This Is Your Brain on Homicide

Remember back when we first became aware of the murder?  The death came when we least expected it, as it always does.  Then began the urgent contacts to and from immediate family, extended family, and close friends followed by official discussions with law enforcement, the coroner’s office, EMS personnel, or clergy. So many strangers!  Our cell phone blew up.  Can the media be far behind?

So. Much. Chaos! 

The Shockwave Begins

During this time, surges of adrenalin took over because the alarm center in our brain (the “amygdalas”) became aware of an emergency and instantly blared a distress warning to the command center for our body (“the hypothalamus”).  It acted like a fire alarm being pulled inside our head. 

Next, stress hormones (like “epinephrine,” “cortisol” and “noradrenaline”) pulsated through our veins, causing a cascade of changes. They acted like a gas pedal in a car. This activated our immune system to fight against germs and viruses and helped us remember this terrible threat.  We’d rather not. But our brain always wants us to remember. It’s trying to keep us alive in a future crisis. The memories will steal our sleep and follow us in the early months.

How did this become our life?!

Another part of our brain became involved (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal HPA axis). This triggered natural steroid hormones (“glucocorticoids”) to try and prepare us for subsequent stressors.  Non-essential functions (like digestion) were temporarily shut off.  So, we’re not hungry and may have even had a stomachache.  Stored-up natural fuel (“glucose”) gave us energy but could’ve made pre-existing diabetes worse.  Our muscles tensed.  This guarded us against injury or death, much like a Kevlar vest. We were on high alert, not unlike a soldier under attack.

These changes caused us to feel irritable, jittery, dizzy, and even physically sick – like we wanted to “crawl out of our skin!”  It was frightening. It was automatic.  It was beyond our control.

Our minds just…wouldn’t… process….   It’s like our brain was suddenly coated with thick motor oil.  Our thinking became “gooey” and effortful.  We curbed the urge to just explode! 

Our world narrowed down to that singular moment in time, that one awful moment and we replayed it over and over and over.  We didn’t want to go back there, but we could not stop it. And we hated it.

We realized our pulse was racing and we needed to sit and pace at the same time. We felt like a runaway train! Time stopped.  

The question may have crossed your mind.  “Am I going crazy?” 

Our lungs opened wide to take in as much oxygen as possible in case we had to flee or fight. Most of us put our hands above our heads to take in even more. We hyperventilated.

Our pupils dilated. The room may have seemed as if it was spinning, or blue or dim.  The hairs on our neck and deep inside our ears tingled.  Every muscle tightened, ready to spring into action without a goal.  A primitive feeling of being unsafe flooded every cell in our body. 

Reassurance by others that we’d “be all right” was meaningless, if not offensive.  It was proof they did not understand.

Our world was off its axis!  How could we ever “be all right” again?

If you were like me, your speech became garbled, and making sense of what others said was incomplete at best – like a crackling radio broadcast.  Simple questions like “When was the decedent’s birthday?” seemed too hard and much too irrelevant to answer.  No wonder… The blood flow (and oxygen) to the speech centers in our brains was reduced! It always is during an emergency.  The best we could do was speak in a halting, muddled fashion.

We hoped the media didn’t catch us at that moment.

We were easily startled by any abrupt noise, being touched, or seeing sudden movement.  We tried to take in the awful reality and push it away.  Our chest was tight. We felt our heart was breaking.  (It was.)  Our mouth went dry, a headache rumbled and there was an extraordinarily strong disconnection from the world we once knew.

We knew our world was forever changed. But what we did not yet know is that we’d get through it.

A chilly numbness crept in. There was an unmistakable urge to flee, to correct this wrong, to turn back the hands of time.  But where?  How?

Isn’t that about the time, in that state of shock and brokenness, that outsiders began to crash into our lives and make demands we could not respond to?  Their expectations seemed impossibly difficult, confusing, and immaterial.  Some of us had the media shove a microphone toward us and were pressed for an interview. (Yes! Right now!) The police expected a coherent, detailed statement.  Well-meaning neighbors, friends, and relatives trickled in and asked what happened.  We resisted going over it and over it.  We didn’t understand it ourselves. How could we possibly explain it to anyone else?  We wanted them there and we wanted them to go away.  We wanted them to stop talking.  We couldn’t think!

This is trauma. This is our brain on homicide. This is our brain preparing us to flee or fight or freeze.  We have been unwillingly yanked into a prickly net from which we were unprepared and momentarily unsupported. 

And it is precisely when many mportant decisions were shoved at us.  Can you come to identify your loved one?  What about funeral arrangements?  Is there a will?  Who do you think did this?  Who should we call?  Can you speak with the D.A.?  Are you planning a break from work? Do you wish to speak with Reporter Smith from XYZ Radio?

You had your own questions. Am I safe?  How on earth do I prepare to tell my spouse / child/ mother-in-law / sister or nephew?  IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING?!

Depleted

In time, months at least, the dust slowly settled.  The fire alarm in our brain fell silent. The gas pedal was released.  We finally exhaled. We felt depleted.

Because we were.

We looked around and then at our reflection and felt ten years older.  No wonder.  Our bodies and minds had run a marathon for weeks on end.  We had no energy left to socialize, plan, or even be civil, let alone creative or hopeful.

When the anxiety yielded to depression and blanketed us, as is inevitable, we felt the full weight of our loss night after sleepless night.

It seemed the entire world slept while we blankly stared at a community we no longer felt a part of. We were like an injured animal cut off from the herd.

Within a month, most members of our support system began to drift back to their own lives.  We needed them but lied.  We said, “I’m fine.”  They remarked, “Call if you need anything.”  What we felt like yelling back was, “What I need is for my loved one to be alive!  That’s what I need!  Can you help me with THAT?!”  We were certain no one in the entire world “got it” and that help was nowhere to be found.

Half of us were given more detailed instructions and new names to interact with.  We were called to new buildings to meet with new faces who used a language we’d never needed before; words like “nolo contendere”, “preliminary hearing,” “vulnus sclopetarium,” and “Alford plea.” These meetings, and questions and strange words increased our sense of futility and vulnerability and ineptness.  They also stirred up memories of the unimaginable loss we fought so hard to accept.

We grew increasingly annoyed that the “officials” referred to our loved one as “the victim” or “the body.” “They have a name! ” we wanted to scream. “They had a life! They were loved! They are not a case!”

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While no two homicides are the same, all homicide survivors face a tsunami of brain changes, paperwork, social friction, decisions, appointments, physical reactions, and questions that we must somehow prioritize and respond to. 

We were asked to do the impossible many times. 

First, we had to respond to officials and close family.  Then it was neighbors, friends, distant relatives, and coworkers.  We had to get through the funeral, order death certificates, participate in the legal process, care for our children, pick out a headstone or urn, negotiate going out in public, remove earthly belongings, and listen as others told us it was “time to be over it.”  They know NOT what they speak!

Accompaniment

The most fortunate among us will find “accompaniment.”  It may come from a stranger, coworker, or friend.  We will know it when we experience it. It’s unmistakable.  This wise person will gently approach us without advice, questions, or unwanted reassurances.  Instead, they offer the priceless gift of uninterrupted time and intense listening.  They’ve abandoned a mindset of efficiency.  They won’t try to “fix” us. We will experience a pleasant sense of… “lingering.”  Their invitation for us to unburden ourselves will feel different.  It will feel safe.  It will feel genuine.  It will feel overdue.  We will tentatively begin to unload and feel heard, if not relieved and validated.

This “train wreck” that slammed us is survivable.  No one can convince you of this at first. (I rejected that idea after learning of the homicide also.)  But at least circle around to this possibility now and again.

Self-care

Listen to soothing music where you won’t be disturbed. When you can focus, seek out first-person books written by other homicide survivors (books like, “Beautiful Ashes” by Shelly Edwards-Jorgenson, “Aftermath” by Carrie Freitag, or  “For the Love of Family” by Kevin McCall.)  Reach out to support groups, speak with an experienced trauma-informed therapist, go on nature walks with your dog (it’s a form of meditation, did you know that?).  Set boundaries where needed (like turning off your phone for a bit, not returning irksome messages, asking someone to run errands, and shutting down social media). Reject imposed deadlines from others claiming you “should be over it by now.” Grief doesn’t have a schedule.

A fellow homicide survivor once said to me “This feels like trying to paddle with a hole in the boat and the anchor down.”   Yes. It. Does.

My bottom line is this:  You aren’t alone, but you feel alone.  No one can change what happened to your loved one(s), but if you allow it, others can help you navigate this unexpected, unwanted, and unfair tragedy.

I believe to the depths of my soul that Helen Keller had it right when she said

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also filled with the overcoming of it.”

For more detailed information and for other resources, please refer to my book What Now? Navigating the Aftermath of Homicide and Suicide, available now on Amazon.

Click this Amazon link:   https://www.amazon.com/What-Now-Navigating-Aftermath-Homicide-ebook/dp/B0BXND9DQR

I’m Jan Canty. Psychologist, author, podcast host, speaker…  and homicide survivor.

I am passionate about finding ways to support and help other so-called “homicide or suicide survivors.”

No one should have to go through this kind of loss… but if you do, I want you to know… YOU ARE NOT ALONE! 

You aren’t crazy. It’s not your imagination! Society does not know how to comfort us. Fortunately, we know how to comfort one another.

Check out my books and get tools and resources to help you or someone you love!