Supporting Children and Teens
After a Homicide or a Murder
One of the most difficult types of death to cope with is murder. The death is completely sudden and leaves
family, friends and communities shattered feeling helpless and not knowing what to do. Sometimes the person is missing
for a time and in this situation often people have two death dates that they remember. The first one is the date the person
was found missing and the second when the body was discovered.
Normal reactions are anger, fear, confusion and shock. It is one
of the hardest things for a family to cope with. If you have suffered this loss I am so very sorry that you are having to
go through with this. Many things that are common for families who have to deal with this tragedy are a feeling of not
being safe. Many wonder what it was like for their loved one to have been murdered. Did they know they were going to die?
What was he thinking about in those last moments? It is comforting to know that most likely it all happened so fast that the
person had no time to think that she would die.
It is normal to worry about if the person
was in pain. Many survivors of accidents talk about not feeling anything as their body was in shock initially. Many family
members and friends can't get the images of the violence out of their heads, whether or not they saw it happen. Many talk
about visualizing the act step by step in their head like a horror movie. Some dream about such images. However usually what
we imagine is often far worse. Some feel guilty that they should have been able to save the person from death. If only you
had known. You think if only you hadn't gone to work that day or out to dinner. Remember that no one can anticipate such a
tragedy. Many wait for the murderer to get caught and brought to trial. Pass on any information you have to the police.
Behavioral reactions that often
follow an abnormal event may end up supporting maladaptive coping strategies and lead to anxiety disorders such as generalized
anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and acute and post-traumatic stress disorders.
The following reactions may require intensive
clinical treatment if they do not abate over the next 30 days:
- Re-experiencing the event and Intrusive thoughts and images: This is
strong sign of posttraumatic stress. The survivor reexperiences the event, even weeks after the event is over. Behaviors also
include: sleep disturbances, nightmares, night terrors, and intrusive thoughts, memories or detailed disturbing images of
the traumatic experience. With youth these images may be repeatedly expressed in artwork or reenactment play or verbal
This is a normal function of threat detection yet if this continues after the danger has subsided the child's mind and body
remain in a constant state of alert or fear. Included in this are: hypervigilance, heightened startle response, easy to be
triggered by something that reminds the child of traumatic experiences, irritability and repeating behaviors that are associated
with the event. Many times children continue these behaviors as they do not perceive that they are safe.
- Avoidance and Numbing: Children often report feeling numb
and many will avoid anything that reminds them of the traumatic event. Such behaviors include: avoiding thoughts, emotions
or places connected with the traumatic experience, social withdrawal, pronounced forgetfulness or "out of it", low
mood, depression, showing extremely restricted range of emotions, and not recognizing current threats and risks, often resulting
in dangerous risk taking behaviors.
- Sense of Foreshortened Future: Children may feel
that their locust of control is no longer internal but rather external, or feel that no matter what they do someone else outside
themselves is in control of their life events. Children and adults often then may begin to feel that they have no future.
"I have no control over what happens to me. I am doomed no matter what." These reactions can
occur for children who survived a traumatic experience directly or for children who witnessed, heard about, or knew someone
who experienced the traumatic event. It is important to recognize that "vicarious" traumatization or secondary trauma
can have a similar effect on children as if they had been traumatized directly.
- Shattered Assumptions: Although
the above list of traumatic stress responses is certainly not exhaustive they are the primary domains that should be assessed
and monitored after a life threat event. Basic assumptions that we live with prior to a traumatic event: * I am
in control (child: my parents are in control) * I am safe (my parents will keep me safe) * Bad things
happen to other people, bad things don't happen to me (child: my parents won't let bad things happen to me) * I am worthy
and life has meaning Shattered assumptions: I am not in control
and my adult caretakers are not in control either * I am not safe and my adult caretakers were unable to keep
me safe * Bad things can happen to me and if they happened once they can happen again * If these
kinds of bad things can happen to me I must deserve this, I must have done something wrong, I must not be worthy of safety.
Assumptions can cause significant cognitive disruptions. Needs are disrupted such as need for safety, self esteem, control,
trust, and intimacy, also child's self identity, child's ability to organize and assess effectively, child's spiritual beliefs,
and the child's view that the world is a safe place. Some children experience disruptions in how the body functions.
Child's memory systems are affected (forgetful, can't focus, concentrate or memorize all essential ingredients to be a successful
learner) and the child experiences problems with sleeping and eating patterns. (some
material in this above section has been adapted from Robert D Macy, Youth Facing Threat and Terror: Supporting Preparedness and Resilience; New Directions in Youth Development, No. 98,
Jossey-Bass, June 2003)
Helpful Suggestions for teens who have suffered a loss through murder:
a support group for the families of murder victims or a good counselor. ( Union County,NJ Homicide Survivors see bereavement support 2 on this web site for more information)
Learn about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (see below)
Talk about what you are going through with someone safe. Seeking a counselor
is helpful as many times sharing too many details with friends can possibly cause them to have "vicarious trauma".
Share your anxiety with others in your family. Be open and communicate.
Remember that feelings can be quite intense after a murder. The feelings
of shock, disbelief and numbness may mix with anger, guilt and panic. Find helpful ways to cope such as writing in a journal,
calling someone, walking the dog, exercising, crying, screaming into a pillow, taking a nap, breathing, yoga, ripping up old
phone books, throwing bean bags, music, art, etc.
Write a letter to your loved one telling them all of your feelings.
Write about your anger at the murderer, your regrets for not doing something to save her from this. Write about your sadness
about not having him in your life anymore. Put your letter in the casket or tie it to a helium balloon and let it go.
Write a letter to the murderer, expressing all of your pent up anger.
Rip it up, shred it, burn it or nail it to a board and beat it with a hammer.
Read a book about coping with the trauma of murder.
Stress Disorder (PTSD)
An emotional and psychological reaction to trauma caused by a painful and shocking
experience. When the death of someone close to you is sudden and violent the stress it causes may show up weeks or months
later. The death could be from suicide, homicide, a plane crash, auto accident or even a heart attack.
Signs of PTSD:
Recurring memories or images that are intrusive and interrupt your home, school, work or leisure time.
Recurring nightmares about the event.
Flashbacks and hallucinations
Intense anxiety whenever you hear about
a similar event
Avoidance of any feelings or thoughts concerning the death
Avoidance of any activities or situations
that would remind you of the death
Preoccupation with the death many months after it occurred.
Over-idealization of the deceased and of
your relationship that continue for too long a time and too intensely
Lack of recall; blank spots in your memory
A significant decrease in your interest
in normal activities either at home, work or at school
Depression combined with increased feelings
of sadness, loneliness, and hopelessness
Detachment and withdrawal from your friends and family.
survivor guilt mixed with self destructive behavior.
Inability to experience emotions, to feel happy, or to
Avoidance of close relationships out of fear that you will be left alone again.
with emotions, feeling tense, angry, scared and out of control
Feeling that you have no future, no ability to date, marry
or have a career
Problems with drugs and alcohol
New problems such as falling asleep, difficulty in staying
asleep, sleeping too much
Irritability or outburst of anger directed at your
family, friends, teachers, boss, drivers on the road
Difficulty in concentrating on things you usually enjoy,
such as music, reading, sports
Being easily startled, jumping at any unusual or loud noise
cold sweats, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, or other physical symptoms whenever you are reminded of the death.
adapted from Helen Fitzgerald, The Grieving Teen
What you can do:
Most of these symptoms are normal considering that
you have just experienced a traumatic event in your life. Most symptoms usually go fade away in a few days or weeks. However
they can also be a sign that you are experiencing more trouble especially if these are lasting more than 4 weeks. Keep
a log of your symptoms and their occurrences and how long they lasted. If it is more than a week, it is probably a good idea
for you to talk to someone about your concerns. Young people do well by talking to their parents, teachers, school counselor
or school nurse who can often recommend a therapist who specializes in PTSD. Often they may suggest individual therapy, family
therapy, group therapy and possibly medication or other helpful techniques such as EMDR.
Responding to Tragedy in a Child's
Ways you can help:
- Recognize that this is going to
be a difficult time for you. Dealing with grief and loss especially under traumatic circumstances takes a toll on everyone
and it is important that you, the caregiver to a child also seeks out your own support and self care. (Make a list of helpful
people that you can talk to and things that help you feel grounded, art, nature, music, yoga, aromatherapy, massage)
- Dealing with death, can bring up our own past losses and traumas.
- Provide opportunities for children to write, journal, draw pictures and
make cards for the family
- Allow children who do not
wish to talk about the crisis, to engage in normal activities
- Points to Remember when Talking to Children
Senseless violence is hard for everyone to understand
(even grownups). Doing things that you enjoy may help as does
following your regular routine as much as possible now, being with friends and family, pets, can help us to feel better.
Sometimes people do
bad things that hurt others. They may be unable
to handle their anger, may be suffering from untreated mentally illness, may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Violence is never a
solution to personal problems
Let children know that help is available and there are alternatives to suicide, violence and mental illness
Students at Risk:
Exposure: the closer a child was to the location of a threatening and/or frightening event, and the longer
the exposure, the greater the chances of sever distress. So children who live near the event location are at greater
risk than those who live farther away. The length of exposure is extended by repeated images on the television regardless
Relationship: Having relationships with the victim
or victims of a disaster is strongly associated with psychological distress. The stronger the child's relationships
with the victim(s), the greater the likelihood of severe distress.
Initial reactions: How children first respond to trauma will greatly influence how effectively they deal with stress in the aftermath.
coping skills in dealing with stress:
ways to relax. Find places that allow you to feel safe. Be with safe people. Learn to meditate, breathe, walk in the
park, listen to music, go to your church, temple or mosque, go to the library.
Take care of your physical needs. Eat healthy foods and drink lots of water. Try to get enough exercise and
Stay involved with friends, family, school or work.
Keep on schedule and stick to old routines as well as you can.
hugs, if that is okay for you. Physical contact at a time of isolation can be healing. Spend time with a pet if that helps.
Grandparents can be a great source of comfort for many children and teens. Doing normal things helps children feel safe.
young children: A Terrible Thing Happened by
Margaret Holmes. Sherman is anxious and angry after he experiences something terrible and learns to talk about it. (
great resource for young children who have witnessed or who have images of something traumatic happening around them, fire,
homicide, suicide, flood, car accident etc.)
Cohen, J (1994) Why Did it Happen? New York: Morrow Junior Books. This is a story about a boy who witnesses
a violent crime in his neighborhood. The author provides ways to cope. Ages 6-11
Dougy Center (2001) After a Murder: A Workbook for Grieving Children. Portland,
Or. The Dougy Center. An interactive workbook for children experiencing a murder and the many issues that surround it.
Schleifer, J (1998) When
Someone You Know Has Been Killed, New York: Rosen Publishing Group. This book discusses the emotions felt when
someone experiences a murder and strategies to cope. Ages 10-teens.
The Grieving Child by Helen Fitzgerald
Work Journal: A guided workbook for coping with homicidal loss and grief by Wanda Henry-Jenkins Written by a woman whose mother was murdered. When asked how she got through her
loss she tells people "God and writing". This is a workbook because mourning the loss of a loved one is hard work.
Many bereaved people who have made the choice to heal will admit that grief work is hard work. A Centering Corp Resource
Healing Your Traumatized Heart: 100 Practical Ideas after
someone you love dies a sudden, violent death For
those who grieve after a homicide, suicide or accidental death. by Alan Wolfelt
in My Heart, Ice In My Veins: A journal for teenagers experiencing loss by Enid Samuel Traisman, A Centering
The Grieving Teen: A Guide for
Teenagers and Their Friends by Helen Fitzgerald
What to do When the Police Leave: A Guide for the First
Days of Traumatic Loss by Bill Jenkins (Homicide,
Suicide, Car Crash, Tragic Accident, A Victim's Father Addresses the Special Needs of Traumatic Loss with Insight and Sensitivity
A Grief Like No Other: Surviving the Violent Death of Someone
You Love by Kathleen O'Hara, MA (therapist and
mother of a college age son who was brutally murdered on Memorial Day 1999. She developed a 7 stage journey that is at the
heart of this book. She offers concrete, practical and compassionate steps for those who are grieving and steps for family
When Bad Things Happen to Good People by