GRIEF and the FAMILIES of PERPETRATORS

Image result for suzanne hodgkinson“I get up every morning feeling guilty because I didn’t stop it,” said Ms. Susanne Hodgkinson, the wife of the man who wounded Congressman Steve Scalise and three others during baseball practice for a charity game between Republicans and Democrats.  She continued, “I wake up with hot sweats, thinking: ‘You should have known. You should have known,’” writes JULIE TURKEWITZ for the New York Times.

The families of people who perpetrate mass or serial shootings, murders, rapes, or child abusing/molesting crimes have a very different experience than anyone else who loses a loved one.

While supply-pastor at a church in Jackson, Mississippi, I walked with a family through a similar experience. It was heart wrenching to see the complicated grief of this family whose son had killed another person. He was not dead, but it felt very much like it. This dear Christian family, who I will refer to as the Johnson’s, traveled through some very different, dark, and troubled waters.

There were the legal issues – acquiring a lawyer who was willing to defend someone whose guilt was without question. Guardianship over him was established in order to conduct necessary business on his behalf. Bank accounts were accessed and a new one established. Outstanding loans needed paid or arrangements made for the property to be repossessed. Anything remaining was invested. There was also the question regarding the custody and rearing of a child left fatherless, but whose father was still alive. Social Services came in to protect the interest of the child. The court appointed an advocate on his/her behalf and a trust was established to protect the child’s assets. The Social Security Administration and insurance companies got involved.

For the families of perpetrators who died while committing their crimes, Ms. Turkewitz writes, “There is the question of how to mourn. How to dispose of a body that everyone else wants to forget.” She reports that the funeral home that accepted the body of one of the Boston Marathon bombers had protesters outside their place of business carrying signs that said, “Bury the garbage in the landfill.” The pastor that conducted the small private funeral of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, was forced from his church because of it. The relatives of the San Bernardino killers were refused burial in California cemeteries and had to be interned in another state.

The Johnsons knew and were close to the victim and grappled with what to do or say to the victim’s family. At first the conversation between the two families was civil and forgiving, but it soon turned to hostility. Accusations and condemnations were thrown about. The Johnsons absorbed the vitriol without offering a defense because of their own feelings of regret, guilt, and shame. The family debated the propriety of attending the funeral, and at last a few decided to go. They still wonder, after over 25 years, if it was the right thing to do.

Ms. Turkewitz tells the tales of “hate mail, death threats,” and other dangers that the families of perpetrators endure. Ms. Hodgkinson was slapped in the face by a stranger while in a grocery store parking lot. Her neighbors now get her groceries, mow her lawn, and take “out her trash, dispersing it around town to evade snoops.” She is worried about the treatment her granddaughters will get when they return to school this fall.

The Johnson family had their share of troubles, too. Mr. Johnson was shot at from an unknown shooter that shattered the driver’s side mirror while he was getting out of his car. The social worker recommended against placing the child with the Johnsons solely based on them being the parents of the perpetrator. The court-appointed advocate was especially cruel with cutting remarks, a constant air of suspension, and an attitude of guilt by association. Fortunately, the judge saw a different image of the Johnsons than had been painted and awarded them custody. Today the child is an adult with multiple emotions of his/her own. S/he had a difficult introduction to adulthood, but has since overcome and is doing well.

The Johnsons grieved for the son, father, and brother who was capable of doing such a heinous thing. Mr. Johnson mowed his yard several times a week; it was when he could cry alone. Mrs. Johnson was filled with shame, remorse, and guilt that she never quite got over and took to her grave. His three children carry the stigma of being the offspring of a perpetrator and have a very complicated relationship with him. His brothers grieved hard, but had to mask their grief with strength in order to take care of all the multitude of things that resulted. They shared their grief with each other and with their wives, but few others.

As a pastor no thought of my reputation entered my mind. There was a family that was hurting and I rushed to be at their side. I took every opportunity available to be with them through it all. It was unchartered waters for me and all the other ministers who visited; they do not teach this kind of thing in seminary.

Through this experience I learned a few things. . .

  • The families of perpetrators grieve for both their loved one AND his/her victims. It is a pain that shakes them to the core. Their moral and ethical belief system is challenged. The “Why” question haunts them through the night and all of the day. They carry a tremendous load of stress and question over and over again every move they make. The victims and their families weigh heavily upon their collective conscience.
  • The families of perpetrators are filled with regret, guilt, and shame. Regret is sadness and disappointment coupled with repentance. Repeatedly they will ask for forgiveness for what their loved one has done as if they are somehow culpable. Guilt is the feeling one gets when s/he does something wrong. “How did I miss the signs?” “What could I have done more?” are questions they ask themselves repeatedly as if on a recorded loop. Shame goes beyond regret and guilt and attacks a person’s beliefs, values, and who they are as a human being. “Where did I go wrong?” “What is wrong with me?” Beliefs and values are challenged and they feel responsible for their loved one’s actions.
  • The families of perpetrators come to believe that they deserve the severe treatment and hatred of others. After all it was their son, father, and brother that did this awful thing; they may have felt the same way were the roles reversed.
  • The families of perpetrators grieve long after it leaves the consciousness of the public. Long after the haters and despisers become silent. Long after their ministers and the other members of their network cease their extra visits and support. Alone, in the middle of the night, perhaps years after the event, they still cry.

Ms. Turkewitz quotes Sue Klebold, “When you lose a loved one who has hurt other people, one of the struggles you have is the ability to focus on your sorrow, because your grief is so complicated by all these other things.”

Since my experience with the Johnson family, when I hear of these terrible incidents, I pray not only for victims and their families, but also for the perpetrator’s family. Of all the victims, they may be the most pathetic.

May the peace of God be with you.

*Italics separate my contribution and that of Ms. Turkewitz.

*Photo by Kaly Johnson