Navigating the 5 stages after violent crime Based on the book, "Confronting the Horror: The Aftermath of Violence" - by Wilma L. Derksen
Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash
This is the third part to my blog series on Navigating the 5 Stages after Violent Crime, which is guided by a walk-through of a book called, “Confronting the Horror – The Aftermath of Violence” by Wilma L. Derksen. (You can look through my blog archives on the right to find part 1 and 2 in my blog series). As I share wisdom from this book, I am including some of my own knowledge and experience working with people who have experienced violent crime, including homicide. The recent mass shooting here in Nova Scotia has evoked a lot of feelings in me of sadness and grief, which are shared by so many people in our community. While I know the content of these blogs are heavy, my hope is that somehow they can support others who are trying to navigate this difficult time. I've listened to people in our community, and I want to help others process some of the thoughts and feelings that so many are experiencing.
As mentioned in the first part of this blog series, the author speaks about 5 stages individuals go through after serious crime: React, Retreat, Rectify, Refer and Recover. I will cover each of these stages by individual posts, and it's important to recognize that sometimes these stages overlap and people can move back and forth between them. I shared information on the React and Retreat stages, which can last a different length of time for each person.
The next stage is RECTIFY (fixing the harm). It is fair to say that many people in the general community have already entered this stage, with many calls for a public inquiry. A lot of questions and concerns have risen about the mass violence. We want to know exactly what happened and how things could have been done differently so that hopefully, something like this will never happen again. Seeking justice (whatever that might look like) is not just about accountability, it's also about restoring safety, dignity and trust. It marks the process of both an outward and inner fixing of harm, such as the harm it has caused within us, and fixing the harm outside of us - systems, policies or other processes.
We want to dive more into the why, when, who? People who have not been directly impacted by the violence - such as knowing any of the lost loved ones personally - may be able to come to this stage quicker. Normally at this stage a perpetrator would be going to court and those impacted would be anxious to see him held accountable. In our situation, with the perpetrator being killed, this is not an option. For some of us, this may feel like he was held accountable, because he no longer gets to live. For others, it steals away the opportunity to shout our anger at him, pour out our sadness, and tell him what a monster he is. His death also takes away the opportunity to get some direct answers about why he did what he did. Instead, we will have to rely on a police investigation and possibly other formal processes to piece together an understanding the best we can.
This stage is often dominated by anger. We want to fix what has happened, and somehow restore what is right. If we cannot immediately identify what caused the violent acts or understand them, we may find a target for blame. In a complex situation like the mass violence here in Nova Scotia, there are a number of places the anger might be directed at including the perpetrator, people who knew him, or the police, for example. We will place our anger somewhere, and sometimes, it will be misdirected. We want to hold someone accountable.
Of course, anger over what happened is normal. Anger tells us that something is not ok. Holding back feelings of anger can cause physical and emotional problems in the long term - it can be like poison to us. We must not let our anger get uncontrollable. I've witnessed this and the unhealthy ways that even decades later, repressed anger can reveal itself in how we end up treating ourselves and others. When we bury our anger and related emotions it can result in addictions, self-harm, depression and more. Alternatively, it can affect the way we treat others or interact with the outside world such as how we are in relationships or in our work life. It's incredibly important to find appropriate ways to express anger. We really have to be careful not to let our anger spill out in the harming of others. Our anger can push people we love away, and sabotage other things that are good in our lives.
"Research shows that anger is not a knee-jerk reaction. Anger occurs after we have processed enough information about a situation to interpret it as a betrayal or belittlement. This interpretation is grounded in our belief system which is crucial in determining our response. There is always a window or opportunity and choice in anger. We might not be able to control our feelings, but we are responsible for our actions."
It's also in this general stage that feelings of blame and guilt arise. One way anger shows up in is blaming others. We might blame family, friends, others involved, police, or even ourselves. We may blame others for not being where we thought they should be when our loved one was killed, or thinking perhaps that if a specific person had done something differently, spoke to someone in time, etc. that the outcome would be different. Sometimes people blame the victims of violence. Society tries to think of reasons why someone was targeted or harmed so that they themselves can feel safer. The underlying belief is that "I'll be safe if I'm a good person or do the right things" which is often untrue.
We might also blame ourselves, "If I had done this instead" or "I should have been there". There might be thoughts about how we ourselves could have stopped what happened. For those who may have had a close encounter with the perpetrator, and for people most directly impacted by the violence, a feeling of "survivor's guilt" might be felt - feeling guilty that we get to live while those we love died. Even the act of feeling happy for a period of time may make us feel bad. While this is all normal, it's important to remember that it is the perpetrator who is to blame. He could have decided differently, and we cannot predict for certain what would have changed. Grappling with these realities are part of a healing process.
The author suggests "recycling" anger into creative energy - finding positive ways to use it. Not feeling we can do something about the cause of our anger, such as losing a loved one to homicide can cause a feeling of powerlessness which may also lead into depression. Is there something we can do to stop or reduce the likelihood of a tragedy like this from happening again? People have used their grief and anger to make some very positive changes in community and society such as with laws or social norms - Mother's Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) is one example. On a personal level, we can consider other ways to redirect the energy from our anger such as into exercise/sports, art or other forms of expression. Seeking professionals support such as counselling can help in processing feelings of anger and grief as well.
In addition to feelings of anger, guilt, and blame, a feeling of impending doom can linger, which is sort of expecting things to get worse. It can make us feel powerless and apathetic. We question, "Can I trust others?", or "Will I or someone I care about be hurt again?". We can focus so much on what we lost that we lose focus on what we still have. It's during this time that can really test relationships - with friends, in marriage, work, or other things we enjoy. It might feel like losing our loved one has consumed so much of us that we may not have the energy to give much else to anyone or anything else.
When it comes to this stage and the healing process, the author speaks to the need of getting into a "rehabilitation program". This isn't a formal program, it's more about being thoughtful on what our next steps forward will be. Thinking about how we will get through this period of time, how we are taking care of ourselves and others, and where we can put our energy. It's important to take steps forward to take care of these things. It can be difficult to heal and repair alone, or even to do so exclusively with others who are struggling with similar emotions and struggles. "Without a strong rehabilitation program, the disabling harm can continue to remain unaddressed for years...". It's during this time we will need to challenge ourselves, and re-think life. It will be work, and there might be days when some of us want to give up. Finding ways to take control of life again, especially for those most impacted, is critical. This is the time to begin a refocus on cherishing what remains.
There are a number of considerations that the author asks readers to consider: 1-Be careful not to minimize the harm done to you 2-Take time to assess the assumptions you had in life before the violence 3-Maintain your relationships 4-Manage your physical health 5-Manage your time and work 6-Manage what you have left 7-Don't make rash decisions about anything based on your feelings 8-Don't try to absorb all the losses by yourself (seek support)
Hopefully the above ideas help support those impacted.
My next related blog post will be on the next stage, "Refer". Feel free to share these posts widely if you think they can support others.
Navigating the 5 stages after violent crime Based on the book, "Confronting the Horror: The Aftermath of Violence" - by Wilma L. Derksen
Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash
This is the second part to my blog series on Navigating the 5 Stages after Violent Crime, which is guided by the walk-through of a book called, “Confronting the Horror – The Aftermath of Violence” by Wilma L. Derksen. (You can scroll down this page to find part 1 in my blog series). As I share wisdom from this book, I am including some of my own knowledge and experience working with people who have experienced violent crime, including homicide. The recent mass shooting here in Nova Scotia has evoked a lot of feelings in me of sadness and grief, which are shared by so many people in our community. While I know the content of these blogs are heavy, my hope is that somehow they can support others who are trying to navigate this difficult time. I've listened to people in our community, and I want to help others process some of the thoughts and feelings that so many are experiencing.
As mentioned in the first part of this blog series, the author speaks about 5 stages individuals go through after serious crime: React, Retreat, Rectify, Refer and Recover. I will cover each of these stages by individual posts, and it's important to recognize that sometimes these stages overlap and people can move back and forth between them. I shared information on the React stage which is marked by panic, fear, and the initial thoughts and feelings that immediately come to the surface with little time to think or reflect. This stage (as with all stages) will last a different length of time for each person.
The next stage the author speaks about is "Retreat". This is a time that is dominated by sadness. After the initial reaction, we need time to retreat into ourselves and regroup to decide how to deal with the loss and what happened. This is usually after panic has subsided and more of the current reality has set in, although there will still be moments of disbelief. As our brains begin to re-shift and focus differently, many impacted by the mass shooting will struggle with feeling absent minded, emotional, unfocused, very sensitive and confused.
During this time, providing practical support to people affected in this way is helpful. Bringing cooked meals, helping with household tasks or grocery shopping for them. "The pain of a wounded heart takes time to heal. When we are in mourning we need a safe place to cry, to remember, to nurse our wound, to contemplate life and muster the courage to live again." At this point, to "live again" might feel more like "existing". No one wants to have to imagine a life without someone they loved or cared about.
Some people might experience a "spiritual crisis". For those with spiritual/religious beliefs, we might ask, "how could a good God allow this to happen?". We may question whether there is a God, lose or feel alienated from our faith, or we might lean into faith even stronger to get through this very difficult time. Some may believe that if you do good things, you will be rewarded with good and that can be very difficult to come to terms with when terrible things happen to good people. Questioning God is not unusual.
It's important to realize that everyone may react differently to the loss of a loved one through this tragedy. Some people may cry, others may not. Some may want to speak about their experience and/or loved one often, others may hold back. Some may be overcome with anger, while others sadness. We have to be careful not to judge others about how they respond to grief. There is not "right" way to feel.
Unlike in other situations where we lose loved ones (accident, illness, etc.), because these losses are due to a crime, there is an active police investigation including media involvement. These elements can sometimes interfere or disrupt the grieving process. A quiet, private community now becomes the centre of the country's attention. It can make us feel exposed and more vulnerable. Outside people may feel motivated to travel to Portapique to show support, bring flowers to the memorial, but also to physically connect with the reality of the tragedy that has taken place. As we "retreat" we may seek privacy and quietness, but this can be harder in the days of social media. While there are many benefits to being the centre of attention, such as the outpouring of support, it can also make it challenging to focus and mourn losses in a safe way. In the end, we really need to listen to those most impacted by this tragedy. What do they need? How can we support them? What are they saying?
It's during this stage that more time might be devoted to trying to make sense of what happened. This may mean revisiting again and again what happened, when it happened, reading information about how things happened, and following new information or evidence shared by police or news media. We want answers and we want to understand, hoping that it will somehow allow us to get the closure we seek. Sometimes it can feel like too much information is coming at us and so it can be overwhelming and feel like our brain shuts down, and for those most directly impacted, it can feel like being in a trance.
We may experience intrusive memories about what happened that keep showing up. The details of the experience come to consciousness and force us to relieve those moments again. Memories of lost loved ones may go directly to the horrific event and it can almost cloud memories of the person from before they were killed. One way to combat this is to continue to look at photos of lost loved ones, telling their stories, looking at mementos, etc. Memorials focused on remembering the lives of those lost help support this.
For people who knew someone who's life was taken, they may want to revisit places that remind them of that person. Driving past their home, their work, places in the community where they often met or shared special memories. Others on the other hand, may avoid these areas because it doesn't feel like a way of connecting with their loved one, it only feels like a place of sadness.
It can be easier to repress the thoughts and feelings of what happened - at least in the short term. I recall some people I've supported after loosing someone to homicide deciding to go right back to work and carry on with normal routine. This may seem impossible to do for many, but for others, the busyness of work was a way to distract them from their feelings. There is a delicate balance between giving yourself the time to sit with the dark feelings that come with this type of loss, and trying not to feel consumed by it so that we can still function. However, it is important that we find healthy ways and opportunities to express feelings of grief. "Unexpressed grief will keep us stuck. If we avoid the memories of our loved ones too soon or move on too quickly, the memories can take on a grotesque distortion later on and haunt us as flashbacks or anxiety attacks".
The author suggests the following to help with this phase: 1-Don't be alarmed by your inability to control your thinking patterns 2-Prepare for trauma triggers as much as you can 3-Try to physically organize your traumatized mind (scrapbook, newspaper clippings, etc.) 4-Let friends help you organize your life when possible 5-Don't hide your lapses of concentration 6-Make lists, write things down 7-Take one day at a time 8-Talk to someone regularly to process how you're feeling
Hopefully the above ideas help support those impacted.
My next related blog post will be on the next stage, "Rectify". Feel free to share these posts widely if you think they can support others.
Based on the book, "Confronting the Horror:The Aftermath of Violence" - by Wilma L. Derksen
Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash
In light of our recent tragic mass loss of lives to violence here in Nova Scotia, I thought I would write a series of blog posts on what people tend to experience after violent crime. My series of posts will walk through a book called, “Confronting the Horror – The Aftermath of Violence” by Wilma L. Derksen, who lost her young daughter to homicide. I will couple this walk through with some of the insight and experience I gained working with people who have lost someone to homicide while I worked for police in a Victim Services unit. The author speaks about 5 stages individuals go through after serious crime: React, Retreat, Rectify, Refer and Recover. I will cover each of these stages by individual posts, and it's important to recognize that sometimes these stages overlap and people can move back and forth between them.
Knowing the significant impact this wide spread violence has had on our small community of Nova Scotia, my hope is that many find some understanding and comfort in what I will share, and encourage anyone who wants to learn more to read the whole book. I also want to state that I am choosing not to use the name of the killer who took the lives of so many in Portapique and surrounding areas of Nova Scotia.
So many have been victimized by the killer's actions: people who lost loved ones; people who they themselves were at risk; people who witnessed some of the traumatic events; those working in emergency services; and our community as a whole. As a result, when we think about who has been a "victim" of this tragedy, we have to think broader than the people who's lives were stolen, or the people who lost those loved ones. "Many others experience reactions to the psychological trauma of murder in a community who are considered to be outside the immediate circle of family members or friends".
The United Nations defines a victim as: "...Persons who, individually or collectively, have suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss [due to crime]...regardless of the familial relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. The term “victim” also includes, where appropriate, the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim and persons who have suffered harm in intervening to assist victims in distress or to prevent victimization...".
With this understanding, we can see how crime and violence can impact so many people, such as whole communities. We see an incredible amount of emotional suffering right now across our province, even our country. We suffer because we care. Nova Scotia is a small community. Many of us will have either been to the places where the violent acts occurred, knew someone who lost their life, or know someone who did know someone.
The first stage discussed by the author is "React"."The impact of violent crime is immediate and disempowering". This stage is dominated by fear. During this time, people react to what is happening. There is often panic, but people can react differently in this moment. The instinct for those directly impacted is usually one of survival. It is usually these moments that will be etched in our memory. For the people in our community with direct experience with the shootings, those moments might include what they were doing when they heard gunshots, when police showed up at their door, when they got that phone call, or the moment they could not reach their loved one. There can be so much that is a blur during these moments because our brain and body will put most of it's energy only into what it feels is important at the time. For those who were indirectly impacted in our community, it may be details about the moment you learned about what happened such as where you were, what you were doing, or who told you. Since the violence evolved over time it can be difficult to figure out when that "moment" came because there were likely repeated moments with new realizations about the violence that was taking place.
During this "react" stage there can be a lot of disconnection, shock and numbness. Thoughts of "is this really happening"? It can be hard to articulate how you're feeling...it's like there are no words. We see so many people across Nova Scotia using the word "heartbroken", though for many, the feelings are far deeper than that- words don't seem like enough. "Many victims talk about being lost in a state of fluid emotion with no words, just darkness". Fumbling for words, struggling to find the right ones. There aren't words.
Thankfully, most of us in Canada do not have to live our lives with ongoing fear or have to face regular mass violence. What we experienced here in Nova Scotia is what we would expect from movies or on the news of a place somewhere else - it feels surreal. Even over time, it will be hard to come to a realization that this was how we lost loved ones, and people in our community. Nova Scotia will become known not just for our tourism, but now also by this horrific tragedy. We will be haunted by the memories of what happened, they will revisit us because the world now knows.
For some, there will also be a great sense of betrayal and sense of security entirely shaken. People knew the killer, most never thought he would do this. They shared drinks with him, maybe some laughs and more. He owned a business and many have interacted with him. The idea that someone we knew and to some degree, trusted, to do the horrific things he did can make us wonder, do we really know anyone? Who can we trust? It creates a feeling of unease and lack of feeling safe. These feelings are normal.
Being faced with many gaps in information is also common in this stage. Things are not shared with us, and there are things we may not ever know because they can only be answered by the man who did these things. We may become frustrated with information not shared yet by police who are conducting an active investigation to try and uncover the truth. There's a Native American saying quoted in the book, "It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story" - which feels especially true knowing the complexities and massiveness of this tragedy.
People who lose loved ones to homicide not only need to struggle with a sudden death and normal grief that comes with losing a loved one, they must also confront the complicated and traumatic elements that comes with violent crime, in this case, homicide. Trauma can create fragments in memory or a disorganization about how we remember things so it might be hard to remember what happened in order. We are trying to piece together everything that has happened, and right now, that isn't possible.
The fear and shock that comes from a traumatic event like we have experienced can often cause us to have an exaggerated startle response. This means that even after the threat is over, we may still be hyper-vigilant and alert to any possible danger. Days after the mass shootings there were a number of reports about possible gun related incidents at a couple locations in Halifax Regional Municipality, for example. This type of reaction by community is not abnormal - we have felt a serious disruption in our sense of safety and trust. Some people may experience anxiety attacks, irritability, flashbacks, numbness, trouble eating, sleeping and concentrating, which are all normal to experience in this stage. The degree in which someone experiences these things will be related to how connected a person was to the shootings, past trauma, and their own mental health makeup. Support from family, friends and community members may help in managing these feelings, however if they linger for a long time it's important to recognize when getting professional support might be needed.
For anyone experiencing these symptoms, some things that may be helpful include trying to "will" yourself to relax, at least at various points in a day. Taking deep breaths, eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and trying to exercise in some way. When I've worked with people experiencing trauma, appetite can easily go. People forget to eat or sometimes just don't because they do not feel hungry. I want to encourage anyone this is happening to, to eat anyhow. Even if it means one piece of fruit, a piece of toast or other light, easy food a few times a day. Stress burns energy and not having enough food or water can often make it worse. It also impacts the way our brains function. Set an alarm on your phone if needed to remind yourself. Routine is also important, because our body feels safer with it. It feels predictable. This might be challenging at this time during our current pandemic when many routines have been thrown off. If you have established a routine since the pandemic, trying to continue parts of that will be helpful. If you haven't, trying to mimic parts of your routine before the pandemic may be helpful as well. It's also important to recognize your stress triggers, so that if you experience a flashback, give yourself time and space in that moment if at all possible to process what you are going through and being gentle with yourself.
Another part of healing and self-care is story sharing, which can be a way to unload grief. People need to share their stories and will choose to do so in different ways. Some people share their stories about what happened with the news media, others to social media, some only to those close to them or a counsellor. It's important to know that this is also part of a healing process. The way that people react when traumatic stories/experiences are shared is important and can help people in their healing journey. Overwhelmingly, community is embracing and supporting those who are sharing, and this is the response we need to give. Others may hold back their stories, however repressing does not normally help. It can be a natural reaction at times to want to forget what happened or how we are feeling. However, in my experience working with those impacted by trauma, these memories often crop up repeatedly throughout life in various ways, and often impact many aspects of life subconsciously.
Telling our story is important- even if to only a few. This story may include a wide range of emotions experienced, and knowing that there is no "right way" to feel. We need to integrate this painful story into our living truth. Trying to find a safe place (and person) where you feel comfortable and supported is really important to think of when opening up about this traumatic event. When it comes to sharing our story, there are three different ways to do it: -focus on what happened -focus on the feelings that came with what happened -focus on the impact of what happened has had on you, and those you love
The author speaks about the need to express our thoughts and feelings. There are a number ways to do that. I have seen so many people in the community and on social media showing support and solidarity by displaying a Nova Scotia image or flag in their windows or on their lawns, sharing images on social media of Nova Scotia with a heart, people participating in social distancing candle light vigils and/or the "Nova Scotia Remembers" virtual vigil . We have seen a large image of Cst. Heidi Stevenson with angel wings displayed in Cole Harbour, and the option to purchase a shirt with "East Coast Strong" to both emotionally and financially support families who've lost a loved one. These are only some of the ways we are sharing our story as a community, and moving towards a path of healing. All of these acts matter. As the author states, "...We are all connected. We are not alone...we need each other. What we do to each other matters immensely".
My next related blog post will be on the next stage, "Retreat" which is the directly many will be moving towards now. Feel free to share these posts widely if you think they can support others.