How to handle those who have lost loved ones through violent acts

Handling Grief In The Face of Violence

It’s impossible to open a news site today without being confronted with countless violent images of senseless tragedy and occurrences of mass shootings, suicide bombings, and other terrible acts that bring death into the forefront of the lives of everyday people.  These are ordinary citizens who have to cope with the sudden and unexpected loss of someone they hold dear because of the willful act of another.  All people face death at some point in their lives, but the myriad of sudden emotions that come with a violent tearing away of a loved one need to be dealt with uniquely, and with an eye to understanding the needs of those left behind. As someone providing emotional support to another, it’s essential to understand that violent circumstances create a unique counseling situation for the friends and family members of the victim, with patience and a long-term commitment being paramount.

Why Violent Death Is Different

First and foremost, with a violent death, there has been no preparation for loss, no time to ready for the absence of the person in their lives.  Instead, mourning can be extended indefinitely, and standard methods of counseling may be inadequate to cover the needs of the survivors. Those who have been preparing for the death of a loved one after a prolonged illness are often at a different stage in their grief than someone who has been notified that someone they care for has been ripped from their lives with no warning.

Some of the issues that can arise from sudden deaths include:

  • Frustration from the inability to receive all of the details surrounding the death due to ongoing investigations
  • An extended wait in reclaiming the body of a loved one
  • An inability to understand the reason behind the event itself (“Why did this happen,” “It makes no sense,” etc.)
  • A feeling of helplessness in the wake of violence (“No place is safe”)

So how can that level of shock and grief be counseled when the very act that took their loved one away is so sudden?  Looking at situations such as the Emmanuel AME shooting that took place in June shows that those moments where loss is felt are not contained to a short period after the incident.  Months later, victims and their families are still looking to make sense of the senselessness of violence, and there are no easy answers.  This needs to be understood by any caregiver, that questions will come at points that may be long past what would be a “standard” mourning period, and shouldn’t come as a surprise when they’re asked.

Like all grief, the reactions will come in stages. It may take days, even weeks for the person who is suffering the loss to be ready to speak about the tragedy, and even then their thoughts may be piecemeal, incomplete.  In many of these instances, they’re speaking to police officers, doctors, members of the media as well as friends and family who are all attempting to gain insight into the very act the grief-stricken person has not had time to fully process.  It is often only after the influx of those looking for facts and figures have died away can the grieving process fully begin.

Children are a special group

When violent death happens, so often the smallest mourners are overlooked or absently coddled.  They will receive hugs, but not answers to their questions.  For children, there is no filter from experience to handle taking in the full horror of what has occurred.  They feel the full impact of their loss in one devastating blow and haven’t had a lifetime to learn coping mechanism that will help them through the worst of their pain.  Counter to that, the mourning period itself can be extensive because very often children are not able to process through grief in the same way as adults, and the permanence of death may not be fully grasped.

In addition, different age groups may have radically different understandings of what is going on around them. All of these factors need to be taken into account when approaching a child suffering from traumatic loss.  Most importantly, understanding and awareness of their needs will go a long way towards allowing a child to express their grief in a positive, healing way.  The National Criminal Justice Reference Service provides a particularly comprehensive guidebook on the special circumstances surrounding children and traumatic loss.

Be prepared for the long term

Grief is a lifelong process no matter the circumstances surrounding the loss, and moving from the initial stages of pain to maintenance will take time.  The process of coming to terms with a violent loss can be a long one.  As psychologist Curt Drennen states, it is important to take the counseling process slowly, to move at a pace that is the most beneficial to the one who is facing a life without their loved one. Though the impulse to quickly help “fix it” is strong, to alleviate the pain, the opposite may occur if the process is pressed too vehemently.

As someone reaching out to another for support, it is basic comforts that can be the most helpful:

  • Being on hand during significant periods in the life of the person who has been lost (birthdays, holidays, etc)
  • Helping to curtail “avoidance” behaviors (hypervigilance, avoidance of crowded places, refusing to drive, etc.)
  • Assuring those in mourning that their reactions are not “wrong” because they’re not the same as others even within their own family; each person mourns in their own way
  • Allowing the mourner to speak about their loved one in their own time, and being available to listen to what they want to talk about, when they want to talk about it
  • Avoiding empty platitudes (“I know how you feel,” “Give it time,” etc) as they can simply exacerbate the already painful situation

In conclusion, it’s best to be well-educated in how to handle the situations that arise during any time of mourning, but it’s essential to understand the unique situation brought about through a violent death.  Sensitivity and awareness of the mourner’s particular needs is tantamount to ensuring you are providing the highest quality and most effective care to them in their time of emotional crisis.

With our extensive resources, the AAB can help you as a grief counselor remain informed and up to date on the latest recommendations and techniques when assisting others with loss.  Join us today to ensure that you have the most comprehensive educational materials available so to provide the highest quality in caregiving.