Published February 24, 2010
An execution cannot make a murder victim's family feel betterTHE OLYMPIAN
In response to my previous column, one thoughtful reader commented that while she agreed that the death penalty is wrong for every reason that I had discussed, she still wondered if capital punishment might be worth it in order for victims' families to achieve closure. What we know about psychological trauma and healing can help to provide an answer. The night that a colleague of mine arrived home to discover the death of her son by suicide, a close friend of hers told me, “I just want to go and wrap my arms around her.” This friend knew instinctively what to do. It’s what people do in times of tragedy — bear witness, bring soup, listen, weep, support. Mental health professionals know that these loving actions are essential in assisting someone who has experienced a traumatic loss. Sudden and violent death can leave those left behind in a turmoil of fear and confusion. Caring friends and neighbors can help by ensuring safety, preserving dignity, and helping to maintain stability in a world that seems to no longer make sense. In the immediate crisis and for the long term, they can provide the support that the family needs in order to eventually integrate this loss into their lives and to regain equilibrium. In the case of homicide, family members become embroiled in a rage of anger toward the perpetrator, often joined by neighbors, the media, and the public at large. The immediate desire for revenge is powerful. This is where the criminal justice system steps in as a restraint to our inclination to take matters into our own hands and to wreak havoc of our own. In disaster situations, while first responders work to preserve life and to restore a sense of safety, mental health workers provide psychological first aid. They make contact with victims and victims’ families, provide safety and comfort, respond to individual needs and concerns, and facilitate linkage to family or services who can help to provide long-term support. In a case of homicide, the primary need for the victim’s family and for the community is assurance of safety. We need to know that the perpetrator has been caught and that he will not be able to hurt anyone else. At the same time, those suffering the loss need the same type of support and caring that is afforded the family of a suicide, or a family whose loved ones have been lost in a natural disaster. When a loved one dies suddenly and violently, family and friends are often left with overwhelming mental images of the manner of death. These intrusive thoughts can interfere with positive memories of the person’s life and thus increase trauma and complicate recovery. While criminal prosecution in a case of homicide is essential to promote public safety and personal accountability, a capital murder trial (i.e., a death penalty trial) can actually obstruct the healing process for a victim’s family by increasing exposure to the violent aspects of the death. The popular conception of closure as a conclusion to grieving does not fit into the lexicon of trauma and recovery. It’s actually a red herring in the debate over the death penalty. Healing begins with a connection to caring people, and continues as a life-long process of learning to live with loss. It is not aided by further violence or acts of revenge and retribution. It is an erroneous and cynical notion that an execution can make a murder victim’s family feel better. If we really want to help, we will wrap our arms around our friends, and be with them in their grief. Alice M. Curtis, a member of the Olympian Board of Contributors, is a school social worker and social justice advocate. She can be reached at email@example.com.