Life sentence: co-victims of homicide
Defined as the "willful (non-negligent) killing of one human being by another," criminal homicide generally represents the smallest proportion of all violent crimes (Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS], 2005; Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], 2006). According to both the FBI and the National Center for Health Statistics, approximately 16,500 murders were committed in the United States each year from 2003 to 2006 (FBI, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007; Minino, Heron, & Smith, 2006). Beyond that tragic number, it has been estimated that for every victim there are anywhere from 6-10 close relatives who become secondary- or co-victims of homicide (Kilpatrick & Acierno, 2003; Vessier-Batchen & Douglas, 2006). That represents anywhere from 99,000 to 165,000 people each year, just from 2003 to 2006, and does not include significant others, friends, or co-workers who are left to mourn as well.
As with "natural" death, the impact of homicide on survivors is influenced by the circumstances of the murder. Both natural and unnatural deaths can occur suddenly or slowly, with more or less pain, and to someone of any age. As compared to many natural deaths, with murder there is no chance to prepare, no opportunity to make amends or to say good-bye, and (for most of society) no developmental frame of reference for understanding this unique loss. Most notably, unlike natural deaths, homicide, by definition, involves an intentional act of violence by another person, someone either unknown by the victim or a loved one of the victim and/or survivor(s) (see Table 1). Finally, the impact of homicide on survivors is further shaped by the context in which it occurs, be it during a sexual assault, an argument, an act of arson, the result of torture, drunk-driving, or a "romantic triangle."
The process of grieving a loss through homicide is distinguished by the traumatic nature of violent death. The survivors must not only find their way through the process of "normal" bereavement, but must also resolve the emotional and physical consequences inherent in learning a loved one suffered (to some degree) from intentionally inflicted emotional and/or physical violence. Like all survivors of loss, co-victims of homicide struggle with the range of normal reactions to grief, such as denial, shock, confusion, anger, guilt, powerlessness, depression, and a desperate search for understanding and meaning. Surrounding this normal pattern of grieving, homicide survivors are confronted with intense and often paralyzing feelings of fear, as well as near-consuming thoughts of revenge.
The Aftermath of Horror
The event of unpredictable, intentional violence gives rise to a sort of primal fear and horror that can be overwhelming for those surviving the victims of homicide. This fear is virtually impossible to comprehend, contain, or explain with words. Survivors are apt to vacillate between a state of psychic-separation (characterized by numbness, denial, and disbelief) and over-connectedness (during which they are painfully aware of the presence of the event in every thought, image, and emotion).
Subsequent to the loss of a loved one through homicide, it is not uncommon for survivors to become...