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Exploring the familial impact of cold case homicides.

In the aftermath of an unsolved homicide, surviving family members are forced to cope with the murder and how it affects their family unit. This paper examines the experiences of 12 cold case homicide survivors from four families, providing a much needed voice to cold case homicide survivors. Utilizing in-depth interviews to understand the survivors' stories, five themes emerged including time spent with related survivors, becoming overprotective, impacts on existing relationships, pressure to stay strong and the difficulties of family traditions. The findings provide an initial framework for understanding the impact of a cold case homicide on the family unit for both survivors and related practitioners. The data indicates that throughout the grief process survivors should be encouraged to engage in private and collective grieving, recognize and address their behavioral and emotional changes, openly discuss the perceived impact on their relationships and reshape family traditions.

Keywords: Family; homicide; grief; survivors; cold case

In 2013, there were 14,196 homicides, with a clearance rate of 64.1% Federal Bureau of Investigations, [ 7], leaving approximately 36% of cases unsolved and vulnerable to a classification of cold case homicide. According to Walton ([33]), a homicide case can be categorized by a department as cold when the case is at least a year old, the original detective is no longer working the caseand/or there are no new leads or movement in the investigation. Traditional, solved homicide survivors are likely to suffer from physical manifestations of grief such as weight fluctuation, shock, sleep issues, and headaches, in addition to psychological complications including lack of trust and intrusive thoughts and feelings (Armour, [ 1]). Cold case homicide survivors are likely to experience complicated grief, marked with prolonged anger, fear, and frustration as a result of not knowing the identity of the perpetrator and the unresolved nature of the murder (Wellman, [34], [35]).

Homicides impact on a large number of people including the acquaintances, friends, and family members of the victim. It is estimated that each homicide will result in at least four surviving family members (Murphy, [20]). Minuchin ([19]) explains that each family consists of smaller subsystems (e.g. spousal subsystem, parent–child subsystem, sibling subsystem) made up of family members going through the grieving timeline on potentially different schedules. These interdependent subsystems are governed by boundaries and rules that evolve after a traumatic event such as a death by homicide. In an open-system family, flexibility to change allows the family to change when necessary, while closed-system families often resist change even when it propagates dysfunction.

Cold case homicides have recently gained popularity in the media; many law enforcement agencies have designated units to address such cases, and science has expanded the potential of solving these crimes. However, little is known about the surviving family members who are left behind after an unsolved homicide. The current study seeks to explore the lived experiences of coldcase homicide survivors in the context of the family unit. Their personal stories will seek to illustrate common familial themes that occur throughout the grief process.

Literature review

To holistically understand the impact of cold case homicides on the surviving family members, it is important to first address the framework of grief and the family unit. Bowlby ([ 2]) was a pioneer in examining bereavement and detailing four clear stages of grief adjustment. These four stages include shock–numbness, yearning–searching, disorganization–despair, and reorganization. Each stage serves a unique purpose from protection of self during the shock–numbness stage to learning to resume normal life without the deceased in the reorganization stage (Bowlby, [ 2]; Bowlby & Parkes, [ 3]). Lamb ([13]) documented various manifestations of grief, including feelings, physical sensations, cognitions, and behavioral disturbances. Similar to Bowlby and Parkes ([ 3]), Lamb ([13]) argues that it is vital for an individual to experience and progress through each stage of the grief process. Homicide survivors, like others who have experienced the death of a family member, are likely to experience several of these traditional grief patterns, but the sudden, unnatural, and violent nature of death complicates the bereavement process.

Many scholars argue that homicide survivors' grief may better be explained as complex, traumatic grief (Armour, [ 1]; Feldman Hertz, Prothrow-Stith, & Chery, [ 6]; Malone, [14]; Masters, Friedman, & Getzel, [15]; Rando, [22]; Rinear, [24]; Rynearson, [25], [26]; Rynearson & McCreery, [27]). Deaths such as accidents, suicides, vehicular homicide, and murder are likely to result in traumatic grief, and scholars have begun to examine the unique elements of traumatic grief in comparison to traditional grief (Feldman Hertz et al., [ 6]; Masters et al., [15]; Murphy, Johnson, Wu, Fan, & Lohan, [21]; Vessier-Batchen & Douglas, [32]). The studies all conclude that homicide survivors experience more intense and complicated grieving than other survivors of sudden death. Spungen ([30]) stated that a traumatic death can shatter the basic assumptions survivors have established about the world in which they live and describes how traumatic grief can be characterized by both emotional and physical responses that affect the central nervous system.

There are two sets of factors that predispose someone to traumatic grieving (Rando, [22]). When a death is sudden, viewed as preventable, or involves a child, the likelihood of complicated grief increases. Additionally, if a survivor lacks social support after the death or had a strained relationship with the victim prior to their death, the probability for traumatic grief also expands. A combination of these compounding factors and the suddenness of the death cause many survivors to deviate from the general grieving framework. Therefore, a person's ability to process the grief can be complicated when practitioners and treatments use the traditional grief framework to guide their work.

Many homicide survivors cannot fathom the idea of 'letting go' of their loved one, as they would feel increasingly lonely and as if they had forgotten the murder of their loved ones (Armour, [ 1]). The grief framework assumes that there is a finite endpoint to grieving, while homicide research indicates that hurt is likely to be ongoing and may never end for those left behind (Armour, [ 1]; Rando, [22]). Homicide survivors often learn to hide their emotions in order to continue a 'normal' life, despite the ongoing nature of their grief. This behavior is in direct contrast to the general grief framework that states a person must fully express their emotions and accept their loss in order to heal (Armour, [ 1]). In one study, when compared to parents who lost a child to a car accident or suicide, parents of murdered children were least likely to express acceptance over a period of five years (Wu, Fan, & Lohan, [36]). Unlike other forms of sudden death, such as car accident, suicide, or unexpected illness, the unique nature of homicide exposes surviving families to several long-term relationships with related practitioners and the criminal justice system, thus potentially complicating the grieving process.

In reality, traumatic homicide bereavement results in alterations in belief systems, social stigma, insufficient experience with law enforcement, and lack of social support (Armour, [ 1]; Janoff-Bulman, [11]). Most individuals view violence as happening to other people, so when a homicide occurs, they question their ability to protect their own and trust others (Janoff-Bulman, [10]). People must learn to change or maintain their beliefs about the world and themselves to begin to heal from a traumatic loss (Klass, [12]).

Complicated, traumatic grief can also result in unique needs for the survivors. Mastrocinque et al. ([16]) utilized the biopsychosocial model to illustrate psychological, biological, social, and spiritual needs that may develop in surviving friends and family of homicides. The average time from homicide to the survivor focus group was three years. Biologically, survivors indicated feeling physically ill and an inability to care for themselves. Psychological manifestations included increased fear, anxiety, and disruptions in sleep. Survivors felt social isolation and a sense of stigmatization. The spiritual needs of the survivors included engagement or disengagement with religion. The study supported findings from other homicide-related research (Armour, [ 1]; Janoff-Bulman, [10], [11]; Lamb, [13]; Rando, [22]; Wellman, [34], [35]).

Homicide greatly impacts on the whole family subsystem, often resulting in a less functional family unit (Cook, [ 4]). Several studies have examined how this type of traumatic grief impacts on individual family members, based on their familial role. Most commonly, scholars examine the impact traumatic grief has on surviving parents of murdered children. Many parents are left questioning their ability to protect and care for their other children and their spouse (Rinear, [23]), often blaming themselves for the death (Armour, [ 1]; Matthews & Marwit, [17]; Rando, [22]) and viewing the world as a cruel place (Matthews & Marwit, [17]). The homicide is likely to take a large toll on the marital relationship due to the stress and the common practice of shifting blame to the other surviving parent (Wu, Fan, & Lohan, [36]).

Other familial relationships have also been examined. Siblings are likely to experience a desire for retaliation and intense feelings of guilt (Temple, [31]). When a parent is murdered, children often demonstrate a complexity of coping mechanisms: some want to be alone to grieve, others develop a stronger bond with their surviving parent, and many turn to their social network for support (Silverman & Worden, [28]). The death of a spouse by any manner creates a significant change to parenting style, increased parental responsibility, and complex grief management (Glazer, Clark, Thomas, & Haxton, [ 8]).

Little research has focused specifically on unsolved, cold case homicides. The limited scholarship on the issue has found that survivors of cold casehomicides are unique, commonly plagued with prolonged grief (Wellman, [34], [35]). Cold case survivors view themselves as different and often worse off than people who have experienced death by other means (Wellman, [35]). This feeling was echoed in a study by Simmons, Duckworth, and Tyler ([29]), who found higher levels of distress among those with unsolved homicide cases compared to survivors who have successfully navigated through the criminal justice system. These differences may result in many unique familial needs to which mental health professionals, criminal justice practitioners, and policy-makers must pay attention in order to better serve these individuals and families (Simmons et al., [29]; Wellman, [34], [35]). The current study used grounded theory to examine survivors' stories to answer the central research question: What are common experiences reported by families after a member is murdered and the case is classified as a cold case homicide?



The sample consists of 12 survivors from four families. Included are two African-American (AA) families, two Caucasian (CA) families, six females and six males. The mean age of the survivors is 47.83 years. Time from the homicide to the interview ranged from 2 to 20 years. Participants were deemed eligible for the study if they met Walton's ([33]) cold case homicide definition. A detailed description of the survivors and their families can be found in Table 1.

Table 1. Participant demographic information.

FAMILY ID Pseudonym Gender Age Relationship Years since*
1 Nancy F 63 Mother 20
1 Paul M 37 Brother 20
1 Mark M 62 Father 20
2 Julia F 55 Mother 2
2 Harrison M 61 Father 2
3 Ethan M 57 Father 11
3 Sarah F 57 Mother 11
3 Robert M 32 Brother 11
4 Gabrielle F 38 Wife 2
4 Madelyn F 50 Mother 2
4 Kayla F 28 Sister 2
4 Elliot M 31 Brother 2

Note: F = Female; M = Male; Years since* = Years since murder from date of interview.


The current study utilizes findings from in-depth qualitative interviews with cold case homicide survivors. Individuals were recruited via a snowball convenience sample from law enforcement agencies, bereavement groups and media personnel. A participant from each referral source provided additional contacts that were pursued by the researchers. Each interview ranged in length from 2.5 to 4 hours. After completing an Institutional Review Board consent form, survivors were asked to begin by telling their story, from the moment of notification of death to the day of the interview. While topics covered a wide range of the holistic experiences of cold case homicide survivors, only material concerning familial grief is described in this paper. At the conclusion of the interviews, the audio recordings were transcribed verbatim. While all survivors included in the sample provided information that was helpful to understanding the family experience, quotes that best illustrate or highlight the theme are presented within the results section. Pseudonyms have been provided to the survivors, and all quotes are verbatim without grammar or dialect corrections.

Data analysis

The study utilized a conventional content analysis by having three coders label themes that emerged within the data. Interviews were divided into family clusters and each coder independently read the transcripts to create a preliminary list of codes. After comparing the preliminary lists, a qualitative code book was created and interviews were analyzed according to the master list of themes. To increase content validity, a minimum of two coders needed to identify any given theme within the data (Creswell, [ 5]; Hsieh & Shannon, [ 9]). Additionally, researchers searched for a comparison of themes from individual family clusters to other family groups to find commonality. Finally, after the data analysis was completed by the three coders, the original researcher who conducted the interviews went through the results to provide proper context and create a holistic picture of the survivors' stories.

The resulting family themes and illustrative quotes are presented with the survivor's pseudonym, followed by the quote and demographic information. The demographic information includes age at time of interview, race, relationship to victim, and length of time since the homicide.


Multiple themes surfaced from the four families. The themes are examined in the following subsections.

Theme 1: Time spent with related survivors

For the families, time with their surviving loved ones post-homicide became an important topic to discuss. For some of the family members, time was viewed as a positive, with the homicide highlighting the importance of family and inspiring them to create more time with their family members. Other survivors struggled to balance the stressors of homicide, need for personal space and dedicating the proper time to grieve with family.

When examining the difficulty in making time for family, survivors recalled that post-homicide failure to spend time with their loved ones increased personal and familial tension and strain. Nancy specifically noted that the many events and tasks related to her daughter's disappearance and murder were so time-consuming that it led to the demise of her second marriage.NANCY:I didn't have any other children and the only other person at home was my husband [remarried after her divorce from Mark, her first husband] and everything seemed to be fine and then eight years into Melissa's disappearance, ... we were either going from one business to another or we were doing a press conference or we were doing an interview or we had to go do a search or we had to do something else. So my big mistake [ ... ] was not making time for Chad [second husband] and me. And this often happens with families in a missing child casebecause everything else on the case is more important and your entire life disappears and just vanishes. (63, CA, Mother, 20)

For many others, time with loved ones became a valuable asset to their healing and the need was emphasized after the homicide. For example, Julia prioritized her surviving children after the homicide.JULIA:It made me want to see them [her children] more, because I had accepted not seeing Tyler you know as often as we did at one time. So it made me want to see them more and to talk to them more. (58, AA, Mother, 2)

Mark equally agreed that his daughter's homicide made him refocus on the importance of spending time with his son, Paul, and strengthening that bond.MARK:There was a positive in that. Paul and I. Paul is my best friend. We spent a lot of time together, we work together. That was a huge positive. (62, CA, Father, 20)

Each family demonstrated a struggle with managing time with loved ones, either before or after the murder. However, despite how they viewed their own time allocation, each survivor recognized the importance of reaching out and spending time with loved ones after a murder occurs.

Theme 2: Becoming overprotective of surviving family members

When examining the survivors' stories, the theme of becoming more overprotective of surviving family members emerged. Several survivors indicated a heightened need to protect the remaining children or grandchildren from potential danger.MADELYN:I was overly protective of my other kids. I pray to God it won't happen again, but my mindset is that I am overprotective. I don't want anyone to do anything to them. (50, AA, Mother, 2)GABRIELLE:I am very protective of my kids, and they don't look at it as being mean. (38, AA, Wife, 2)

Many of the male survivors also indicated that being mindful of the safety of those around them is one of their major roles. The homicide naturally intensified their fear of danger towards their family members and resulted in their need to serve as a protector. The impact of his brother's murder caused Robert to be increasingly mindful of his children's security.ROBERT:I am more protective now about the safety and health of my kids, than I ever would have been. [ ... ] If I hear a knock on the door, or a car honk, or something that is aggressive towards me or my family, it is hard. I am automatically like, don't worry, I am the man of the family and I will protect you. (32, CA, Brother, 11)

Paul had a similar response to his sister's death: protecting and watching over his wife.PAUL:Well interestingly my wife is a big fanatic about going out and walking so there is a little bit of that fear sometimes. And in simple things like she wears headphones and I make her only put one ear in. And you know, never at night, and stuff like that so there's definitely more awareness. (37, CA, Brother, 20)

The survivors were aware that their own fear of losing another family member to murder or their overprotectiveness may have repercussions. Others mention that because of their increasing overprotectiveness, they failed to allow for the younger members of their family to become autonomous.HARRISON:And I just was ... I got protective and I got kind of overbearing with my grandchildren, not giving them enough room to do what they need to do. (61, AA, Father, 2)

While many of the individuals within the families mentioned becoming additionally overprotective following the homicide of their family member, it appears as if they possessed variable awareness of their level of protectiveness and the impact that it has had or may have on those around them.

Theme 3: The impact of survivors' existing relationship status on post-homicide coping

Families interviewed indicated that the homicides seemed to have a magnifying effect on the current state of their relationships. Specifically, marital relationships were discussed. Two families indicated that because they had a strong spousal relationship before the homicide, they were able to get through the aftermath of losing a family member by homicide. Respondents in each of these families expressed that their wives were their pillars of strength throughout the tragic loss of their sons.ETHAN:Let me tell you something. When Sarah and I were first married, before we had kids, we were 19, and I remember talking to her and saying you know, if we have kids we should never, ever, put them ahead of us because God said when we get married we are one. They are extra, so that means Me, God, and Sarah. Me, God, and Sarah. And it's always been. Had we ever put our children ahead ... I've seen families that would cater their kids, you know, like the mother or the dad would be with the kid and you'd break apart. We never did that; we never did that. Now don't get me wrong, I loved my boys. But I loved the Sarah part of me. By having that type of our relationship all of our lives up to that point, losing Jeff that way, I didn't lose Sarah. She was still a part of me; we were one unit. (57, CA, Father, 11)HARRISON:We had a good relationship before it happened so when it did happen we pulled it together. In a lot of cases that don't happen because the family be already divided and disliking each other and when something comes like that, tragedy like that, it makes it worse. I think they blame each other and some of them don't mind because that's another weapon that they can use; it's your fault. If you would have done it ... all that comes to play. Thank God not the case. (61, AA, Father, 2)

As Harrison alluded to, not all of the survivors were able to rely on their spouse as their support system. Nancy and Mark's relationship is a perfect illustration of Harrison's discussion of negative family impacts. They had been divorced prior to when their daughter went missing and her disappearance was eventually classified as a homicide. The major issues that led to their divorce seemed to intensify after their daughter's death. Instead of joining together or discussing the pain the death of their daughter had on each of them, the homicide actually resulted in resentment and blame towards one another.NANCY:I truly believe that Mark had something to do with Christina's disappearance. He exposed her to drugs. I had some prescription drugs from a bad car accident, but she never took my stuff. He exposed her to drugs [ ... ] The only thing she never confided in me was drugs. I truly believe that what he exposed her to, killed her. (63, CA, Mother, 20)

The father felt little blame for the death of their daughter, but did blame his ex-wife for the failure of progress in the case.MARK:She [Nancy] was giving out stuff she wasn't supposed to do. She cleaned out Christina's apartment which was a huge mistake. It could be ... And even DNA wasn't as big a deal then, but it could have been anything. Fingerprints, anything. (62, CA, Father, 20)

The complications surrounding their daughter's disappearance also had a profound effect on Nancy's marriage at the time. She believes that the homicide eventually resulted in a second divorce for her.

The families in this study discussed the impact of the homicide on their familial relationships. Survivors who indicated a strong marriage prior to the homicide noted that their marriage became their source of strength and support after the homicide. However, when negativity and struggle plagued a relationship prior to the murder, the difficulties seemed to intensify.

Theme 4: Pressure to stay strong

In the midst of the homicide, each family member struggles to navigate through their own personal grief while still being present for familial support. Many indicated that they chose to grieve alone. Elliott and Kayla are siblings dealing with the murder of their brother. They discussed how it was important to be strong for the others in their family, so that they tried to hide their own grief. Kayla continues by describing the difficulty in trying to mask her own pain to protect her mother.ELLIOTT:I have to take care of my family. If I do grieve, do it by myself and not let them see it. It is really hard. (31, AA, Brother, 2)KAYLA:We all try to be strong for Momma but we all have our weak days because every day is a different thing. (28, AA, Sister, 2)

Sarah and her son Robert also both disclosed that there was a concerted effort to maintain a sense of strength for the family.ROBERT:God gave me the strength to be strong for them. (32, CA, Brother, 11)SARAH:Then I'd say, okay, Lord, I need some strength because I don't want to be falling apart for Robert and for Ethan, you know? I needed to be strong for them and they were probably thinking the same thing. (57, CA, Mother, 11)

Sarah's quote captures a very powerful dilemma faced by these survivors and their families. Sarah indicates that she was trying to be strong, but that it was probable her husband and son were also trying to conceal their emotions to protect their other family members. Harrison expands on the potential threats of burying the pain of the murder.HARRISON:My other children, I was trying to be strong for them, and I know it took time out to really grieve about Jackson, I only did that a year or two ago. I know I took time for myself, and I couldn't let them know how much I miss him because ... I feel like if I would have fell apart they would have fell apart, too. I knew through Christ I was the strong one so I had to play that part. But I wouldn't let myself think about it. Ignored what happened, what took place, about I won't see him again on this side, and it took effect on me. Everybody called me strong ... I praised God at the funeral ... 'He's so strong.' Yeah, I am, I'm strong, but like you can help others but what about me? Because in my moments, I was alone.I was all bottled up, and when I couldn't hide no more, I couldn't hide in the shell no more, they could see the pain. Before then I was numb; I was feeling nothing. It didn't matter, because I wasn't feeling nothing, but as I say as I began to come out of that shell then I began to feel. Then everybody started seeing me for what I was. Then when I started coming out I started feeling the effects of everybody. 'What's wrong with you?' 'Why you acting like that?' You better stay strong. I think society did that. That's something we need to get away from. And at the same time, by you being in your head you can inflict a lot of pain by not being healed yourself. (61, AA, Father, 2)

It seemed important to many individuals not to allow others to see them grieve, so that the other family members would not fall apart. Multiple people indicated that it was difficult for them to grieve alone and that it inflicted pain on them.

Theme 5: Difficulty maintaining family traditions

Many survivors indicated how difficult it was for them to continue to engage in common activities and family traditions. For example, Kayla indicated that her mother would not cook certain things following her brother's homicide.KAYLA:It's like a lot of his favorite foods that momma used to cook, she don't cook them no more. We probably haven't eaten it in so long, because it used to be one of his favorite meals. (28, AA, Sister, 2)

After his son's homicide, Harrison no longer wanted to celebrate his own birthday. His son's absences made the day, and in some cases month, seem unbearable.HARRISON:Like on my birthday everybody said happy birthday, but I hated it, I hated it. I was hating June, the month of June. I got in my car and just drove [ ... ], just drove around the city, getting out to the store ... I was not going to celebrate my birthday ... (61, AA, Father, 2)

Julia notes that even big celebrations that are full of joy seem to have something missing. Her grandson's graduation marked just such a day.JULIA:And we are very proud of him and then emotion came ... oh I wish your dad was here. (55, AA, Mother, 2)

To overcome the difficulties of the holidays and the loss of some family traditions, survivors may opt to create new traditions or trends. Nancy noted that she struggled with making changes in the holiday traditions, but knows in some cases it may be beneficial. She warns that families should carefully process this decision.NANCY:Once you change it, it's never the same and you can't put it back.

Sarah, Ethan, and Robert decided change was the perfect solution to coping with their first holiday after their son and brother's death.SARAH:The first Christmas was hard; we did something totally different. The four of us went to Washington and spent Christmas with her [family member]. It was challenging. We felt like that was the smart thing to do. We thought that would be good because we knew how hard it would be to be here without him. Christmas has always been here and with all of us. We had already lost Ethan's [husband] mother and grandmother and so our table was getting smaller, and so that felt like ... somebody told us, I think, that would be a really smart thing to do so that's what we did. (57, CA, Mother, 11)

For Robert, he acknowledges that his children will never know his brother and will miss creating unique family memories with him. However, like his mother, he decided to create a new tradition to include his brother in his family's life.ROBERT:I can't explain how perfect of a person he was and I wish they could see that instead of just hearing stories. But at the same time they benefit from the stories. [ ... ] You know we pick a star in the sky and we speak to Devon like he is there and I let them know that he is up there with God. (32, CA, Brother, 11)

Holidays, traditions and special events seemed to be one of the greatest sources of pain for these surviving families. For many, they attempted to avoid or alter the traditions that existed prior to their loved one's murder. Yet others utilized the time after the homicide to create new rituals to remember their slain family member or to create a new normal.


Throughout the study, many important themes emerged regarding the experience of losing a family member to an unsolved homicide including time spent with other homicide survivors, the tendency to become increasingly overprotective of other family members, the impact of survivors' existing relationship status on post-homicide coping, the pressure to stay strong during the time of struggle, and the potential loss of interest in family traditions and rituals. The cold casehomicide survivors were provided the opportunity to tell their story from the moment of notification of death to the moment of interview, therefore family members disclosed experiences important to them rather than topics dictated by the researcher. The emerging themes provide critical information needed to inform those working with families coping with a cold case homicide.


Simmons et al. ([29]) explained that no matter the specifics, whenever a person dies by homicide it increases complications with the grieving process due to additional horror and fear surrounding the traumatic event. Scholars also indicate that the post-homicide experience of family members is inherently different from other losses and that family members may not follow the traditional grief timeline outlined by researchers such as Bowlby and Parkes ([ 3]) due to other compounds (Armour, [ 1]; Mastrocinque et al., [16]; Simmons et al., [29]; Wellman, [34], [35]). The current findings result in implications and recommendations for mental health practitioners and other professionals working with cold case homicide families including: ( 1) teaching families how to protect their family members while also allowing for the members to grow, ( 2) normalizing the pressure to be strong and discussing why that is a pressure people feel, ( 3) allowing for time together as a family and individuals, ( 4) recognizing the impact of survivors' existing relationship status on post-homicide coping, and ( 5) reshaping family traditions and celebrations.

Teaching families to protect family members while allowing for individual growth

Throughout the interviews, family members indicated that they became overprotective as a result of the family member's death by homicide. Although many did this, the level of awareness of their overprotectiveness and its impact on the family members varied. Both families experiencing cold case and traditional, solved homicides experience increased fear and horror due to the traumatic event they survived (Mastrocinque et al., [16]; Simmons et al., [29]). For survivors of cold case homicide, this trauma heightened sensitivity potentially causing increased overprotectiveness. This reaction may serve a functional role to prevent other members from also dying by homicide, especially if the family members live in a dangerous area. However, if family members grow pathologically overprotective, they will not allow for the autonomy that family members need in order to be functional in society. The role of the mental health practitioner then may be to help families discuss how the homicide impacted on their level of protectiveness, determine what the positive and negative consequences are of the given level of protectiveness and help negotiate the appropriate levels of protectiveness for family members taking into account contextual factors such as age of family members and level of safety of residential area.

Normalizing the pressure to be strong and discovering how to be vulnerable

Survivors continually described that they felt the pressure to be strong through the grief process in an effort to protect their other family members. It is important to process through grief with the family. Therefore, when survivors feel the pressure to stay strong despite their personal grief, individual healing may suffer. Miller ([18]) indicated that males subscribing to stereotypical masculine roles such as being the strong one for the family often thwarts their progress in coping following a traumatic event and causes more issues with the recovery process. It would be beneficial for mental health professionals to help the family process how being strong for other family members actually impacts on each person individually and the family as a whole. The mental health professional can also open up discussion about the benefits of grieving together as a family and individually.

Noting that many survivors attempt to appear strong, it is important for family members to recognize members will progress through the grief timeline at different rates. Without acknowledging the differences in grief progression, family members may be left feeling alone, as if their grief is unusual or that their family members do not care about the victim's death. Discussing the individual nature of grief as a family unit may also allow families to respect each member's need to have privacy and grieve individually. Mental health practitioners should encourage survivors to vocalize their need for both additional family support and individual space so that the other members are aware and behaviors are not misconstrued.

If families are able to move past being strong for one another, they could use it to grieve together rather than individually. Miller ([18]) suggested that families could do activities such as looking through family photo albums or creating a scrapbook, while not engaging in a pathological level of memorialization. When parents grieve, they model for their children that it is okay to grieve the death of their family member, and that they do not have to conceal their feelings.

Survivors often interact with law enforcement to process through the case, and therefore they may view law enforcement personnel as sources of emotional support. Unfortunately, many law enforcement personnel are not trained to handle mental health and social support services. It is important for law enforcement personnel who interact with cold case homicide survivors to have knowledge of resources and the ability to refer these survivors to appropriate professionals. Law enforcement officials often serve as the first point of contact for these survivors, and thus are in a unique position to provide the families with information about much needed resources.

Allowing for time together as a family

Despite whether or not cold case homicide survivors felt they had spent adequate time with their family post-homicide, they collectively identified the importance of togetherness and interactions with family. Armour ([ 1]) found a similar theme where family members felt fused together following homicide. The current study found that while survivors recognize the importance of family, many also regretted not properly allocating time together. Mental health professionals may want to have family members describe the quantity and quality of time family members spend together post-homicide. Recommendations for families may include creating weekly schedules that include designated family time, so that it becomes part of their new normal routines.

Recognizing the impact of survivors' existing relationship status on post-homicide coping

Many of the survivors noted that the quality of relationships with their family members were intensified post-homicide. Participants who described the commitment they made to put their partner first prior to the homicide reflected a post-homicide experience where the relationship with their spouse served as a positive coping strategy. However, in cases where there was an existing strained relationship before the homicide, such as in the case with Nancy and Mark, the stress of the homicide further intensified this strain

For mental health practitioners working with these families, this may mean they need to aware of needs that may require attention in addition to processing the grief of the family as a whole and as individuals. For example, if a spousal unit showed significant strain prior to the homicide, then the mental health professional may need to teach the spousal unit strategies for rebuilding the relationship in addition to processing through the grief with them and renegotiating roles and boundaries within the family.

Creating new family traditions and celebrations

Holidays and special occasions served as a difficult reminder that their family unit was no longer complete due to the absence of their murdered loved one. Many survivors noted completely avoiding holidays, while others discussed the creation of new family traditions. Mental health practitioners should encourage the latter coping mechanism. Survivors must feel validated in their belief that the family is different given the homicide. However, it is critical to address this void and establish a manner in which to create a new approach to the post-homicide family structure. While sadness is expected to arise during special events, survivors should not feel guilt for reestablishing joy and happiness. Mental health practitioners must emphasize that celebrations and new family traditions are important to progress and resume a sense of normalcy. New traditions will begin to fit the remaining family and can serve as a positive remembrance of their loved one.


Although our examination of the themes that resulted from the family members provides vital information about common experiences of family members surviving cold case homicides, there were many limitations to the research. Due to the nature of qualitative research, the small sample size, and the limited geographic scope of the sample, the results of the current study are not generalizable. However, the data serves as a strong foundation for future research. Snowball sampling was used to gather participants and thus our results may have reflected the experiences of interconnected members of the community. Additionally, because there were large differences between how long it had been since the homicide occurred and when the family members were interviewed, we have got a variety of themes that may be prevalent at different stages of the grief timeline. It should also be noted that some families in the sample had received counseling and attended bereavement groups. This may alter their post-homicide grieving process.

Future research

Little research has been completed on the topic of cold case homicide survivors, thus creating a great number of avenues through which this topic can be further explored. To expound upon the familial processing featured in this article, it is important to further study the progression of grief in families surviving cold case homicides. Additionally, scholars may seek to compare the grief experiences of cold case homicide survivors with the experiences of traditional homicide survivors who have experienced a legal resolution. Utilizing some of the rich qualitative work on the subject, future quantitative studies may expand these findings to create more generalizable conclusions. Finally, scholarship on the lives of cold case homicide survivors should be evaluated to understand the phenomenon through a holistic, multidisciplinary lens, concluding various implications for a host of fields and practitioners.


The current study reveals common themes that cold case homicide survivors from our sample disclosed when given the opportunity to tell their stories from the moment they were notified of their family member's death by homicide to the time of the interview. Members from the families indicated common post-homicide experiences that provide practical implications for professionals working with homicide survivors in family units. The long-term, complicated grief that follows a cold case homicide creates several challenges for the survivors. Survivors often struggle with dissonance between individual and collective family grieving, the impact on familial relationships, and the difficulty with holidays and special celebrations. For the survivors of cold case homicides, life post-homicide presents a unique journey, and it is one that benefits greatly from family and professional support.


Thank you to the survivors who so bravely and openly shared their family, stories and heart through their participation in the original cold case homicide study. It is our goal to use your powerful experiences to inform other cold case homicide survivors and the professionals who will work with them. Additionally, thanks to Lucas J. McNeal for his work as a research assistant on the manuscript.

DMU Timestamp: March 29, 2019 18:11

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