How am I supposed to live without you…when all that I’ve been livin’ for is gone? – Micheal Bolton
I was numb yesterday when I heard a gunman opened fire at an Oregon community college. As a parent, it brought back a chilling day in 2012 when my son’s Spanish teacher left the classroom with a guitar case and proceeded to the principal’s office. Moments later an MK-47 changed lives forever. Gone were the teacher and principal… gone was the false assumption that life meets no sudden interruptions. Hours after the shooting I contacted the teacher’s parents in another state. The sound of their voices chills me to this day. They began that day as parents and by afternoon were homicide survivors. What were they feeling? How could they face the reality that in the twinkling of an eye nothing would ever be as it was during breakfast?
The parent-child bond is one of the most meaningful relationships a person will experience. Parents who have lost a child can often feel that a part of them has died. The despair and pain that follow a child’s death is thought by many to exceed all other experiences. Parents are simply not supposed to outlive their children and no parent is prepared for a child’s death.
The length of a child’s life does not determine the size of the loss. Parents are intimately involved in the daily lives of young children, and their child’s death changes every aspect of family life, often leaving an enormous emptiness. Parents may be less involved in the everyday lives of older children and adolescents, but death at this age occurs just when children are beginning to reach their potential and become independent individuals. When an adult child dies, parents not only lose a child, but often a close friend, a link to grandchildren, and an irreplaceable source of emotional and practical support. Parents who lose an only child also lose their identity as parents, and perhaps the possibility of grandchildren.
When any child dies, parents grieve the loss of possibilities and all of the hopes and dreams they had for their child. They grieve the potential that will never be realized and the experiences they will never share. When a child dies, a part of the future dies along with them.
Those who have lost a loved one to murder or homicide are referred to as homicide survivors. Survivors are family members and friends who have close emotional, personal, and/or intimate ties with the homicide victim. Homicide survivors are also victims of crime because they have been indirectly harmed by the commission of a murder. This harm takes the form of the loss they experience because of the murder, and the difficulties resulting from that loss.
Although dealing with a death is always difficult, when the death is the result of a deliberate and often violent act committed by another human being, the pain of loss is intensified, making a survivor’s grief is often more complicated. Thus, homicide survivors are known to experience unique emotions and need different types of support when coping with the death of their loved one. If someone close to you has been murdered, you are a homicide survivor and this guide can help you to understand your grief.
The grief experienced by parents is very unique and intense. Parents often find that coping with their grief is much more difficult because, in the natural order of life, they should not outlive their children. Living with the reality that their child has died before them is very difficult to accept, and can sometimes lead to feelings of guilt. Both parents may also feel guilty because they have failed in their role as protector; they did not save their child from being murdered even if there was nothing they could have done to stop it.
For fathers, they may have additional difficulty with their grief because men have been socialized to keep their feelings to themselves, and not to be overly emotional, as expressing emotions is a sign of weakness. Furthermore, men are more likely to be restoration-oriented. They want things to be repaired and to return to normal as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this reaction can be misinterpreted by their partner as not caring about their child who has died and lead to resentment.
For mothers, grief is often expected to be visible and intense. Women naturally tend to be loss-oriented and are often more concerned with their feelings. They focus on their loss and the emotions they are experiencing. They frequently need to recall, be reminded of and share memories of the child who has died. It is important to know that both parents of homicide victims will experience grief and that both should be allowed to grieve openly and without judgment by others.
The unexpectedness of murder is one of the reasons that your grief is different. You do not have to prepare for death or to anticipate the grief you will experience. One morning you may go through the normal breakfast routine with your child or spouse for example, without ever knowing that they will not return home at the end of the day. There is no prognosis for homicide like there is for terminal illness, or general timeline like there is for a natural death.
Dealing with the violent nature of your loved one’s death, which was intentionally caused by another person is a difficult task and intensifies the emotions that you may feel while grieving. Survivors are sometimes needed to identify their loved ones either through photos or by physically looking at their body, or may be required to view crime scene photos. If this is the case, you may actually need to view the violence that was inflicted on your family member or friend. Furthermore, you may sometimes find yourself reflecting or imagining the pain that your loved one must have gone through prior to their death. All of these things cause additional emotional trauma, and extend and intensify the grieving process beyond that which others dealing with the death of a loved one would feel.
Some people expect that grief should be resolved over a specific time, such as a year, but this is not true. The initial severe reactions are not experienced continuously with such intensity; rather periods of intense grief come and go over a period of 18 months or more. Over time, waves of grief gradually become less intense and less frequent, but feelings of sadness and loss will likely always remain. Developmental milestones in the lives of other children can trigger emotions of grief even years after a child’s death. Significant days such as graduations, weddings, or the first day of a new school year are common grief triggers. Parents frequently find themselves thinking about how old their child would be or what he or she would look like or be doing if he or she were still alive.
Murder is unquestionably the worst thing that one person can do to another. For its survivors, murder is a terrible tragedy. It shatters much of what was joyous and valuable in their lives. There is no cure for the aftermath of a murder, but survivors can find help, can find understanding, and can construct a new life with a renewed sense of purpose. They can survive.
My conversation with the Spanish teacher’s parents haunts me still. As we ended the call I wanted to remind them their son had a positive influence on my son for which I was grateful and his final act was not greater than the good he shared throughout his 27 years on earth. The mother quietly spoke up and said “No one will ever remember his goodness… life doesn’t work that way”.
I hope the Oregon parents remember the goodness of their children and find the tools to survive such an unimaginable loss.
This is my journey… this is my life.