Navigating the 5 stages after violent crime
Based on the book, "Confronting the Horror: The Aftermath of Violence" - by Wilma L. Derksen
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.
-Angela Jeffrey, BSW, MSW, RSW