Those who lose a loved one, friend or acquaintance to homicide find themselves with grief and trauma to navigate, and the experience can feel isolating.
According to organizers and facilitators, learning to cope and live with broken pieces can take support – and that’s one of the main goals of an upcoming 10-week homicide survivor support group program .
Based in Appomattox County, the homicide survivor support group will be run via Zoom.
The program had its first session in early 2020, according to organizers. This is a joint program offered by the Appomattox County Victim/Witness Program, the Oaktree Wellness Center and the Virginia Victim Assistance Network. Its intention is to offer support, community and healing to those affected by homicide.
“Grief is something that’s pervasive in my work,” said Joy Bagby, LPC and founder of the Oaktree Wellness Center in Appomattox. “I see it beyond death. I see it in the loss of a relationship, or the loss of a way of life, or a job, or social status. Even watching your children grow up and leave home can be a grieving process. But losing a loved one to murder or suicide is an unnatural death, and people experience that grief in a very unique way, so bringing people together in this group helps them see that they’re not alone.
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Bagby’s personal practice focuses on working with women from adolescence through adulthood. She specializes in grief, trauma, depression and anxiety counselling, and will lead the homicide survivor support group.
This isn’t the first time Bagby has helped lead a similar support group to reach those affected by homicide loss.
The former homicide survivor support group that operated out of Appomattox had about three in-person sessions before pandemic shutdowns prompted the group’s transition to a virtual platform, holding sessions via Zoom in the spring 2020. It turned out to be a “blessing in disguise,” Bagby said, as the group was able to reach a wider base, including those across the region who normally couldn’t make it to Appomattox.
In a 2018 survey contacting victim/witness workers in the Virginia area, the Virginia Victim Assistance Network identified a gap in support services for homicide survivors. A support group program has been developed specifically for this population, and the network typically runs around 11 such programs in the Commonwealth, one of which is Appomattox, said Dina Blythe, support group coordinator for homicide survivors.
Advance registration is required, as the group will have a limited number of places.
According to the organizers, a model known as the “restorative narrative” model will be followed for this particular program. The restorative narrative teaches those experiencing loss how to reframe grief and work through it constructively, Bagby explained.
Reflecting on past experiences of counseling in similar groups, Bagby said perhaps one of the most important and profound outcomes of the sessions was the participants’ ability to rechannel the anger one experiences in the process of mourning.
“As you can imagine, anger is a very valid and legitimate emotion that you feel after the murder of a loved one, but even if it is valid and legitimate, it can be destructive to the individual,” said Bagby. “I don’t want to say it’s subsided, because I don’t think, again, that’s possible. I think it’s a reframing and a redirection of that anger. Anger is a motivating emotion. It lets us know that there is something wrong and that a change needs to happen. Whether it’s a change in your own life, or if you’re going to be an agent of change in a system or a society, if it’s rechanneled, then it becomes productive.
The Appomattox-based program is one of 10 network homicide survivor support groups operating in Virginia, Blythe said. These programs, and associated materials and resources, are funded by grants provided by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services for Homicide Survivor Support Groups across Virginia, and the grants are administered by the Virginia Victim Network support.
Each 10-week program costs about $2,843, said Kate Hanger, the network’s executive director. The support group program, offered free to eligible participants in groups of up to approximately 10 people, is valued at approximately $100 per session for each person.
Two other support groups are being developed elsewhere in the Commonwealth, Blythe added.
The program’s founder, marriage and family therapist Connie Saindon, recommended in a national best practices manual that homicide survivors wait at least a year after their loss before joining the support group. She further recommended seeking individual counseling services to overcome initial shock and grief as a starting point, then joining one of these group programs at least a year later, if desired. Mary Anne Freshwater, Appomattox County Victims/Witnesses Director and co-facilitator of the upcoming program, supported Saindon’s professional recommendation.
Since beginning his victim/witness advocacy career with Appomattox County in 1997, Freshwater has said those who have lost loved ones to homicide — referred to as homicide co-survivors by professionals victim/witness services – are an extremely underserved population. By working so closely with these cases, Freshwater recognized the need for support programs like this. She contacted the network to arrange a 10-week program for Appomattox County and surrounding areas.
The most common theme received in feedback from participants following the 10-week programs was relief and help to find a sense of community with others who truly understand the magnitude of grief and loss. associated with homicides, and the difficulties of being a survivor, the organizers mentioned.
“It’s a beautiful thing, if you’re part of this group, to see survivors bonding with each other, connecting with each other, and providing amazing support for each other,” Freshwater said.
The program is limited, having certain stipulations attached to participant eligibility, Freshwater said.
The 10-week support group is open to people affected by the loss of someone to homicide and who have gone through the court system for it with a victim/witness advocate. This stipulation is necessary because it is a grant-funded program, Bagby and Freshwater said.
Anyone eligible who wants to register or learn more can call Freshwater at (434) 352-7791.
The step-by-step program will begin from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on March 7 on Zoom and is free. The opportunity is open to eligible individuals from Appomattox, Campbell, Buckingham, Amherst, and Prince Edward counties, as well as the city of Lynchburg.