If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7/365. CALL: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) | CHAT: http://thehotline.org |TEXT: "START" to 88788

Content Alert/Trigger Warning: This post contains reflections about grief from people who have experienced the death of a loved one due to domestic violence. Names of clients have been changed to honor their privacy.

Two years after her sister was murdered, Carol suddenly began to cry uncontrollably at our poetry group’s monthly meeting. As group members sat in stunned silence Carol sobbed out the story of how her sister had been beaten to death by her husband while living in a foreign country.

Shortly after this revelation Carol became my client.

In our first counseling session I asked Carol why she hadn’t shared with our group what had happened to her sister at the time it had happened. After all we were a close-knit group who had time and time again over a 10-year period supported each other through various challenges and losses. Instead of sharing her sorrow, Carol had absented herself from our group for six months without explanation, and returned without explanation, never giving a clue as to the heartache she was carrying.

Carol’s explanation for hiding what had happened reflects the difficult nature of processing grief in the aftermath of death by domestic violence. “At first I was frozen,” she said, “Everything inside of me was ice. The whole world seemed unreal, like it wasn’t here or I wasn’t here.”

As the ice thawed, out came a “jumble of pain”: guilt for not having “saved” her sister; debilitating anger at her brother-in-law for what he had done; shame for “being part of a family where something like this happens;” fear of being judged and misunderstood by friends and acquaintances; deep sorrow for not having a chance to say good-bye to her sister. Carol didn’t know how to navigate such strong emotions once they surfaced as “they sometimes made me fall on the floor” so rather than seek help she put all her energies into “not feeling,” as well as taking care of her mother who was “taken under” by the loss of her daughter. Carol’s strategy for “getting through” seemed to her to be working until the day she fell apart at our poetry meeting; she suddenly realized then she needed and wanted – and was ready to accept - help.

Defining Domestic Violence

Domestic violence can be defined as violence committed by someone in the victim’s domestic circle. This includes partners, ex-partners, immediate family members, other relatives and family friends.

Ideally, our domestic circle is a safe place of belonging peopled by those we trust to provide us with care, comfort, and a sense of security. But that isn’t always the reality.

As Carol’s story shows, death of a loved one at the hands of a loved one can shatter our understanding of all that we hold to be true and right about family and life, making it particularly difficult to process grief or move forward in the aftermath of loss.

Traumatic Shock

With most deaths, even those that are anticipated, there is an element of trauma when a loved one we felt to be solid (expecting on some level that they would be forever with us) is suddenly no longer a touchable presence in our lives. But rather than this more normal type of death trauma, survivors of family members who have died violently frequently experience initial or prolonged traumatic shock, a symptom of deep psychological distress that often expresses itself physically.

Carol’s description of being “frozen” and then later being overwhelmed by a “jumble of pain” that she numbed out so as not to continue to “fall on the floor” when difficult emotions arose are signs and symptoms of traumatic shock, a physiological and psychological defense mechanism employed by the brain and body to protect itself from information it at present is unable to comprehend and process. Traumatic shock can be accompanied by a wide range of physical and emotional expressions including numbness, disassociation (a sense of being disconnected from self and life), dizziness and more.

Traumatic shock is common in the wake of violent death, sometimes causing a delay in grief processing, as was Carol’s experience. As Carol discovered, the pain caused by the murder of her sister did not disappear but instead remained submerged until ready to surface in a safe environment – our poetry meeting – two years later.

Seeking help from a licensed or certified healthcare professional trained in trauma-healing is highly recommended when traumatic shock and symptoms of chronic, delayed or masked grief are present. Therapies commonly used to treat traumatic shock include:

Cognitive behavioral therapy – a methodology that helps the griever learn to first identify stress and anxiety patterns, and then shift to more healthy and beneficial patterns of thinking and behaviors.

Eye movement desensitization reprogramming (EMDR) – a methodology using eye movements coupled with traumatic memories in an effort to diminish both the intensity and frequency of painful thoughts and images.

In our work together, Carol chose to learn HeartMath techniques; these techniques helped her learn to control the beat-to-beat rhythm of her heart which effectively helped her cope with and process stressful and uncomfortable thoughts, emotions and body sensations. Eventually Carol asked that I guide her through a forgiveness process so that she could more fully accept the reality of her loss by releasing her feeling and expectation that God should have somehow prevented her sister’s death.

Grief Experiences Beyond the Norm

My client Mark lost several family members to domestic violence.
Mark’s nephew found the stress of sheltering-in in the initial stages of the pandemic overwhelmingly stressful. Deeply shaken by televised images he saw of people dying from COVID-19, and feeling trapped and unmoored without the rituals of work, attendance at sporting events, and daily workouts at the gym, Mark’s nephew snapped one day, killing his wife and mother-in-law and wounding other family members with a handgun he bought years earlier with the intention of providing his family with protection against outside intruders.

It was obvious to me at our first meeting that Mark was suffering from both disenfranchised grief, and complicated grief, two grief experiences considered beyond the norm that are common in the aftermath of death by domestic violence.

Disenfranchised Grief

Disenfranchised grief is a grief that is not usually openly acknowledged, socially accepted or validated, or publicly observed (see the blog Disenfranchised Grief: What Is It?). There are three primary causes of disenfranchisement:

  1. The relationship between the griever and deceased is not recognized.
  2. A death is not recognized.
  3. The griever’s ability or need to grieve is not recognized.

Disenfranchised grief has to do with the nature of a loss.

For the most part Mark’s circle of family and friends were willing and able to understand and support Mark’s grief regarding the relatives who had been murdered and those who had survived gunshot wounds; it was a grief they all shared. But when Mark tried to express his sense of overwhelming grief for his nephew – for what he had done, and for the fact he would now spend the rest of his life in prison – many of those he sought support from “cut me off at the knees” saying “what he did was unforgiveable – he doesn’t deserve our sympathy.”

“But I feel compassion, and sympathy. I do. I don’t know how not to. He is still one of God’s children,” said Mark at our first meeting. “And now I feel so many people are against me that I’m afraid to say or do anything.”

Mark’s sense of alienation from much of his domestic circle stifled his ability to fully grieve not only for his nephew but also for “everyone who died and was hurt that day.” Mark’s solution was to “shut up” about his love for his nephew, “and not feel.” But a year later, as Mark’s nephew navigated the legal system, Mark became “paralyzed by not feeling” and decided to seek my help.

Over time in our work together a “great anger” at his nephew emerged for “doing what he did” and at family members and friends for “not letting me feel;" Mark eventually also acknowledged a “great anger” at God “for letting it all happen.” To express and release his anger and other depleting emotions, I led Mark through a variety of emotional expression techniques including emotion mapping and visual journaling (see the blog The Healing Power of Art – Visual Journaling). Mark also learned mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques to help more skillfully self-regulate his mind and emotions.

Mark’s experience of what and how he wanted to grieve was at odds with many members of his domestic circle; this is not unusual in the wake of death by domestic violence. Over time, Mark came to understand, acknowledge and accept that grief is an individualized experience, the processing of which is very much driven by each griever’s unique self, life experience and belief system; yes his emotions regarding what had happened were valid, but so too were the emotions felt and expressed by the other people in his domestic circle. This realization eventually allowed Mark to share but not impose his views on others; over time he was able to ask that his loved ones do the same for him.

Complicated Grief

Complicated grief has to do with a person’s response to a loss; it can occur when the intensity of grief does not decrease in the months following the death of a loved one but instead continues beyond a year, often debilitating the griever.

As happened with both Carol and Mark, complicated grief can arise when: trauma is present; disenfranchisement is present; there is a lack of beneficial social support; there is a need for professional grief support; the griever is lacking in grief-processing skills. Like disenfranchised grief, complicated grief is common in survivors of death due to domestic violence and may require professional support to process.

Tasks of Grief

Grief asks many things of us: to accept the reality of our loss; to work through the pain of grief; to adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing. All of these tasks are made more challenging when death occurs due to domestic violence as we are emotionally and in other ways connected to both the victim and perpetrator of that violence often making it hard to know how to begin the grieving process, and where to focus our energy as we grieve.

Grief also asks that we eventually emotionally relocate the deceased and move forward with life. Emotional relocation is the process of learning to relocate a loved one from the physical world to memory or somewhere outside of the physical world (heaven etc.) Again, this is a task that can be made more challenging due to the prolonged shock and trauma that often follows in the wake of violent death. But it can be done.

The process of relocation is fostered through ritual and establishing a continuing bond (see the blog Continuing Bonds With Your Loved One After Death) that entails talking to the deceased, doing activities you once shared with your loved one, and more. Forging a continuing bond can help you both honor your loved one, your loss, and all that was lost, eventually aiding you in moving forward with life.

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7/365.
CALL: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) | CHAT: http://thehotline.org |TEXT: "START" to 88788