Navigating the 5 stages after violent crime
Based on the book, "Confronting the Horror: The Aftermath of Violence" - by Wilma L. Derksen
This is the fourth 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 through 3 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. Again, it's important to remember that sometimes these stages overlap and people can move back and forth between them.
The next stage I'm discussing is REFER. This is normally the stage where those impacted look to authority and the criminal justice system for answers and justice. In most circumstances, a perpetrator is being processed through the criminal justice system.
It's during this time that more thoughts might go to wondering what was going through the perpetrator's mind. We may want to understand him and his motive. If the perpetrator was still living, he may have undergone psychological assessments. Even before the mass violence he committed, we know that there were other forms of violence and aggression he acted out on others. I have supported women who were in intimate relationships with men who were described similarly to the perpetrator. I have found that the women, and sometimes family and friends, try to understand someone who acts this way. There may have been times people have tried to speak to him about his behaviour, but people like our perpetrator, often don't think there is anything wrong with them - therefore, they rarely seek help or follow through on efforts to make positive change. People may try to figure out what must have happened to someone like this, to make him this way - a childhood experience, perhaps it's due to stress or other challenges experienced in life - but all too often, these behaviours are seen as, "That's just Bob being Bob". Until something like our mass violence happens, where so many never thought "Bob" would do such a thing.
According to Hermann, based on the testimony of victims and the observations of psychologists, the most consistent feature of the perpetrator is his or her apparent normality. You can never be sure who an offender is, or who a potential offender is. The trouble is that so many people are like these individuals who harm or kill others. Often, people like this who have committed unfathomable crimes against humanity can be certified by psychiatrist as normal. For the average person, this wolf among the sheep is not apparent.
The author speaks about those impacted by violent crime becoming, "trauma hostages". Even when an perpetrator is no longer living, there is still a trauma bond that continues. The act of violence unites everyone who was touched by it. Everyone participating in that moment of violence - those who lost loved ones, police officers involved, innocent bystanders, the broader community, the media - can also be caught in this bond. Bonded with the offender in memories to form a sort of support group of life experience with others, and talking about the same trauma on anniversaries to come. What happened almost feels attached to our identity. Victims often describe feeling imprisoned by the experience of violence. The author says we can be, "held captive in the aftermath of homicide which sabotages us economically, socially, psychologically and physically."
This stage also speaks a lot to the criminal justice process or the types of challenges and trauma that are coupled with a surviving perpetrator. We will not need to face the challenges of the criminal justice system, such as the anxiety of waiting for his "day in court", trying to keep track of where the process is at via news media, maybe hoping to see a glimmer of remorse, or perhaps answers to our "why", or holding our breath for what we hope will be the worst possible sentence. Anyone that knew him personally may have conflicting emotions of compassion, anger, understanding, confusion, or fear. However, with the perpetrator dead, we are robbed of the chance to tell him how we feel and about the destruction he caused. People often feel that by doing so, they can find some closure. In my experience, people are unable to find the closure they seek through the criminal justice system. While it can be a piece that supports healing, "closure" is usually obtained by a combination of sources and experiences.
Even though the perpetrator will not be going to court, there is still an element of the criminal justice process taking place due to the police investigation process. This in combination with an anticipated Inquiry here in Nova Scotia, there will be a sense of justice seeking that will occur. The Inquiry may become like our courtroom, and our community like our jurors. However, with hopes of a restorative approach in mind, the process may be less traumatizing. People are going to be looking to these processes to get answers, hold anyone they can accountable, and speak their truth. Without the perpetrator, it will be these processes that will come closest to answering questions around motive, provide a piece to the "closure" puzzle, and give opportunity to hold systems and/or people accountable.
Even though our inclination may be to withdraw, we need find the energy to cultivate health social relationships. Draw strength from community. The more connected to the support of community, the less the trauma bond will hold and have a negative impact. As mentioned in previous blog posts, we are lucky to live in the Nova Scotia community which has poured out so much support. While it cannot take away the pain, or undue the past, it helps make us stronger.
Despite how difficult things continue to be, we need to remember that, "The only way out is through" (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). The process isn't easy, but is is the only way to make it out the other side.
My next related blog post will be on the next stage, "Recover". Feel free to share these posts widely if you think they can support others. I am also including a resource from the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, "Homicide Loss: Dealing with Grief for Survivors": https://crcvc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Homicide-Survivors_May2017-1.pdf
Stay safe, be well.
-Angela Jeffrey, BSW, MSW, RSW