Navigating the 5 stages after violent crime
Based on the book, "Confronting the Horror: The Aftermath of Violence" - by Wilma L. Derksen
I’ll begin with my general introduction to this series of blog posts, for those who have not been reading so far.
This is the fifth, and last part in my blog series on, “Navigating the 5 Stages after Violent Crime”, which for anyone who has not been following this blog series, 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 the other parts of the series). This stage looks at “Recovery”. I’m sharing wisdom from this book, while also including some of my own knowledge and experience working with people who have faced violent crime (including homicide). The mass shooting that occurred here in Nova Scotia during April 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 have been 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.
Since April, we have been moving through a healing process towards recovery. There has been so much grief and sadness for our whole community. With the time that has passed, this is now an opportunity to do a check-in with ourselves (and possibly the ones we care about), on our mental health and where we are at in the healing process.
Part of this process involves confronting our grief and sadness. Everyone experiences grief and sadness, however some people will also experience situational depression at times like these. Although, it’s important to recognize if it evolves into major depression. Depression can cause occupational problems, possible substance abuse (trying to numb out the pain), and even lead to suicidal ideation. If you are experiencing the following symptoms for a prolonged period of time, and nearly every day, it may be time to see a doctor, or speak to a therapist:
Depressed moods most of the day, feelings of sadness or emptiness.
Diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities of the day.
If we find ourselves “stuck” as if we aren’t moving forward, or there aren’t consistently more times when we feel less sadness, anxiety, etc. than it may be time to reach out for more help. Normal sadness, grief or anger are never a problem, as long as we are moving towards a way to get through it. However, some people can feel stuck for a very long time, it all depends on the person and their unique circumstances. We may feel guilty if we are trying to move on with life. The author states, “Giving up, letting go, moving on, starting over, forgiving, are not words of defeat, guilt or weakness. On the contrary, these words can give us back our freedom”. It’s important to acknowledge any movement forward we do in the healing process. Here are some suggestions to help with healing:
The author speaks to healing and wholeness. I'm a firm believer in a holistic approach when it comes to health. Health includes so many pieces of our physical self such as good eating habits, getting enough rest, drinking lots of water, exercise or some form of regular activity. Our mental health and related forms of self-care are equally and incredibly important. There’s an analogy I heard in a training once that I continue to use: If your leg was broken, you would get it treated and take care of the injury. So why is it that when we are injured mentally, we often neglect it? The broken leg is no more important than the injury to our mental wellbeing.
The author lists a number of helpful things to think about to move forward in recovery:
When we think of a healing/recovery process, we tend to think of a definitive end, which most people identify as "closure". When it comes to crime, we often associate closure with a perpetrator being held accountable, or punished. We also often want to know "why"? Since the perpetrator will not be going through the criminal justice system, the Public Inquiry that has been approved to look into the act of mass violence may serve as its closest comparable. Some may see this process partly as getting “closure”. During the Inquiry, many people most directly impacted will be called upon to share their stories/experiences. This is going to be a very difficult process as some people may have already tried to bury and avoid thinking about what happened, doing their best to cope. Some may not want to be part of the process at all due to the pain, while others may see it as part of their healing. Sharing these stories can be especially triggering for those participating and we really need to also consider the vicarious trauma for those who will be hearing these stories as well. During this process, we may start to develop expectations around what we think we will find out, which can become very dangerous territory if our ideas are too specific. We do not know how this process will unfold or what it will reveal. If our expectations of what we will discover are too rigid, it can trigger further frustration, grief, and anger.
The painful reality for many people who have experienced violent crime is that “closure” in the traditional sense, will not be possible. There will be reminders of what happened, unresolved issues, and continued losses that will affect the people most closely impacted, long after everyone else has been able to “move on”. In my experience working with victims of crime, people on the outside often have a timeline in their minds of when people “should” recover. Sometimes, when someone doesn’t “move on” within this timeline, they can experience judgment if their recovery seems “too fast” or even, “too slow”. It’s a lot of pressure that nobody needs - let’s not do this to one another.
As mentioned previously, some of us may choose to bury that past, not think about what happened and stomp on the hurt. However, if not faced, it will always find a way to resurface, often in ways that are more harmful, and difficult to control. We need to remember that denial and repression doesn't get rid of a problem. I've seen this many times in counselling where clients bury things of their past only for them to continue to resurface or show up in some way, impacting their life. As the author says, whatever we have denied suffers, and this suffering affects the whole of us. We cannot afford to exclude anything that belongs to us.
There are going to be so many factors that contribute to how a person recovers and heals based on: what they saw or heard; their own past experience; the circumstances of the violent act; the relationship we had with those lost or the perpetrator himself; our internal and external resources that can support us during these difficult times; our personality; cultural norms; the criminal justice system; our attitude; and the quality of our mental health at the time. Support systems will play a role, including our greater community. We really need to look at this stage as an individual process where there is no right or wrong when it comes to healing and recovering. We need to remember that it is a difficult personal journey, and it cannot be accomplished in a specific number of steps. It's important that people do not compare themselves to others in the recovery process, and that we do not compare others to each other.
The author encourages its readers to “Embrace the Journey”. The journey is essentially life after the violence. It’s everything that must be faced, everything that’s been experienced, all our emotions and every day for the rest of our lives. The author lists a number of ways we can do this, by confronting, and processing the devastating reality, and incredible pain:
In summary, we can’t choose a different past, but we can choose how we respond to it. Recovery is often done in baby steps, we should not pressure ourselves. We need to be true to ourselves. Take care of ourselves, and each other. Monitor how we’re doing and reach out to informal and formal supports when needed. Let go of any feelings of guilt and shame. Know that being able to experience happiness and hope are possible again.
Hopefully the above ideas help support those impacted. My heart and thoughts go out to all those most deeply affected. As we move forward as a community, I hope we can find a way to make meaning from the violence we experienced, make positive change, and honour the lives of those lost.
If readers would like an additional resources to support recovery, please see go to this link from the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, “Recovering from Violent Crime”: crcvc.ca/docs/recovery_from_violence.pdf
Stay safe, be well.
-Angela Jeffrey, BSW, MSW, RSW