How to survive the violent death of someone you love
As surely as death follows life, grief is a universal experience, yet each experience of grief is unique. Even when the death of a loved one comes peacefully after many years of a full and active life, survivors may experience profound sadness and a deep sense of loss. When death occurs as the result of a traumatic injury – such as an accident, fire, or suicide, for example – the suddenness and tragedy of the event may intensify, complicate or prolong the grieving process. But when a life is ended in an act of violent crime, the senselessness and brutality of the death may leave survivors reeling with unspeakable horror and extreme grief.
Over 45,000 homicides occur in the United States every year, the result of everything from child abuse and domestic violence to robbery, arson, or the deranged fury of a psychopath. Everyone sees the stories in the news or on TV, but few consider that someone they know or love could fall victim to murder or any violent crime. When a violent death occurs, survivors often experience a range and depth of painful emotion unlike anything they've ever known. Some describe feeling like they are "going crazy," while others describe being virtually paralyzed by their feelings.
Typical reactions to a death by violent crime
When death occurs as the result of a violent crime, survivors face not only the devastating loss of a loved one, but also the torture that comes from knowing the senseless cruelty of the circumstances. Typical reactions include:
- Shock. Death by violent crime is unnatural and unexpected. In some cases, the shock will give rise to such disbelief and denial that the survivor is unaware and appears devoid of any emotions.
- Sadness. When a loved one dies a violent death, survivors' sadness is compounded by the senselessness and brutality of the violence.
- Disturbing thoughts and images. Recurring, troubling thoughts and disturbing images of the death, whether the recollection of a witness or the product of the imagination, may plague survivors for long after the tragedy.
- Guilt. Even more than survivors who have lost loved ones through "natural" death, those who survive victims may feel guilty, thinking they could have done or not done something to prevent the death. In almost all cases such guilt, although troubling, is irrational.
- Anger. Anger is one of the five stages of grief that one typically experiences following a loss. When death comes as the result of violence, even words like rage, fury, wrath, and outrage are woefully inadequate to describe the extreme anger experienced by many survivors.
- Anxiety and worry. When someone dies in an act of violent crime, surviving loved ones may feel anxious and worried as their own sense of safety and security has been shattered.
Surviving the unthinkable
The victims of death by violent crime include not only the deceased, but also the survivors, whose lives have been changed forever. Like anyone who has survived the death of loved one, surviving victims of violent crime will heal with time (see 10 strategies for coping with grief), but the tragic loss leaves an indelible scar.
If you've lost someone you love in a violent death, you've endured an incredible blow, capable of impacting your physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The uncommon circumstances surrounding your loss may make leave you feeling extremely isolated and alone – and understandably so. Although all of us will experience the death of a loved one at some point, few will suffer the kind of terrible, senseless tragedy you've suffered.
The support of other surviving victims is an important part of your healing. When you're ready to talk about your experience and unburden your heart and soul, these people will listen with a unique empathy and understanding. The opportunity to give and receive compassion and caring with others who have suffered similar losses will help to see you through the most difficult time in your life.
If you find that your grief has become unbearable or all-encompassing, don't hesitate to take your concerns to a professional counselor, social worker, or pastor. They can help you through the roughest spots and identify additional support resources if you need them.
The following links offer more information on losing a loved one in a violent crime:
Help is at hand: a resource for people bereaved by suicide and other sudden, traumatic death
The National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children (POMC)
Violent Death Bereavement Society
Survivors of Violent Loss Network
Further sources of information
You may find our other articles in the Grief Library section helpful too.
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