Bereavement Reactions of Survivors

Normal Bereavement Reaction
Additional Stress Factors Affecting Survivors

Effective Service Delivery to Survivors of Homicide Victims


There were 16,204 murders in the United States in 2002, which equated to one murder every 30 minutes {1}. The death of a loved one by violence is painful, unexpected and often senseless.

As in all types of crisis, survivors experience their loss in a variety of ways but violent death always produces deep and bitter grief.

Nothing could ever prepare a survivor for the day they find out their loved one has been murdered. Death of a young person is always a shock because young people are supposed to grow old. The murder of an elderly person is always a shock because they should die of natural causes, not at the hands of a violent criminal.

The cruelty of the act of murder compounds the sense of sorrow and loss for the survivor and these feelings are exacerbated by the acute feelings of injustice, distrust and helplessness.
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The common response to any extraordinary trauma is crisis. The long-term effect of the crisis is influenced by a number of objective and subjective factors, such as:

The intensity of the event. The suddenness of the event. Whether the event was anticipated or not. The ability to understand the event. The state of mind prior to the event.

Obviously learning of a loved one's murder is intense, sudden and beyond understanding. Therefore, most survivors face a long period of emotional struggle to reconstruct a devastated life.
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Adapted from:
The Center for Crime Victims and Survivors, Inc., Clearwater, FL

Shock & Numbness

Resistance to stimuli in order to protect ego

Judgment-making is difficult; limited concentration

Functioning impeded ("robot" or "zombie")

Emotional outbursts Stunned feelings

2. Searching & Yearning

Very sensitive to stimuli (note what is said, done, not said, not done by others)

May hear or see others whom mourner thinks is deceased loved one

Intense anger or guilt Ambiguous or unsure of selfBegins testing of reality

3. Disorientation & Disorganization


Inability to concentrate


Weight loss or gain (more than ten pounds)

Piercing awareness of reality; nows deceased loved one will not return

Time of turning to physicians with physical manifestation of psychosomatic illnesses

Experience temptation to think of mourning as a disease

Unsure of self; desire to flee from reality that death of loved one occurred

4. Reorganization (May take 1-2 years after death of loved one; individual reactions are different in this phase)
Sense of release or no longer obsessed by loss

Renewed energy

Can problem-solve and make decisions based on options

Return to sleeping and eating habits of pre-emotional period

All of these phases may peak - on anniversary dates, birthdays, graduations or other significant dates in the family system. Phases can overlap.

Grief reaction is unique to the individual - each person experiences it a little differently and certainly not always in the order listed above.
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For many survivors, the strongest point of focus for their feelings is overcoming their loss and with this normal focal point of nearly all grieving, the normal range of grieving emotions, including guilt-inducing sense of anger at the person who died, is present.

For those who cannot imagine life without that loved one, ideas of suicide are common. For most survivors, the distress attributable to the murder itself is compounded by a number of other stressors:

Method of death notification - often insensitive or incomplete because of the need law enforcement to get on with the investigation.

Impact on other life changes - there may already be other problems among survivors, such as, divorce, unemployment and illness, which become intensified.

Unwanted and untimely demands - Such things as identification of the body, funeral arrangements, medical or ambulance bills, notification of family and friends, etc...

Necessary role changes - Perhaps the murdered loved one handled all the finances and business of the home, or the child rearing. Perhaps a son now has to become "the man of the house".

Financial stress - This is especially true when the victim was the sole or primary source of income. Medical and funeral expenses become a factor of well.

Misguided compassion - Those who turn to religion often hear such statements as, "It was god's will", "Your loved one is better off fin heaven", etc... These often alienate the survivor not only from the person speaking but from their faith. Some survivors report that they are advised to "forgive the murderer" or "pray for his redemption". Such advice is not only infuriating but painful to hear.


There are a number of ways in which a victim assistance program can provide support and services to the survivors of homicide victims. The following are just some of the recommendations of what type of services should be offered to these victims:

Be knowledgeable as possible about the case before you speak to the family. The family will ask you questions, if you can answer them from your knowledge of the case, then do. If you do not know the answer be honest and tell them that you do not know but you will try and find out as soon as possible and let them know.

Maintain consistent contact with the family. If you do say you are going to call at a certain time or on a certain day, then do that.

Keep the family informed of all court proceedings through written and telephone contact. Explain each of the court proceedings thoroughly; you may have to do this more than once. If there is a continuance or postponement of a court date, inform them with as much advance knowledge as you can.

Explain your function as clearly as possible. Follow up your initial contact with a letter that reiterates what you have told them about the court proceedings. Make sure that you include how and when they can reach you - do not assume they will know your office hours. If there is a number that can be called 24 hours, such as a crisis line or support group number, it may be helpful to include that.

Familiarize yourself with the grief responses following a homicide. Be prepared for the range of emotions and responses you may encounter from family members and significant others. be prepared to listen and to be empathetic without being sympathetic. Do not say, "I understand" - when you do not however, do tell the survivors that you are sorry the murder happened and that it is horrible that someone killed their loved one.

Do not be judgmental about their reactions at any time.

The family may need to talk about the deceased with you. They may need to show you pictures of the deceased, tell you stories and show you some personal affects of the deceased.

Anticipate that the feelings of the family may change over the course of time throughout the court proceedings. Initial shock may give way to anger. Initial acceptance may turn into hostility and anger may be directed at you, particularly as you serve as their link with the court system.

Make sure that the family has the opportunity to meet with the prosecutor handling the case. The prosecutor may not think of this as important, as the family members may not be actual witnesses in the case but it is very important to the family and their satisfaction with the system. Arrange this meeting at a time convenient with the family. Accompany the prosecutor at all meetings.

Discuss the case with the prosecutor prior to the meeting. Make sure that he/she is prepared to answer any questions the family may have.

Be fully acquainted with the community resources available for survivors of homicide, especially support groups, for appropriate referrals.

Assist the survivors with completing application to the State Crime Victim Compensation Fund for funeral bill reimbursement, etc...

Additional support may be needed around anniversary days or other significant days. Call the survivors on these days or send a note acknowledging that you are thinking of them.
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{1} Federal Bureau of Investigation (2002). Crime in the United States (2002). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, p.1.

{2} National Organization for Victim Assistance (October 1985). Survivors of Homicide Victims. NOVA Network Information Bulletin. Washington, Author, p.1.

{3} Delaplane, David (1988). Victim Assistance: A Manual. Sacramento, CA; The Spiritual Dimension in Victim Services, p.143.
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