The survivors of violent loss who are gathering in the next few days to recognize the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims have added even more names to their ever-growing list. That list now includes the names of those gunned down on Monday at the Washington Navy Yard.
This horrific incident is yet another glaring reminder that death not only changes forever the lives of family members and close friends, but the impact and emotional trauma are even greater when the death results from violence, especially murder.
Survivors of violent loss often experience feelings of terror and intense anger, have homicidal thoughts and relive the horrific imagery of the death. This can lead to severe depression, substance abuse and suicide.
This is not just a matter for the individual. It’s a societal problem. A problem that challenges this country’s mental health community.
The grieving process for a violent loss—especially in the case of criminal death—is different from the grief associated with natural death.
The survivor’s journey is similar to what our combat veterans experience. In 20 percent or more of the cases, survivors of violent loss suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They may be unproductive at work, or even incapable of holding a job. Their relationships with others—at home, in social settings and in the workplace—may deteriorate.
On Sept. 25, the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims honors not only the victims, but the families who live through the horror of homicide and violent dying. In San Diego, the Survivors of Violent Loss Program and Cara Knott Foundation are holding a River of Remembrance memorial on Sept. 21 at the Crime Victims Oak Garden.
However, survivors of violent loss—the “collateral damage” in a violent death—go virtually unnoticed by the news media and public at large unless it’s related to a prominent member of a community or death on a large scale.
Mass murders—the San Ysidro massacre here in 1984 as well as the more recent Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Newtown and this week the Washington Navy Yard—dominate the news and capture the public interest due to their sheer enormity. When these incidents occur, the focus of news coverage falls primarily on the crime and those investigating the incident. The collateral damage is forgotten; the news media moves on and the public moves with it.
Consequently, there is a general lack of awareness of the traumatic grief and complicated bereavement that accompany violent death. This has resulted in an unmet need for counseling services developed specifically for addressing the unique needs of survivors of violent loss.
In San Diego, the murder rate has risen the past two years, according to a recent analysis by U-T San Diego. Even where murder rates have gone down, murder never goes away. Nationwide, roughly 15,000 Americans are murdered annually, according to government agencies. These homicide statistics do not include suicide or violent deaths due to negligence or catastrophe.
Dr. Edward Rynearson, medical director of the Separation and Loss Services Program at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle and author of Retelling Violent Death, says that unlike natural death, violent dying also involves volition—the death is due to someone’s willful or negligent act. For the survivors, that intensifies the emotions, often resulting in prolonged, complicated bereavement.
Seven to ten people are seriously impacted by each violent death, according to Eric Hickey, editor of the Encyclopedia of Murder and Violent Crime. This creates the potential for the lives of more than 150,000 survivors annually to be significantly affected. The number increases each year. Today, millions of Americans live under this shadow of violent death; in the San Diego area, the number is likely to be in the tens of thousands.
Yet, the survivors’ need for therapeutic counseling often goes unmet.
San Diego is fortunate in having in residence Connie Saindon, MFT, author of The Journey: Ten Steps to Learning to Live With Violent Death. She founded the Survivors of Violent Loss Program, which is based on Dr. Rynearson’s “restorative retelling” model. Restorative retelling reconnects the memories of life and living, allowing the survivor to move beyond the haunting death imagery.
Similar programs have sprouted up around the country and the world. However, these programs are few in number and struggle for resources and recognition.
Progress is being made. Following the Newtown and Boston Marathon tragedies, the news reports devoted more time than usual to the survivors and what they were going through. Moreover, these reports were respectful and tasteful. Broadchurch, a new crime drama televised by BBC America, goes beyond solving the crime to examine the impact on the lives of the residents of a seaside English village following the murder of a school boy.
Congratulations. But we need more of it.
With greater awareness, the availability of counseling services developed for survivors of violent loss will increase.
Society at large would benefit. Think of it as “infrastructure” that, long-term, pays for itself in citizens that lead more productive and meaningful lives in the wake of violent loss.
Larry M. Edwards is an award-winning investigative journalist and the author of Dare I Call It Murder?: A Memoir of Violent Loss. A San Diego resident, he is appearing at San Diego-area locations to speak and sign books Sept. 21-22.