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.