Ministering to Victims of Violent Crime

The world looks on in shock at the shooting sprees and murders that occur in suburban neighborhoods. Surely violence could not happen in your neighborhood! How do you help when tragedy hits? Christians have a unique opportunity in times of tragedy to reflect the love and compassion of Jesus. 

What are the stressors for homicide survivors?

The notification process causes a lot of stress. Sometimes the families receive fragmented information lacking detail. Initial details are often disclosed by acquaintances who heard it from the media.

Murder affects other life transitions and problems. It intensifies problems such as divorce, illness, or financial difficulties. Unforeseen demands are made on the family members such as identifying the body, making funeral arrangements, handling medical bills, and notifying other family members and friends.

Role changes are necessary after a death in a family. The wife may have to become the breadwinner, or the husband will have to be the primary caregiver. Financial burdens are added due to death. Most couples are dual-career families. They make it financially because of both being able to work.

The reaction of church members is not always positive. Many churches do not offer help to survivors of this type of trauma. Some people do not perceive murder as an acceptable manner of death. They try to blame the victim as an illusion that this will never happen to them.

POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER IN VICTIMS

If proper care is to be given to homicide survivors, the caretakers need to understand PTSD symptoms. If the family witnessed the crime, they will relive the memory in many ways. They will have recurrent distressing dreams, hallucinations that the event is actually recurring again, and anniversaries or triggers to the event will re-open wounds. Usually the victims will avoid people, places and things related to the murder-anything that would remind them of the trauma. Sometimes they can’t recall aspects of the event (psychogenic amnesia). They may feel estranged from others and can’t experience positive feelings like love and compassion. Insomnia, outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response and physical symptoms like shaking and sweating will occur when in a room that resembles the place of the traumatic event.

PASTORAL AND CHURCH FAMILY RESPONSE

The Christian community and specifically pastors and counselors have a unique opportunity to reach out to the victims. Here are nine methods of helping the suffering families of a tragic event.

  1. Do not explain. As much as the person cries out “Why?” they know that there is no rational reason. Their “why” is a longing for God to hold them in His arms of love and care. Answers do not work. Simply stand by them as they experience various emotional reactions.
  2. Do not take away the reality. The pain cannot be taken away by any person. Do not try to minimize or deny the reality of what has happened. Often the person giving care wants to take away the pain because it is too uncomfortable for them. But the caregiver must respect the feelings of the griever, and allow them to feel the whole gamut of emotions without condemnation and rebuke. Realize that they will not always be in such chronic pain. Time will heal if they are able to express all of their emotions.
  3. Help them deal with forgiveness with integrity. Forgiveness is a difficult issue for these grievers. The injustice of the crime makes it that much harder to forgive. Do not push them to forgive without integrity. Understand that forgiveness must be given at the deepest level of one’s soul. Understand that they will forgive as God gives them strength, and as they move through the emotions of grief.
  4. Stay close. Stay in close contact with the griever, but understand that they will need some time to be by themselves. Continue to remind them of your availability.
  5. Remember them for a long time. The loss will always be a part of that person. They may still talk about the loss for years. When others have left, always be a listening ear for them. Remember together the lost loved one.
  6. Do not be frightened of the anger. An angry person is not nice to be around. But, allow them to feel this emotion without feeling threatened or taken personally. God understands their emotion.
  7. Listen to their doubts. Allow them also to express their doubt. There will be the temptation to immediately try to replace the doubt with Scripture that expresses the contrary. Understand that in order for this person’s faith to be deepened they must be able to express their doubts to God. Their faith will be stronger if they are given room to doubt.
  8. Be patient. Their progress will not always be steady. They will sometimes slip back and experience the same emotions, and express the same doubts again. Continue to be a person of understanding and care, not condemnation and judgment.
  9. Remind them that the pain they are experiencing is not all there is to life. Remind them through word and action that God is there walking through the pain alongside them. God is not a formula, but someone who sticks with them “through the valley of the shadow of death.” (Psalm 23:4)

  Step up and stand beside the wounded. They need you to be Jesus’ arms of love at this time.

Kie-Vining, John. When Home is Where the Hurt Is, pp. 384-393. Used by permission.

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