Scattered throughout our lives are periods of grief. The loss of a pet, the end of a relationship, termination from work, the death of a parent—all of these bring up a mixture of emotions, and force us to make adjustments. In time, most are able to accommodate these changes, create a new reality, and move forward. The loss remains a part of us, but does not define us. But, there is a different type of grief. Brought on by sudden loss—death by suicide, accident, or murder—complicated grief is long lasting, and mimics thoughts and behaviors akin to those who have Post Traumatic Stress. Dru Ann Davis is all too familiar with complicated grief, and the impact it’s taken on her life. I met Dru Ann at her brother’s, Howard “Boots” McGhee, in Aptos, California. Their bond, support, and love for one another deeply touched me. Out of that time together, I spent several weeks gathering my thoughts, and how to honor Dru Ann’s loss…
On September 7, 2009, Dru Ann heard these life-changing words from a stranger: “Your kid is dead.” Her seventeen-year-old daughter, Desiree, was murdered in a drive-by shooting. Desiree was not a member of a gang. She was a carefree, quiet, seventeen-year-old girl who loved to sing. She’d had her driver’s license for just three weeks, loving the freedom of her car that an uncle helped purchase. On that September day, Desiree went to her friend’s for a barbeque. She never came home. Her killers remain at large.
Life for the survivor of a traumatic death can feel unmanageable, even after a significant amount of time. In the case of murder, the anger, violation, inability to protect one’s loved one, involvement in the justice system, and media coverage prolong and fuel the grief.
“I remember thinking: ‘Can I live without Dez?’ I knew I was going to, from this day forward, live in hell without her.”
Vague answers of Desiree’s whereabouts; rushing to a hospital, only to be told that Desiree’s body was not there; Dru Ann’s surviving daughter Taii learning of her sister’s death on social media; and an inability to see her deceased child amplified the horror for Dru Ann.
“The police would not let me be with my girl. I was told that the homicide detective would be calling me. I thought he would call me immediately, but it took him several days. Taii and I went home crying. When we reached home, I immediately got into Desiree's bed, pulling the covers up over my face, trying to smell her before it should fade. I invited Taii to join me, but she couldn't. We stayed in separate rooms, crying all night. It remains the very worst day of my life.”
"I have become a different person."
Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, often referred to as PTSD, is often associated with the intrusive thoughts and behaviors that military personnel suffer upon returning from service. Researchers in mental health have drawn similar links between trauma and grief over child abuse, natural disasters, and co-victims (those left behind) of suicide or murder, and the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with PTSS.
Symptoms can include:
- Recurrent and intrusive thoughts about the event
- Sleep disturbances, including nightmares
- Avoidance of places, situations, or people that remind one of the trauma
- Loss of interest in activities that used to bring joy or pleasure
- Feelings of detachment from others
- Lack of interest in the future
- Feeling numb
- Extreme upset or anxiety when reminded of the trauma
In Dru Ann’s case, tasks such as grocery shopping, seeing foods that Desiree enjoyed, and interacting with others in public became overwhelming, bringing up waves of anxiety and upset.
“I have two poster size photos of Dez in her room that I talk to and kiss every day. I've almost worn one out. I turn her light on every night so she knows we want her home. I'm on my second pillow that I made from t-shirts her friends made with her face on them, so I have her to hug and sleep with. She also had a little strapless hot pink cheetah t-shirt material blouse I sleep with every night. I take it with me when I go to my brother's for the weekend. I don't know what I'd be like if I couldn't ‘hug’ her in some way.”
“I tell her all day, every day, she is not alone, I'm always there loving her. I tell her what a smart, beautiful, innovative sweetheart of a daughter she is/was. And that I'm here, fighting for justice for her lovely self.”
Part of the problem for the co-victim, like Dru Ann, is feelings of isolation. Like the elephant in the middle of the room, people avoid bringing up the questions or details about the murder, as well as how one is coping, in fear that the co-victim will be further upset.
“No one ever asks me about her case, or how I am doing behind her murder. I know no one wants to talk about it, or Dez, so I keep it to myself.”
As a former grief counselor, I heard this countless times—how the parent, spouse, sibling, or loved one is already thinking about the one who has died; that bringing it up gives honor to the deceased. In essence, talking about the elephant in the middle of the room removes the stigma and isolation that the co-victim experiences.
What can help the ones who are left behind? Psychiatrists at Massachusetts General Hospital found that a combination of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications can help, as well as therapy tailored to address complicated grief.
The Association of Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) offer a list of counselors in one’s area with a specialty in thanatology (death, dying, and bereavement). Therapists with training in this area are more likely to have a deeper understanding of complicated grief, as well as how to proceed in therapy.
In my work with the bereaved by suicide, grief groups specific to sudden loss appear to help those in mourning more than a generalized grief group, specifically in the area of isolation, stigma, and disenfranchised feelings. Sudden loss groups now exist in a number of cities, and allow individuals to be candid with their experiences, memories, intrusive thoughts, and feelings. Often in non-specific grief groups, the survivor of suicide or co-victim of homicide can feel too unique, fearing that their stories are too explicit. Additionally, fellow grievers who have not been impacted this way are prone to minimize their own grief, or experienced secondary post-traumatic stress from the details of such a death.
Grief specialist, author, and speaker, Barbara Rubel, MA, FT, reports that survivors of homicide must also address practical, safety, and legal issues.
"As survivors of homicide, also known as co-victims, cope with their profound loss, they must navigate the criminal justice system and learn their rights. Co-victims need to learn about parallel justice, a fundamental component of justice, which attempts to keep them safe. They must identify their local victim assistance professionals (e.g. Victim Assistance Coordinators and Victim Advocates) who will guide them through the system during a time when grief can inhibit their ability to focus," says Rubel.
"Co-victims need to understand their rights; learn how to create a victim impact statement, apply for victim compensation through a crime victims reparations program; review all written information given to them, clarify any misunderstandings, and clarify those things that do not make sense to them. I always recommend to co-victims that they document everything for restitution and seek out financial reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses related to the homicide."
For Dru Ann, bits of joy do shine into her life. Time spent with her surviving daughter, Taii, as well as other family members helps to lighten the darkness. She has become an avid bird watcher, where observing hawks, crows, and hummingbirds keep her going through each day. Writing about Desiree’s life and her death has offered clarity.
“I went to one Parents of Murdered Children shortly after Desiree’s death. I remember the meeting, but was definitely not fully there. No one in that club wants to be a member. I do remember them as being so welcoming and respectful of one another. They always remember Desiree on her birthday, and on her murderversary.”
“Biking to work and home every day gets a lot of emotion and anger out by using my energy. I also put a rose in a bud vase every week, and then save the leaves and scatter them at the bottom of Desiree’s photo.”
Pursing justice also keeps DruAnn going. “I will always be on the Oakland Police Department to solve her case.”
This is a story of a mother’s horror, her fight to find her daughter’s killer, and how she has coped with the intense grief of her daughter’s murder. This is also the story of spirit, strength, and courage. Dru Ann spent many hours speaking to me about Desiree, answering questions via email, and writing pages about her loss, and how she copes on a day-to-day basis. She is a strong survivor, and her words give witness to the human spirit. Our hope is that others affected by traumatic grief will feel less alone in reading her words.
“Maybe in the future I will be able to reach out and help other mothers who are in this horrible club.”
If you know someone who experiences complicated grief, whether by disaster, accident, suicide, or murder, you can help. There are no magic words, no quick fixes, no piece of advice you can give that will heal the wound. What you can do is listen. My life has changed in knowing Dru Ann, and I carry her, her family, and Desiree in my heart.
Below are a list of resources for those affected by traumatic grief.
Grief Speaks: a website devoted to those affected by murder and homicide. http://www.griefspeaks.com/id82.html
ADEC: Association of Death Education and Counselors. Here you can find a list of therapists with special training in grief. http://www.adec.org/source/FindAThanatologist/index2.cfm?section=Find_A_Thanatologist
California Victim Assistance:http://www.vcgcb.ca.gov/
FBI Victim Assistance:http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/victim_assistance
Research in complicated grief:http://www.massgeneral.org/psychiatry/services/anxiety_grief.aspx