As news reports of the High School shooting in Florida hit my computer screen I felt my heartbeat quicken and my mouth go dry. The students’ screams of terror were like a punch to my stomach leaving me winded and crying. This is a common response if you’re a homicide-loss mother.
Parents of murdered children often can’t help but transpose the terror of victims to what they imagine their own child endured. All I could think was ‘No! Not again!’ At that moment, each and every child within the Florida building could have been my own.
For those of you who don’t know my story, my son Alex was the victim of a brutal and sadistic homicide in 2014. I know only too well what these murders mean for the families directly affected by the killings and the thought drags me back into despair.
In an act of self-care, I avoided all news for 48 hours. By the time I tuned back in again, I noticed that a major shift in media coverage had taken place. Instead of news bulletins detailing the killing spree, what I saw were young people and parents standing strong and voicing their feelings. The survivors had not only seen their friends executed but they had also feared for their lives. They spoke eloquently and journalists were listening. In fact, the whole world seemed to be listening.
I was impressed by the teenagers’ display of feelings — sorrow, incomprehension, and above all, anger. In fact, I felt huge relief in seeing so many of the students pick up a mic, take to the streets, and shout out their pain and sense of injustice.
I know from personal experience, from my still-living children’s, and from talking to other homicide-loss survivors, that when it’s your own child or family member who has been murdered, anger is a major part of what you feel. It’s an involuntary, natural reaction and expressing it is vitally important.
But let’s be clear. When I talk of anger in the context of homicide loss I don’t mean anger as it’s usually defined — a reaction to frustration. What I’m referring to is something different — it’s an emotion that comes from the gut, a biological, visceral reaction to the killing of your child or loved one. Homicide-loss anger is instinctive. It’s as primal an emotion as it gets.
The powerful energy generated by this type of anger must be released because otherwise, it will eat you up. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. How are we, homicide co-victims, meant to freely express this primeval emotion if those around us feel uncomfortable in witnessing what they perceive to be anti-social displays of raw feelings?
Anger is something our society doesn’t do well, if at all. The majority of people are afraid of anger because they’re afraid of losing control and, in turn, they recoil at the expression of rage by others. We’re told to ‘deal’ with anger, that we need to identify the source of our discomfort and then get through it and put it behind us. We believe that anger is invariably ugly and often violent. From an early age, we’re taught that to express anger is to risk social isolation and that it comes with negative consequences. So we learn to hide it and in so doing, we adjust to society’s norms.
We all understand that a civilized society needs adults who can control their instinctive, primary impulses because the alternative is anarchy and chaos. So when anger rears its head, we bow our own and control the impulse to lash out. We learn to box in our anger and label it as misplaced frustration allowing us to believe that it is tamed as we try to identify the source of our distress.
Yet for homicide-loss survivors, the pushing away of their anger comes at a cost. We haven’t tamed anger, we’ve caged it. It’s still there, frightening and wild, and poised to break free at any moment when we least expect. We don’t need to spend time identifying the source of our anger because we know what it is — the killer and anything and everything that helped him or her murder our loved one. In some cases, we may rage at God for allowing it to happen. We have been violated because our loved one has been willfully killed. We feel outraged, threatened and traumatized by our loss and what was done to the person we love. Without realizing it, our own survival instinct has been triggered and it is overwhelmingly powerful.
Our reaction to the taking of our loved ones’ life comes from the pit of our stomach. It is instinct; pure and simple. It’s an energy that will not allow itself to be tamed, destroyed or dismissed. It is the force that ensures the survival of our DNA.
Keeping this natural, instinctive reaction to murder under control takes huge amounts of energy. It also stops us from moving forward in our grief journey to a place of acceptance, and ultimately, healing. It is imperative that co-victims find a safe but effective way to vent their rage otherwise the trauma of homicide loss will fester within them and the path towards healing will be compromised.
That is why I feel relief on seeing the students organize marches and demonstrations. That is why I’m rooting for them as they walk today in March for Our Lives. That is why I’ll support anyone who takes up the fight for justice for their loved one killed through violence. Because it is vitally important that they do.
Homicide-loss anger that’s expressed has the power to be transformative, whereas anger that is caged and repressed will most probably result in long-lasting psychological trauma. Co-victims have suffered quite enough without also having to comply with society’s expectations of how they should behave. It’s a form of societal-imposed self-harm for the benefit of appearances. Why is this? Why should those who have suffered one of the most extreme forms of loss be expected to shield the rest of society from their grief?
The students of Florida deserve our support and admiration not only because they’re demonstrating controlled, focused anger at a time of deep grief but because they’re helping to make our society more compassionate and just.
They’re showing the world that there is space for anger when it comes from a place of love. They are standing up for what they believe in, and I am glad. I’m certain that the more they allow themselves to feel these powerful emotions, the more they’ll ultimately heal. And they deserve no less.
Published in Still Standing Magazine, 23rd March 2018
© Katja Faber 2018