When a death is violent
"Once you know that catastrophe dwells next door and can strike anyone at any time, you interpret
reality differently." Ronnie Janoff-Bulman
"Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives- the power to retell it, rethink it,
deconstruct it, joke about it and change it as times change - truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts."
- Salman Rushdie
"From the moment of birth every human being wants happiness
and wants to avoid suffering. In this we are all the same." -The Dalai Lama
When a loved one dies violently, it shakes you to your
roots. It shatters your assumptions that the world is basically safe. You are thrown into a tornado of grief and loss that
takes on a life of it's own. People talk of feeling battered, shaken and almost destroyed. Feelings of anger, rage, sorrow,
fear, panic, pain and yearning may take over. People tend to isolate themselves yet finding others to share with is so important
for healing and surviving.
O'Hara's book, A Grief Like No Other, Surviving the Violent Death of Someone You Love,is about
her college age son, Aaron, who was brutally murdered on Memorial Day, 1999. She offers concrete, practical and compassionate
steps for those who are grieving, allowing family and friends safe passage through this harrowing journey. The violent
death may be due to suicide, drug overdose, and death by vehicular homicide and drunk drivers and murder. A valuable
and important read for victim service providers, therapist and all who can only imagine what it must be like to experience
This grief is
different as it involves the news, media, medical or emergency personnel, police, detectives, coroners, and the legal
system. Dealing with all these kinds of people is never easy.
Chaos, shock, confusion, terror, anger and explosive emotions may overwhelm you. Intrusive questions
will have to be answered and insensitive people need to be dealt with. The media may hound you and the police my even accuse
you. You may be living with the guilt that you could no nothing to change what has happened. You have to make decisions
you never thought you would have to make. You have to tell the story, even though you may still be in a fog. You may stay
awake for days while you wait for ansers that don't seem to come.
There is no warning, no time for good-byes.
You need help. Allow others to help you. : Create a support team. Find someone who you can trust to
tell the story or act as your surrogate when you are too tired or need a break.
for help, draw on friends and relatives or even professionals. You may be surprised by who helps and who does not.
This is a list of somethings a person who has had a
traumatic loss needs:
- comfort, support and a good listener
- help with food, laundry, errands
- help making funeral arrangements
- help with doctor appointments
- help with phone calls
- help with getting death certificate, documents
- help dealing
with the person's pets or belongings
- protection from intrusive people
- hands on help for babies, small children, disabled persons and elderly parents
- financial help (hard to accept, but swallow pride and accept it).
Trauma and Grief Reactions:
Reexpereiencing: reoccurring recollection about the violent death
Avoidance: trying to
stop thinking about the violent death
Avoidance or numbing of feelings or emotions
Loss of interest in significant activities, feeling detached from others, constricted affect
difficulty falling or staying asleep, physiological responses
Inability to recall parts of the
event, difficulty concentrating
Feeling like one is reliving the event, intense distress when
exposed to "triggers" lack of future orientation
Nightmares and Night terrors
Emotional Grief Reactions:
Shock, denial, daze
despair, fatigue, loneliness, abandonment, guilt, longing
Anxiety, fear, panic, vulnerability,
Dreams about the person
For information about PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder) go to page by clicking on: PTSD
Managing Strong Emotional Reactions to Traumatic Events:
Tips for Parents and Teachers
Our society has been plagued by a number of traumatic events in recent years—schoolyard shootings, the
Oklahoma City bombing, floods and tornadoes, and the terrorist attacks of September 2001. When a large-scale
tragedy occurs, it can cause strong and deeply felt reactions in adults and children. How adults express
their emotions will influence the reactions of children and youth. Parents and teachers can
help youngsters manage their feelings by both modeling healthy coping strategies themselves and closely monitoring
their own emotional state and that of the children in their care.
Common Reactions to Trauma
It is not uncommon to feel any or all of the following:
These reactions are often closely linked and can be difficult to separate, (e.g., where
does grief end and outrage begin). Children, in particular, may have trouble understanding and talking about their
feelings. Emotional reactions take place over a period of time and may not happen in any particular
order. They can affect our behavior, our ability to function, and our overall sense of well-being. The intensity
and ways we express our reactions will vary depending on our personal experience, general mental health,
other stress factors in our lives, our coping style, our ability to self-monitor our emotional state, and our support
network. This is true for both adults and children. Children of all ages may need guidance and
support from the significant adults in their lives (parents, teachers, coaches, etc.) as they work through their
thoughts and emotional reactions to the event.
Anger: A Natural Reaction
people, adults and children alike, anger will be a natural extension of other emotions because it is a defensive
mechanism that makes us feel more in control. As well, anger with the perpetrators of
these horrible acts is, in many ways, justified. The desire to “retaliate” can be strong—but
quite harmful if not redirected to a positive outlet. In some situations, a significant factor in the expression
of anger is the lack of a concrete “enemy” on which to focus our feelings. As long as there is doubt
about the identity of the perpetrators and a lack of closure, or when the trauma is a natural disaster, anger
and other strong emotions have no specific target. Such situations can lead to more inappropriate expressions.
Adults must ensure that children do not “take out” their anger in inappropriate ways, such
as lashing out at classmates or neighbors who might be unfairly associated with the perpetrators of violence because
of their ethnicity or other affiliations. The key is to direct anger and other strong emotions in socially
and psychologically healthy ways.
The first step in helping children manage
their anger is getting your anger under control. Be aware of cues in your own behavior. If necessary,
ask someone you trust (a family member, friend or colleague) to give you feedback on your anger reaction. Observe
the behavior of other adults around you and your child(ren) and be supportive if they show signs of
Signs of Anger in Adults
- Short temper/impatience.
- Eating problems.
- Restlessness and agitation.
- Hitting and slamming objects, pets, or people.
Desire to inflict harm.
- Verbal outbursts toward family, friends, or fellow workers.
- A sense of losing control
over your life.
- Poor concentration or attention span.
- Obsessing about the event.
- Physical health
affected; increase in blood pressure, dizzy, headaches, heart rate elevated, clenched jaw, knot in the stomach,
and tight muscles, etc.
- You feel life should be fair, but it is not; and things are not
how you want them to be.
Signs of Anger in Children
- Behavioral outbursts, many
times without an obvious cause.
- Sleep problems.
- Fights at school or home.
- Physical attacks on others
or animals, even among pre-schoolers.
- Disobedience from otherwise well behaved child(ren).
- Child state he/she
is really sad and does not know why.
- Complaints of stomachaches and headaches; or vague aches and pains.
Other reactions similar to those of adults.
Dealing with Anger
Some people have more
problems than others dealing with anger. They either try to deny or ignore their feelings and keep them inside,
or overreact and “blow-up.” These negative coping strategies can be physically and emotionally
unhealthy. Pretending we don’t feel badly can have long-term affects that may eventually cause us to
“lose it.” Conversely, psychological research shows that acting out your anger will not relieve it,
but instead will make it more intense. We can learn to control or diffuse anger by how we think about the event
or people involved and by finding other ways to regain our sense of control and security. Anger can also mask other
emotions, such as grief, loss, or fear. It is important to address these related emotions as a
way to deal with angry feelings.
Controlling Your Anger
- Admit you are angry.
Recognize this is a common reaction to an overwhelming event. It is how you control and manage your reaction
that makes the difference.
- Try to identify the related emotions that may be fueling your anger, (e.g.,
- Find appropriate outlets for these related and equally important emotions, (e.g., talk
with family members or friends, seek grief counseling, get involved in activities to help victims, etc.)
Understand that it not just the actual event that drives your anger, but how you think about it.
a “positive” outlook and look for what can be done to help rather than harm.
- Stop, take
a deep breath, visualize something peaceful or enjoyable, and try to relax for a few minutes.
negative ways to cope, such as misuse of alcohol or drugs.
- Find an acceptable outlet, such as exercise,
getting involved with your favorite hobby, sports.
- Distract yourself from continuing to think about
the event -- call a friend, go to a movie.
- Keep a sense of humor.
- Turn off the TV and radio;
play your favorite music.
- Keep to your daily routines.
- Consult your doctor or a mental health specialist
if your reactions continue to intensify, or you feel like doing harm to yourself or others.
If you are seeing a mental health professional, be sure to share your angry feelings with him or her.
Helping Children Control Anger
- Realize they will imitate your responses and reactions.
Let them understand anger is a normal emotion under these circumstances that can even include feelings of revenge.
However, acting out anger, hurting others, and uncontrolled anger is not okay.
- Answer their questions
honestly and openly; but always consider their developmental age.
- Make family time to talk to the child(ren)
about their reaction to the events.
- Have child(ren) come up with ideas on how to help those who have
been injured, left homeless, or otherwise effected by the tragedy.
- Teach them to stop, take a deep breath,
and imagine a restful scene or enjoyable activity for a few minutes as a way to relax.
- Turn off the
TV and make sure violence in the media is restricted or monitored.
- Try to understand and encourage children
to talk about their fears/sense of loss.
- Try to help them see how they would feel if someone hurt, yelled
at, or hit them.
- Sports, exercise, or other physical activity can be quite helpful.
- Be flexible
in discipline and monitor your reactions to their misbehaviors.
- Seek mental health or physician consultation if these
reactions do not clear up after 30 days.
- Keep family and school routines; get back to a normal life
schedule as soon as possible.
- If age permits, get the child involved in volunteer work or community
service, such as the Red Cross or Animal Shelter, where a child can feel that he/she is making a
Warning Signs of Serious Emotional Trauma
While strong emotional reactions
to tragic events are normal, most will fade over the following weeks and most children soon will be able
to resume normal activities with minimal displays of anger or anxiety. However, if any of the following symptoms
or behaviors continue beyond a few weeks, or if any of these symptoms are exhibited to such a degree
that it severely impacts the child’s ability to participate in school or home activities, parents and teachers
should seek mental health services for evaluation and possible treatment.
- Disruption in peer
relationships (little or no interactions with friends, significant increase in conflict with classmates or friend).
Strained family relationships (high degree of misbehavior, lashing out against family members, refusal to participate
in normal family routines).
- Significant decrease in school performance.
- Ongoing physical complaints
with no apparent cause.
- Use of chemicals, alcohol (or increase in comparison to previous behavior).
Repeated nightmares and reporting strong fears of death, violence, etc.
- Repetitive play re-enacting
the traumatic events.
- Low self esteem, negative talk about self (if this was not apparent prior to the
- General lack of energy and lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities.
Parents and teachers can help children overcome traumatic effects of a tragedy or disaster and use the
process as an opportunity to teach them how to cope more effectively and deal with new challenges. (Interestingly,
the Chinese sign for “crisis” is two symbols – “Danger” and “Opportunity.”)
Depending on the scope of the event, the process may take time and patience and the willingness to reach
out to friends, neighbors, and co-workers to lend mutual support.
For further information on managing
anger or other strong emotions following a crisis or disaster event, contact NASP at (301) 657-0270
or visit NASP’s website at www.nasponline.org