Violent Crime and Grief

Nothing in life is more painful than the violent and senseless death of a loved one. People have grieved as long as humans have been, but grief and mourning is still not fully understood. Each grieves differently, yet not so differently that he or she cannot find solace in sharing with others.

Violent Crime and Grief The sudden violent death, which took your loved one, probably feels unlike any other loss you have experienced. You may feel angrier than you have ever felt and sadder than you thought possible. You may have frightening thoughts. You may do strange things. You may be afraid you are going crazy. Don't be alarmed. Moving through your misery can feel so devastating that you begin to question your own sanity. Few people, deeply in grief, go crazy.

A sudden death is more difficult to cope with than an expected death. When a person is violently killed, the death is even more traumatic. It makes no sense at all. You and your family could never have been prepared for the fact that your loved one was killed suddenly and violently. Nor were you prepared to face weeks, months and even years of waiting and uncertainty until criminal cases are resolved. During this period, friends you count on for support may fail you. Unfortunately, many of those who attempt to comfort survivors, even some professionals, do not understand that the grieving is intense and long lasting but appropriate for this kind of traumatic stress.

How you grieve depends on a number of things:

Getting Better

Getting better means:

You probably be able to achieve these in time. It takes longer than most people think. The kind of person you were before the tragedy will make a difference in your journey toward recovery. If you are physically healthy and emotionally healthy, had a good relationship with your loved one, have supportive friends, feel basically in control of your life, and view crises as challenges instead of catastrophes, you will handle the trauma of your loved one's death better than others who do not.

No matter how "all-together" you are, recovering from an unexpected death will require a lot of patience and hard work. You will never be exactly the same again.


Denial is a wonderful emotion. It is nature's way of warding off the full impact of trauma until you can absorb it. Most people, upon being told that a loved one has been killed, are rendered literally too weak to undertake the overwhelming task of grieving. Going into shock is like being given a general anesthetic. With the help of a quick spurt of adrenaline and other chemicals in your brain, the initial response may have been fight or flight. Fighters sometimes scream so they will not hear the message or may physically attack the person who has delivered the bad news. Those whose reaction is flight may faint or run to try to escape their pain.

Denial following a violent and unanticipated loss should be considered normal and functional. You should be allowed to travel through this part of grief at your own pace because denial will serve you well until you are stronger and able to cope.


Many survivors are surprised to find that they feel anxious, fearful and powerless in the aftermath of a killing. Those things always happened to other people not you. Before the trauma, you did not feel vulnerable to crime. You may now feel like life is out of kilter. It is strange how we tend to believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. That belief has now been proven false.

You may now feel that you and your remaining loved ones are more vulnerable than others. That is frightening. You will need to think rationally and work hard to risk going out even when it frightens you. Little by little you can overcome these fears. Many families find that professional counseling helps.

Physical Symptoms

Stress following trauma can make you physically sick. As you experience sadness, confusion, fear, anxiety and anger, you may find that you have no appetite. You may feel weak and exhausted, but when you go to bed you can not sleep or only sleep for a short period of time.

Many survivors speak of generalized pain, stomach aches or heaviness in their chest which some call "a broken heart." You may feel nervous and edgy. Some survivors think about suicide as these symptoms escalate. They wish they could die too, to escape the pain. It is at this time that friends and relatives who care are so important.

You may need some help in thinking clearly about what is best for you and your family. You may need to see a doctor, especially if you are not eating or sleeping. The immune system of most people in grief loses some of its effectiveness. This may cause you to be more vulnerable to disease.


You may be surprised at the intensity of anger you feel for the person who killed your loved one. Some survivors do not feel angry, but most do, even to the point of rage. You may wish for remorse from the person who killed your loved one; that probably will not happen. Many offenders do not feel remorse. If they do, their attorneys warn them not to have any contact with the victim's family, because such contact may be construed as an admission of guilt.

Most of us were taught that some feelings are bad and that we shouldn't get angry, feel jealous, feel vengeance or rage. Feelings are not right or wrong. They simply are. Your behavior may be good or bad, right or wrong, appropriate or not appropriate. Your thinking may be clear or foggy, rational or irrational.

But your feelings are just that. It is not helpful for others to suggest that you should stop having a particular feeling. It is impossible. However, it is very important that you not act destructively in response to your feelings or anger. You must force yourself to think rationally about what you will do with your anger. The injustice of your loved one's death, the deep hurt you feel and the loss of future dreams may all add up to rage a wordless drive to do something. Most of the things you think about doing must remain undone, like killing the offender.

It is okay to think about it, and it is very helpful to talk about it with someone who is willing to listen. If you can, find someone who has felt the same way, who understands what you are going through. Allowing yourself to express these feelings will free your mind, enabling you to be more open and realistic in your thinking and planning for the future.

Anger has physical manifestations. If you suppress the anger, try to stop yourself from feeling it, you may develop problems in your body. Symptoms can include headaches, stomachaches, colitis, backaches, high blood pressure and others.

Post-Traumatic Stress

It was once believed that most of the painful stress people felt came from within. Now we understand that external trauma is also a valid basis of continuing distress. As the denial and shock wear off, you may experience some feelings, which are foreign and frightening to you. You may find that particular memories of the trauma keep intruding into your mind. They may be particular sights or sounds. You may have nightmares over and over again.

On the other hand, positive physical activity often helps. Some people run, exercise or clean house. Others write in journals or write letters to the offender, (which are usually best unmailed).

What you do with your anger really doesn't matter as long as you admit that it is there and you do not hurt yourself or anyone else in expressing it. When you decide to look beneath the anger, you may find gut-wrenching agony. By being willing to face it, you may find some relief from your anger. You may think that you owe it to your loved one to remain angry. But what you do with your anger and when you decide to look beneath it, are up to you.

You may feel that the external world doesn't have much meaning anymore. You may feel like withdrawing because it seems that no one understands your pain. You may have difficult concentrating, becoming absent-mined and confused. In grief we tend to believe a lot of things that don't make sense when examined closely, for instance:

Possibly the toughest job you will have in grieving is to look rationally at how your beliefs make you feel guilty. If you are responsible for some component of your loved one's death, acknowledge it and find a way to forgive yourself. If you made a bad judgment, you probably made the best one you know how to make at the time. Try not to exaggerate you role in you loved one's death. Talking with others who understand something of what you are going through can help you look at your guilt realistically. Feeling less guilty won't take away your sadness or your anger but it can be a big load off your shoulders.


In the beginning, some feel that they will never be happy again. They go through a period of time when they are not ready to feel better. Others are eager to feel better and find ways to do it. Whether you are ready to feel better or not, you may want to look to others who have survived the ordeal and have managed to regain strength and find happiness again. It is true, your life will never be the same as it was before your loved one was killed, and you must acknowledge that at some point.


You will always feel sorrow that your loved one died tragically and that the long relationship you might have enjoyed was cut short. But sorrow is not the same as the height and width and depth of trauma that most survivors experience for the first months or years.

Grief Spasms

It is most likely that you will experience grief spasms from time to time for years. Survivors are often surprised to find that in the middle of a series of good days, something brings a spasm of grief. Survivors find anniversaries to be difficult, the birthday of the loved one, the anniversary death, the wedding anniversary, Mother's Day, Father's Day. Family tradition holidays are especially difficult. Certain songs can cause a grief spasm. Seeing someone who looks like your loved one can bring on a grief spasm.

Strange as it may seem, grief spasms can be considered celebrations, celebration of a relationship that meant so much. Nearly all survivors are able to say that they are grateful they shared life with their loved one as long as they did, rather than wishing he or she had never been born. To experience depths of sadness and heights of joy is to be fully alive, fully human. Most people are glad they are capable of having strong feelings.

As time goes by, grief spasms will come less frequently and less intensely. Most survivors acknowledge that their loved one would want it that way. Your loved one would want to be remembered from time to time and even missed. But if you are caught up in a chronic sense of desperation, the possibility of more set backs can evolve. That would benefit no one and would not be the wish of your loved one.

Focus on Life

Another component of getting better is an increasing focus on life and a decreasing focus on death. For others to tell you to cheer up and get on with your life seemed to be an unwillingness on their part to share your grief journey. They were uncomfortable around you and their comfort may have been more important to them than yours. You may be disappointed in their lack of sensitivity and understanding. However, you will have to decide for yourself when it is right to give more of your attention to living. You can use your grief to continue to drag you down, or you can use it to rebuild your life; probably with more compassion and understanding than you had before. Some survivors eventually have a peace and inner wisdom that others lack.

(Excerpts taken from MADD booklet "Your Grief: You're Not Going Crazy" by Janice Harris Lord, ACSW-LMSW/LPC National Director, Victim Services) Copyright 1989, Revised 1995


Most of us, not all of us, have at one time or another thought about "giving up" or "ending it all." Suicidal thoughts are common and enter our thinking in different ways.

We need to be aware of the serious and potentially lethal processes in the thinking and behavioral warning signs that can lead to a friend or loved one's death.

External factors may contribute to and cause the above process to begin: If these things are present in a person you know, ask them about it. If you ask someone about suicide you do not give him or her the idea. They have thought about it long before…so ask!

If you feel that help is needed, call another friend, pastor, counselor or Mental Health Professional.

For more information on grieving contact Johnson County Family Crisis Center, 1-800-684-2030, 24 hour Hotline.

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