Bereavement Reactions of Survivors

There were 16,912 murders in the United States in 2006, which equates to approximately 46 per day. {1}. Death of a loved one by violence is painful, unexpected and often senseless. As in all types of crises, 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 that 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 older people 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.

Survivors of homicide is a phrase used to describe those individuals who had special ties of kinship with the person murdered, and who were therefore victimized not only by the loss of someone close but also by the horrific circumstances of that untimely death. Survivors are usually thought of as family members or close friends, but at times, the term may include people with seemingly more distant relationships such as neighbors, schoolmates, and members of the community at large {2}.

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.
  • 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.

Normal Bereavement Reaction

[Adapted from: The Center for Crime Victims and Survivors, Inc., Clearwater, Florida]

1.  Shock and 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 and 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 self.
  • Begins testing of reality.


3.  Disorientation and Disorganization

  • Disorganized.
  • Inability to concentrate.
  • Guilt.
  • Weight loss or gain (more than ten pounds).
  • Piercing awareness of reality:
  • Knows 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 the reality that death of loved one occurred.


4.  Reorganization (May take 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-morbid period.


All of these phases may peak- on anniversary dates, birthdays, graduations or other significant dates in the family system. Many experience overlapping phases. Grief reaction is unique to the individual - each person experiences it differently and certainly not always in the order listed above.

Additional Stress Factors for Survivors
For many survivors, the strongest point of focus for their feelings is over the loss, and with this normal focal point of nearly all grieving, the normal mix of grieving emotions, including a 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 of 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 thehome, or the child rearing. Perhaps a son now has to become "the man ofthe 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 as well.

Misguided compassion - Those who turn to religion often hear such statements as, "It was God's will," "Your loved one is better off in 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 {3}


{1} Federal Bureau of Investigation.(1992). Crime in the United States, 1991. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, p.1.

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

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