Coping After Homicide

by Lynn Jett Minick

In loving memory of my daughter, Denise Minick Cveticanin who, along with her unborn daughter, Laura, was brutally murdered. ~~~Lynn Jett Minick

weepingWhen someone you loved is murdered, your emotions become intensified to a much greater extent than you can imagine. You feel as though you have been thrown into an emotional tailspin. Shock, grief/heartache, guilt/self-blame, disbelief/denial, and anger seem to know no bounds – all seem to become entangled. You may possibly feel a loss of faith in God and mankind. You may feel stigmatized and suffer a loneliness you have never known, all the while confused and wonder why this horrible tragedy occurred. At times, you will wonder if anyone cares. Overwhelmed and confused, you may experience a loss of memory. Your mind seems “fragmented” and you may feel that you are losing your sanity. You will probably be depressed, impatient with yourself and others. You sometimes feel as though you have no emotional control. These are all normal reactions.

Reactions to shock vary with the individual. The shock may be so great that, unable to absorb it, you may seem in a daze with no outwardly visible reaction. You may feel totally helpless and look to others for direction. Although there is no way to determine exactly how long this “zombie” stage will last, it will pass in time.

The grief and heartache ordinarily associated with the death of a loved one are compounded when the loved one is lost through violence. You will be wracked with emotional pain, but don’t try to conceal your emotions. To suppress one’s grief and heartache not only delays the healing process, it can result in a deep, debilitating depression as well as physical illness. You have a right to grieve – don’t stifle it.

“If only I ..”, “Why didn’t I ..?” are common reactions among survivors of homicide victims as they try to rationalize the entire episode. Do not blame yourself. It was not your fault.

An all-consuming anger may well up within you with no warning. There is nothing wrong with you, this is a normal reaction. After all, you have endured the ultimate violation. You may even fantasize means of seeking revenge. This is neither uncommon nor unhealthy, and it may even help. You will likely experience such anger repeatedly as you go through the trial process (which we will discuss later).

We, as a society, want to know why an incident occurs. Too often, there is no rational answer to this question. Lack of understanding, coupled with an inane desire to know why, often results in stigmatizing the survivors. This, of course, creates even greater emotional turmoil for survivors.

Sadly you will learn that the crime is only the first in a seemingly endless series of victimizations. Society tends to focus attention on the criminal at the same time ignoring the victim. This unfortunate fact intensifies the victim’s distress, confusion, anger and pain.

At times, you may feel the urge to cry out, “Hey, what about me?” At other times, you may ask yourself, “Doesn’t anybody care?” You feel victimized by public apathy, and you are frequently hurt by the insensitivity of others. You soon learn that those who have not suffered the trauma of victimization simply cannot understand. They don’t realize that the victim is so traumatized that a simple courtesy shown becomes an act of caring from the victim’s perspective.

Your concept of friends may be altered. Friends who were very supportive in the beginning may avoid you. It is crucial to share your grief and you may want to tell your story repeatedly, but your friends may not be able to deal with the details of the tragedy. Your friends still love you, but they feel uncomfortable around you. Your feelings of isolation intensifies as you suffer that which you perceive as rejection. Your presence is a constant reminder to your friends that they too, are vulnerable. It is much easier for them to ignore their own vulnerability when you aren’t around. Even though your intellect makes you understand, your emotions seem to cry out the ever-present question: “Doesn’t anybody care?”

You may find it helpful to keep a diary. Write your true feelings, whatever they may be. Not only can keeping a diary be therapeutic, it may also help remember details later which otherwise might be difficult to recall. This will prove to be especially beneficial as the case goes to trial.

When a murder occurs within a family, one might expect that it would unite the family more closely. Such is not the case for many times, murder separates a family both physically and emotionally. We each grieve in our own way, and we learn to cope in our own way. Many times it is difficult for family members to cope with their own grief that they simply do not have the ability to support other members of the family. Often family members are reluctant to discuss the murder among themselves.

The personalities of family members may change dramatically. Victims develop an acute sense of awareness which may be viewed by others as paranoia. Social inhibitions are not uncommon among victims of crime, including those who were once considered extroverts. There are those who may resort to the use of alcohol or drugs in their effort to cope, thus compounding their problems. A student, preoccupied with the murder, may seem to lose interest in school when in reality the student is unable to concentrate. The same considerations should be accorded to youngsters as adults.

Many survivors agree that the victim’s birthday, holidays and anniversaries trigger a resurgence of pain. Hopefully, as you go through the healing process, you will discover a way to lessen the pain of these special days. You may wish to indulge yourself in a way that your loved one would have wanted for you. Do those things which make you most comfortable.

Society can be very cruel. Due to their lack of understanding, people may say inappropriate things to you, things which tend to victimize you further. Implications that somehow the victim’s behavior contributed to his own death are devastating to the survivor. Equally offensive are remarks such as “It’s over now, put it behind you.” “You should be over that by now, it’s time to get on with your life.” Etc.

Unfortunately, you may be both hurt and angered by the religious community. There are many ministries which conduct religious services for offenders, and provide aid and solace to their families as well. They seem ever ready to help the criminal even though he is a repeat offender; however, most churches provide virtually nothing for survivors of homicide victims. We do not condemn this practice even though lack of support from the religious community greatly intensifies the overwhelming emotional upheaval for the survivor of a homicide victim. We encourage the religious community to develop sensitivity to the plight of the victims.

There are those of the cloth who may tell you it was God’s will and urge you to forgive the murderer. Remarks of this type “re-victimize” the survivor by adding the feeling of unworthiness to the existing emotional turmoil. When the victim’s perception of God and religion has already been adversely affected by the crime, such remarks are devastating and can destroy a victim’s faith. Try not to be impatient with yourself. The trauma of victimization often takes much longer to work through than you may now realize, for not only are your emotions involved, your emotional state affects your physical state as well. You may suffer a loss of appetite. You may feel tired and listless and sometimes a very simple chore becomes a seemingly insurmountable task.

During this time, the need for food and exercise may be totally forgotten. Take time out for yourself. Try to exercise at least minimally. Even though you may not be hungry, try to eat a balanced diet. You may feel the need for more rest than usual. Don’t push yourself, rest when you feel like it, but for your own good, do not rest as an excuse to “escape”. If you find it difficult to stay up after you have had adequate rest, you may wish to see a therapist or your doctor. You may feel that tranquilizers and/or alcohol would provide a much-needed interval of rest and/or relief, but remember, their use will delay the healing process and many times they affect you adversely.

Unbelievable to you at this point is the fact that there is something positive in everything that happens. Look for it! If you maximize that which is positive, even though it may seem somewhat insignificant, you will find that it lessens the pain.

Everyone must cope in his own way, but you will find it will help your own recovery if you become involved with others. Do not isolate yourself! It is particularly helpful to you if you can channel your strong emotions toward something constructive.

Most victims are in for a rude awakening as they progress through the criminal justice system. Naïve, we look to the courts as a place where the criminal will be duly punished for the crime. We go to court expecting justice – but alas – too many times our confidence in the justice system is totally destroyed as we learn that the laws seem to be for the protection of the criminal. You will probably experience a more intense anger than you previously thought possible as you become painfully aware that “victims’ rights” is simply surface rhetoric. Victims have no status and seemingly, are only incidental to the crime.

On occasion, the guilty person may be released on a technicality. There may be a plea bargain arrangement wherein the criminal pleads guilty to a lesser charge. More often than not, such an arrangement seems grossly unfair and you, the victim, may be outraged. The so called “fair trial” will seem unfair to you. Evidence, which you think is important, may be suppressed because it is deemed highly prejudicial to the defendant. In spite of your fury, outwardly you must remain stoic. Your conduct in the courtroom may determine whether or not you can remain throughout the trial.

Appropriate conduct should be maintained at all times in order to assure credibility on the stand. Jurors and attorneys may be observing you while in the hall and during breaks. It is not appropriate to speak to a juror, and it is wise to avoid eye contact or smile at jurors during a break.

Regardless of the outcome of the trial, you will not feel satisfied, for in any event, it is you who will serve a life sentence.

You may feel as though the defense attorney is your personal enemy. Contrary to your feelings at the time, the defense attorney holds no grudge against you. He is sworn to zealously defend his client, regardless of the offense. In so doing, it is his obligation to try to destroy the credibility of the witnesses for the prosecution, including you.

If, on the other hand, the defense attorney does not adequately defend his client, the court of appeals may declare a mistrial and order the case to be tried again. Absent the shock which may have protected you emotionally during the first trial, a retrial could be far more emotionally damaging. Realizing this, you can understand wherein it is to your advantage for the defense attorney to represent his client to the best of his ability. Because it is sometimes difficult to separate the emotions from the intellect, it may help you to curtail your anger if you mentally remind yourself that the defense attorney is simply performing his duty.

You may have experienced an ordeal which has altered your life permanently. Your sense of awareness has been intensified, your faith in mankind has been shattered. Those things which may once have been of major importance to you may now seem trivial, because you have already suffered the ultimate! You have learned firsthand the extent to which our laws protect the innocent. You have also learned a kind of sensitivity which perhaps you never knew before.

Although it may seem doubtful to you now, in time your pain will subside, and you will start to rebuild your life. You will laugh again and find joy in the unexpected. You will go on with your life. You will cherish good memories of your loved one, for you are a survivor!

For the survivors of unsolved murders, the healing process may never be complete. The questions “who?” and “why?” are always with you. Fear and anger are constant companions. You may possibly view everyone you encounter as a potential murderer and have great difficulty coping with the day-to-day activities life seems to require of us all. It is our sincere desire that your case will soon be resolved and that your fears will be alleviated.

How to Be a Better Witness
As a witness, think carefully through the case and your own testimony. Picture the scene of the crime, everything you saw and heard – and exactly what happened. Be prepared to answer questions accurately and to the best of your knowledge.

Be prepared. As you discuss your testimony with the prosecutor prior to the trial, let him know if there are any areas you perceive as “problem areas”. Your conference with the prosecutor will serve as a refresher and help prepare you for the trial.

Be totally honest. Tell only the facts as you know them, simply and succinctly, and avoid appearing opinionated.

Maintain your composure. Do not appear impatient. If counsel objects to a question, wait for the judge’s ruling before you continue to talk. If the objection is sustained, you must remain silent; if the objection is overruled, you may continue speaking. It is imperative that you remain calm and courteous. Any indication of anger may diminish the impact of your testimony.

Speak distinctly and audibly. Face the jury, the triers of the fact, as you testify and avoid appearing “shifty-eyed”. Speak clearly so you are easily heard by the jury. Do not merely not your head in response to a question.

Dress conservatively and neatly. Weight given to the testimony can be decreased if the judge or jury is offended by your appearance. Stand upright while taking the oath, pay attention and say, “I do” clearly.

Be on time. If you need a subpoena to justify your absence to your employer, be sure to tell the attorney ahead of time so one can be prepared.

Keep the role of the defense attorney in mind at all times, and listen carefully to the questions asked of you.Homicide

Never speculate nor guess. If you do not understand the question, asked that it be repeated or rephrased until you do understand. If you do not know the answer, say so. Give positive, definite answers when you clearly remember what happened and avoid such phrases as “I think”.

Take your time. Think through the question asked and do not feel pressured to give a snap answer.

Answer the question that is asked of you and then stop. Do not volunteer information not actually asked of you.

If you cannot answer a question with a simple “yes, sir” or “no, sir,” you have the right to ask the judge’s permission to explain. Wait for his response before you continue to talk.

Have you discussed this case with anyone? Do not forget your conversation with the prosecutor and/or a member of his staff. Answer very frankly if you have talked with anyone and state who, if asked.

When asked to identify the defendant, look at him directly and briefly state his sex, describe his clothing and where he is sitting in the courtroom.

Appropriate conduct should be maintained at all times in order to assure credibility on the stand. Jurors and attorneys may be observing you while in the hall and during breaks. It is not appropriate to speak to a juror, and it is wise to avoid eye contact or smile at jurors during a break.

Do not be intimidated. You are extremely valuable as a witness because your testimony will affect the outcome of the trial. Don’t be afraid to look the jury in the eye when you are telling your story.

As you rebuild your life, we strongly encourage you to reach out to other victims. You will find it helps the healing process to share experiences with those who understand. Examine the laws in your  state and learn what you can do toward balancing the scales of justice. What greater tribute could you pay to your loved one than to work for justice? After all, VICTIMS DESERVE JUSTICE TOO!

Copyright by Lynn Jett Minick, 1988

Editor’s Note: Lynn and I corresponded several times by phone back in the early 1990’s. I ordered several of her books to keep on hand for the families I was assisting through our local funeral home. Every effort has been made by this editor to contact Lynn and the publisher [People Assisting Victims] of her booklet, Coping After Homicide, for permission to print her book on my Journeys Through Grief blog, but to no avail.