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.