Study shows devastating impact of homicide for those left behind

Families of homicide victims have spoken candidly about their experiences in a new study aimed at documenting how losing a loved one to crime impacts on the lives of those around them.

The study is the first in New Zealand to address homicide "survival" and its emotional and physical effects from short to long term.

Family Members of Homicide Victims: The Psychological Impact was published by Auckland University student Elizabeth Fisher as part of her Master's degree in psychology.

She chose the topic after discovering there was a "surprisingly limited" amount of academic information about homicide survivors - the families of victims - internationally and, no research at all had been done in New Zealand.

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Ms Fisher interviewed a number of people who had a family member who had died as a result of crime. Then, taking their answers she was able to outline the long and short term emotional and physical impacts homicide had and what helped and re-traumatised survivors as they progressed through the justice system and their lives post-homicide.

"I believe my research shows that losing a family member to homicide undoubtedly affects every aspect of a person's life, permanently," she told the Herald.

Ms Fisher interviewed 12 people connected to 10 homicides for her thesis - six men and six women aged 30-80. Four of the participants were mothers, five were fathers, two were sisters, and one was a brother of the deceased individuals.

The seven key themes identified in the interviews were emotional challenges, health effects, attitude changes, relationship changes, re-traumatisation by the justice system, importance of information and support and finding benefits.

Victims told Ms Fisher about how they responded when they were first faced with the death in their family.

"When it first happens, you go into a state of shock, you have no idea about anything, you're too busy trying to get your brains around the fact that somebody has murdered your daughter. Your brains turn to mush," said one participant known only as Person C.

One of the women described how her sister's death affected her relationship with her first child.

"I think I missed a lot of firsts with my first child. I was pregnant with her when [my sister] died. And I missed all that, I missed the first year, oh I missed the first three years probably. I don't really remember much of the first three years after she [my sister] was killed," the woman, Person A, recalled.

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The participants said they were haunted by thoughts of events that their loved one would miss out on because of their untimely death.

Person B said: "I still look now and think what would she be doing now? I just think, she'll never know what it's like to love a man, and have children and be happy like that or have a career; you know you've lost three generations with her being murdered."

"Out of all my children [he] would have been the most successful. His ethics were amazing. He had already saved money, bought his own car, his own motorbike. He also had enough saved to buy his first investment property at the age of 17. So the loss is not only for us but for the country, as a contributor to the economy, he had planned his studies, he was lined up for that," Person F lamented.

Participants spoke of health issues that followed their traumatic loss including high blood pressure, heart problems and attacks, panic attacks, weight loss and gain, sleep disorders, depression, anxiety and stress. Some believed members of their family died as a result of health issues exacerbated or brought on by the stress of the homicide.

They all said they had changed irreparably since the day they lost their loved one.

"I guess my whole life now feels like it revolves around what happened and our lives have changed so much," Person G explained.

Person F stated: "Never underestimate the ripple effect of murder, and how it changes people's lives. Financially it has been a huge loss; emotionally it's been a traumatic time.

And even now I wonder about some of the problems I have with our relationships, whether you could go back to that time and see how our world got turned upside down."

While they were scarred forever, they had quickly developed a calm and strong "facade" to hid behind.

"You've got to be a little bit staunch. People look at you and they probably think oh he's doing all right. But you're not actually doing all right at all, it's just a façade... you put on a good face but you're not good at all," said Person I.

Person F did not know what "ok" was anymore.

"We just carry on with our lives. We just try to be as normal as you can possibly be. There are times when the news opens old wounds and now a recent murder case is a few metres from where we're working. So that doesn't help. Not that we let anybody know how we feel about it."

Making out they were "ok" usually resulted in the victims feeling isolated and put a strain on relationships with people outside their family.

"You think oh it's a nightmare, and I'll wake up and it won't really be real. It's like watching out of a TV and thinking I'm watching the world go by, and there's a hundred people in this room but I'm isolated on my own. I'm not part of it," said Person B.

Person G said: "Outwardly nobody would see any difference, but inwardly it's not how I see it. The grief never goes away, I've had tears today for various reasons, and it doesn't take much to make me cry. It's been six years and it's no easier now than it was then in many respects.

"I think we live a Jekyll and Hyde existence; we have a persona that people see us as, and another one that's behind closed doors, bereaved parents and siblings of someone who was brutally murdered, you know?"

Ms Fisher also canvassed how each of the victims interacted with police, support services, the media, how they found the court process and whether they had an adequate understanding and information, their involvement with other victims and post-homicide relationships.

"I hope people learn that the family members left behind after a homicide are victims in their own right. From the group of survivors that I worked with, I found that the existing criminal justice process re-traumatises this group of people, especially because they don't feel adequately supported and informed throughout the ensuing court process," she said.