Our daily lives have a certain rhythm or balance. Emotional balance involves good times, like a wonderful dinner with family, and bad times like a rough day at work. For the most part, we stay within a familiar range of experiences. When unexpected things happen, we can be thrown into a state of crisis. Our daily rhythm is thrown off and it is difficult to get our lives together.
A crime victim is traumatized by a terrible event. No one is ever prepared to be a crime victim. During the crime, the victim experiences a crisis reaction. This is normal, even though it hardly seems normal at the time. A crisis reaction has two parts: the physical reaction and the emotional response.
During the physical response, we react immediately to our basic animal instincts. These differ for each person, but generally include: 1) frozen fear, a state of physical disorientation or numbness; 2) fight or flight, where adrenaline flows through the body, heart rate increases, hyperventilation occurs, certain physical senses become super sharp, and the person decides to fight back or flee depending upon the danger; 3) exhaustion, which follows the physical arousal or fighting or fleeing. A victim's physical response settles down after the event, but may occasionally reoccur as nervousness, tension, and sleeplessness.
The emotional reactions are more long-term and come in various stages. These stages generally include: 1) shock, disbelief, and denial; 2) a range of alternating emotions such as anger, rage, fear, terror, sorrow, grief, confusion, frustration, self-blame, and guilt; 3) eventual reconstruction of equilibrium, whereby a person finds a new sense of balance and rhythm in life.
The shock that a victim experiences and their sense of loss often turns into a period of grief and bereavement. At some point the victim may think "if only I had done this", or "I should have done that". Grief has its own timetable for each person; some people recover in a short period of time, and others take longer. During their recovery time, victims often experience "trigger events" that bring back some of the original trauma. These events include anniversaries of the event, holidays, news reports, and seeing the defendant.
During the various stages of the criminal justice process, a crime victim can expect to experience a wide range of emotions, which often include fear, anxiety, irritability, and anger. The whole process sometimes seems confusing and frustrating, and victims often become upset with those trying to help. Although many crime victims are eventually satisfied that justice is done, the police, prosecutors, and court system must balance a wide range of concerns. Therefore, the procedures and outcome of a criminal case do not always seem right to the victim.
It takes time for a crime victim to fully restore their normal rhythm of life. The victim's family and friends should not necessarily expect the problem to quickly pass. Any crime leaves emotional scars no matter what the financial and physical injuries might be. If the victim has any trouble or uncertainty about resuming the responsibilities of daily life, or "just doesn't seem to be coming out of it", they should seek professional counseling assistance.
The Office of Victim Witness Advocacy of the Sussex County Prosecutor's Office is available to all Sussex County crime victims as a place to talk and a resource to help them gain the assistance they need and deserve. This includes professional counseling referrals, referrals for other life needs such as transportation and housing, assistance with V.C.C.O. claims, and assistance in participating in the criminal justice process.
Source: A Crime Victim's Guide to the Criminal Justice System (2nd Ed. 1997), Chapt. 8, State Office of Victim Witness Advocacy, NJ Dept. of Law and Public Safety.
For more information, please call the Sussex County Prosecutor's Office Victim Assistance Unit at: 973-383-1570.