realizing two things:
Safety is a mindset, not a physical certainty.
Very little of life is in our control.
Both statements are examples of the uncertain and constantly tremoring fault line homicide survivors must rebuild their lives upon. Life is easier when you can believe that you are safe in your home and life is under your control. But funnily enough, once I was robbed of those old beliefs,
Relinquishing my need for control brought me comfort.
It is a strange thing to say, and I don’t expect this to be reassuring to everyone, at least not at first, or ever. But it reduced the unnecessary pressure I was putting on myself.
And it allowed me to refocus my energy on the things I do have control over: I could call a friend when I was sad. I could cry because I was bursting with energy that needed to be released. I could take a slow deep breath because I was very likely holding mine. I could drink water, because I am almost always dehydrated.
Tips for supporters, bring your loved one a glass of water.
I could work on rebuilding my sense of safety—which, for a long time, was constantly undermined by the re-enactions of the homicides.
Replaying the death of a loved one is a common and natural response in any type of loss. But there was a significant difference between reliving the morning I discovered my father’s deceased body and imagining the deaths of my mother and sister.
We may do this for a variety of reasons: Trying to accept that what happened was indeed real. Feeling the need to have accompanied your loved one during their final moments. Examining the situation for a possible way it could have been circumvented—for instance, I wondered whether the old golf clubs that long laid forgotten by the front door were there the evening in question. Survivor’s guilt: if they suffered so must I.
It did not matter that I was not present when they died. From the moment I received the news—and only just a few details—my brain ran through every possible scenario that could have possibly occurred, desperately searching for an answer. “What happened?!” Over and over and over. And it would not stop. As time went on, and I learned more details and facts of the event, the imaginings only became more and more vivid. Each discrete assault on my family’s bodies I felt on my own. The distress was acute. According to my therapist:
“The mind has a hard time differentiating between what is real and what is visualized.”
For nearly two years, I dealt with these intrusive thoughts. As I looked out on the beautiful forest surrounding my house, I saw mayhem. As I talked to the grocery clerk, chatted with my coworkers, I heard the sounds of violence. Unlike with my father’s death, these re-enactments did not dissipate on their own. The processing mechanism had run haywire and commandeered my brain.
Techniques for Flashbacks and Releasing Stored Grief
“The body keeps the score,” declares a significant text on PTSD and trauma written by Besel Van de Kolk. Meaning, trauma is stored and experienced physically as well as emotionally.
With the help of positive visualizations and a few body-orientated modalities, I was able to effectively lay the gruesome visions to rest.
I put the fact that the mind struggles to differentiate visualizations from reality to good use. Visualizations are quick and can be done in nearly any setting. When the intrusive thoughts began, I implemented a simple visualization recommended to me by a friend:
Encase the images in a beautiful crystal. You can now only see them happening behind a shining, translucent surface. Hold that crystal for just a moment, then stretch your arm back and hurl it into the sun. See it traveling up through the atmosphere, through infinite space, and into that impossibly massive ball of fire. Picturing it incinerating, transforming that moment of darkness into light.
I mean, I found that satisfying. Feel free to make up your own, or search out others.
I also utilized the fact that trauma is stored in the body to my benefit. The following technique combining breathwork, music, dance, and free-writing, was especially effective. It is based on Holotropic Breathwork, with a few adaptations. I did this in the company of a trained practitioner; if you feel up to it, however, you may be able to do this at home with the assistance of a strong and trusted friend.
This modality requires an uninterrupted chunk of time in a safe setting. For me, practicing this once every other day for a week immediately cut the occurrence of the intrusive images by 90%.
Turn on soothing, relaxing music, preferably without lyrics. Lie on your back and take deep belly breaths. Exhale with sound. Let that sound project from your belly, and allow it to sound as ungraceful as it needs to be. Expect to engage in this process for at least 20 minutes. For many people, after several minutes the exhalations will unearth the tension and grief stored in your body. (If this does not happen, I guarantee you will be at the very least relaxed.) In the scenario of a grief event, the exhalations will turn to sobs. Allow that energy to leave your body.
When the crying has dissipated, follow with one additional exercise. Hold the traumatic images in your mind. Keep them there for approximately 2-3 minutes. Then, turn on bouncy upbeat music, and dance. (For me this looked more like flopping and jumping around while crying, like an awkward middle-schooler who has been dumped at the Homecoming Ball. But in order for this to work, let yourself look foolish.) Move your legs, move your arms, shake that stress from your body. Dance for about 10 minutes. Afterwards, grab a notepad and free-write whatever comes to your mind first. Continue until the words run out.
Afterwards, rest. Take a bath, a walk, an evening of Netflix, a cookie, whatever is soothing.
Repeat as necessary.
Oh, and one last instruction: Be proud of the fact that you are caring for yourself. Have hope that one day, you can reclaim your life.
Reset Your Goal Posts
Destruction happens in an instant. Rebuilding takes what feels like forever. And many of your old building materials have been swapped out for materials you are unfamiliar with. What you will rebuild can never be the same as it was before. But as you lay your new foundation, make sure to include the knowledge that you are still alive after facing what the majority of Americans will never experience in their entire lifetime.
We can make it. Together.