Category: Forgiveness

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Death Penalty May Not Bring Peace to Victims’ Families

00Featured news, Forgiveness, Law and Crime, Memory, Punishment, Stress, Trauma October, 16
Source: Lesia Szyca – Trauma and Mental Health Report Artist

On May 15th 2015, a federal jury condemned Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his role in killing four people and injuring hundreds in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. Before the verdict, Bill and Denise Richards—the parents of a nine-year old boy who was killed in the attack—asked that the government not seek the death penalty against Tsarnaev. In an open letter published in the Boston Globe, they explained:

“The continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong the most painful day of our lives.”

The death penalty is often touted as the only punishment that provides true justice and closure for a victim’s family and friends, also known as covictims. But this is rarely based on covictims’ actual sentiments.

Research by University of Minnesotta sociology-anthropology professor Scott Vollum and colleagues found ambivalence in covictims’ reactions to capital punishment. Their study showed that only 2.5% achieved true closure, and 20.1% said that the execution did not help them heal. Covictims in the study also expressed feelings of emptiness when the death penalty did not “bring back the victim.”

The long judicial process between conviction and execution, which can span many years in some cases, also prolongs grief and pain for covictims. Uncertainty prevails in the face of appeals, hearings, and trials, while increased publicity inherent in death-penalty cases exacerbates covictims’ suffering. Through media exposure, they repeatedly relive traumatic events.

Pain and anger, especially, are common in the wake of tragic loss and can be accompanied by an overwhelming desire for revenge. Some covictims in the Vollum study voiced that the death penalty was not harsh enough, while others communicated a wish to personally inflict harm on the condemned. In the majority of cases though, executions were not sufficient to satisfy these desires.

“More often than not, families of murder victims do not experience the relief they expected to feel at the execution,” states Lula Redmond, a Florida therapist who works with surviving family members. “Taking a life doesn’t fill that void, but it’s generally not until after the execution that families realize this.”

In a number of cases, covictims actually expressed sympathy for family members of the condemned, often empathizing with the experience of loss. “My heart really goes out to his family. I lost my daughter, and I know today is a terrible day for them as well,” statedone covictim.

A death sentence can polarize the two families, obstructing healing for both. Prison chaplain Caroll Pickett has witnessed how capital punishment inflicts trauma on loved ones of both the condemned and the victim, as well as prison employees and others in the judicial process, stating in his autobiography, “All the death penalty does is create another set of victims.”

Of course, findings like these beg the question, are other forms of punishment more conducive to healing? A 2012 Marquette University Law School study showed improved physical and psychological health for covictims, as well as greater satisfaction with the justice system, when life sentences were given, rather than capital punishment. The authors hypothesize that survivors “may prefer the finality of a life sentence and the obscurity into which the defendant will quickly fall, to the continued uncertainty and publicity of the death penalty.”

Would covictims move through the natural healing process more rapidly if they were not dependent on an execution to bring long-awaited peace? Perhaps the execution as an imagined endpoint for closure only leads to more grief in the meantime.

As one survivor expressed, “I get sick when death-penalty advocates self-righteously prescribe execution to treat the wounds we live with after homicide… Healing is a process, not an event.”

The realities of capital punishment may be poorly suited for healthy grieving and healing. The Richards family wrote, “We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.”

–Caitlin McNair, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

–Chief Editor: Robert T. MullerThe Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

When A Loved One Attempts Suicide

When A Loved One Attempts Suicide

10Depression, Featured news, Forgiveness, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, Therapy, Trauma January, 16

Source: Wayne S. Grazio/Flickr

About two years ago, I personally came face to face with the suicide attempt of my best friend, Bella.  Distraught, she had called to tell me she loved me and that I was the best thing that ever happened to her.  I listened to her cry for a few minutes until she suddenly disconnected.  I was immediately filled with a sense of fear and dread.

Soon in my car breaking the speed limit, I was yet unaware how my life was about to change.

Bella suffered from clinical depression and although she kept it a secret from most, I was well aware of her struggles.  She had two kinds of days:  bad and terrible.  Her boyfriend had just broken up with her, which sent her into a tailspin.  She was in an inescapable depressive state, filled with thoughts of suicide.

Many parents who experience such episodes with their children are plagued with mixed emotions of self-blame, anger, shock, and grief.  They often feel powerless, not knowing how to help their children, and the threat of losing them is ever present.  Bella’s parents were no different.  They were emotionally exhausted and needed a break.  When I got to Bella’s house I told her parents that I would stay with her for a couple of hours.

We watched TV in silence, and soon Bella looked toward me decidedly, as if she had finally settled on a course of action.  She told me she had to go to the washroom downstairs.

Minutes passed and she had not returned.  An overwhelming anxiety came over me, I had to check on her.  As I walked down the stairs –my heart beating rapidly and my mind venturing to the unthinkable– I saw her.  Face blue, eyes red.  She was attempting to strangle herself with a rope she had found in the basement.

Although sparse, research on the effects of witnessing a peer’s suicide attempt shows that the event can have a strong impact on the witness.  Individuals may develop varying degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) or other anxiety disorders.  Experiencing powerful and recurrent memories of the event and avoiding situations that may remind one of the trauma, create a cycle of negative thoughts and emotions that can make treatment challenging.

According to clinical psychologist, Daniel Hoover of Baylor College of Medicine, anyone in direct contact with a suicide attempt should seek out treatment following the event (which doesn’t necessarily have to be one-on-one counseling to be effective).

When I saw Bella trying to kill herself, I immediately rushed over, removed the rope and hugged her.  She cried, gasping for air, furiously yelling at me for stopping her.

For a long time afterward, this image of Bella was embedded in my mind.

And I felt profoundly guilty after the incident:  If I had not let Bella leave my sight, she might not have attempted suicide.  This thought often came to mind.  A vicious cycle of uncertainty plagued my daily activities.  I was holding myself accountable for actions that were ultimately out of my control.

I kept her suicide attempt a secret from everyone in my life.  I didn’t want to hurt her reputation or break her trust, and I became tormented by the trauma, but I couldn’t confide in family or friends for fear of having to explain Bella’s story.  For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone.

Brian L. Mishara, author of The Impact of Suicide, suggests that telephone support programs can reduce the emotional burden on family and friends.  Counselors build a relationship with their client and provide information on healthy coping strategies and useful resources –all over the telephone.  Counseling calls tend to continue weekly over a period of time until the person feels comfortable coping with their traumatic experience.

Although challenging, recovery is possible.  Two years later, I’m doing much better.  For one thing, I needed to realize that Bella’s suicide attempt was not my fault.  You can only do so much to help a loved one when they are suffering from suicidal thoughts.  We want to protect our friends and family members, but we also need to protect ourselves.

And, suffering alone doesn’t work.  Withholding your thoughts after a traumatic event can compromise your physical, emotional, and psychological health.

Coping with a loved one’s suicide attempt is not easy.  Finding someone you trust and expressing your thoughts is helpful.  It’s much easier to cope when you have a trusted ally by your side.

– Alessandro Perri, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today