Rodney Stafford, the father of young murder victim Tori Stafford, said that speaking with other families who have had to deal with the same sorts of tragedies is one of the ways he copes with the death of his daughter.
“It does kind of ease it knowing that there are other people who have had to deal with certain things that you haven’t before,” Stafford told CBCNews.ca.
Stafford said he’s more than willing to speak to the family of Chinese student Jun Lin, who was slain and dismembered in Montreal last month.
Like Rodney Stafford and all family members of murder victims, the Lin family has a grueling road ahead, having to face the emotional, financial and legal challenges that follow such a crime. The Lin family released a public letter this week, saying his death was a "destructive blow" that left them physically and psychologically spent and that grief has left them at "a breaking point."
"They can never get away from it. You hear people talk about closure but it’s not something that exists," said Heidi Illingworth, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, "There’s different stages of the process that have finality, like having the trial and things like that, but there’s always anniversaries, there’s holidays to deal with. So for the rest of the people's lives they are challenged by the trauma.”
Stafford said he spoke with the father of Erin Chorney, who was strangled and drowned by her ex-boyfriend and buried her on top of someone else's coffin in a fresh grave in the Brandon cemetery. He also spoke to the family of a boy who was abducted and sexually assaulted by convicted pedophile Peter Whitmore.
“It sucks knowing that it's out there everywhere and that other people have had to go through pain and struggle. But it’s good to know I’ve been able to count on these people and able to talk to them and get a little bit of insight on how to deal with something else that I might not," Stafford said.
'Right support' helped
He said it was the support of his family, friends and community which helped get him through.
“You’d be amazed at what you can deal with when you have the right support,” Stafford said.
Mark Mendelson, a former Toronto homicide detective, said families of murder victims need to open up about what they're feeling and experiencing.
"I tell them they have to talk about it as much as they possibly can. That they have to seek professional help whether that's going to family doctors first and getting referrals to psychiatrists or psychologists or grief counsellors – to not be afraid to ask questions."
But Mendelson acknowledged that health professionals also have a difficult time dealing and treating family members of murder victims.
“It’s one thing to offer someone grief counseling. It’s another thing to offer grief counselling when it's murder,” he said. “It’s not for lack of knowledge. It’s for lack of experience. There’s lots of psychiatrists out there who have never dealt with this before.”
Along with the trauma of losing a loved one, families can also suffer financial burdens. While some provinces do offer financial compensation for victims of violent crimes, there are still expenses to bear which can include funeral services, transportation of the body, the costs for private psychologists, or the loss of income from being unable to return to work.
Legal system challenges
As well, families face the challenge of being unexpectedly thrust into the media spotlight and the unfamiliar labyrinth of the legal system.
Illingworth said quite often, people who seek their assistance are looking for information about the justice system, how it works and what they can expect.
“Being thrown into the justice system when you’ve never had any experience…they soon realize victims have few rights. The process is all about the accused.”
Families who attend court are also exposed to all the intimate details of the murders, including crime scene photos and autopsy reports.
"You often hear families say every time we come to court, we’re reliving it. We’re reliving this murder again and again and again and again,"Mendelson said.
Yet many stay through the whole trial, despite the graphic evidence. Stafford said he attended the entire trial of Michael Rafferty, accused of first-degree murder in Tori's death. Although he didn't attend the day they went back over the post-mortem photos of his daughter, he said he thought it important he be there for the whole process.
"Knowing that was my little girl, I wanted to do what I can to get this information out there. People need to know the details in order for them to understand how terrible and horrific these people are."
Relationships a casualty
Marriages can also be a casualty of such crimes as the enormous stress put on families of murder victims takes its toll on relationships.
“All of a sudden, it’s not about their lives and their relationships," Mendelson said. "It’s about what happened to their kid and it becomes consuming. For that, and a whole pile of other reasons, it falls apart. There’s lots of victims in a murder. Not just the deceased."
Mendelson said family members may also find that some of their friends and extended family become somewhat distant, not knowing the appropriate way to approach them.
"Families say to me nobody wants to talk to us. The reason is these people don't know what to say. I always encourage them, don't worry about your friends and extended family, they will come around. And sometimes maybe you have to go to them."
Stafford said that he always made sure that no matter who he was around, he was always talking about his daughter.
"I apologize to my friends my family and my girlfriend a lot because I do talk about Tori a lot and I do ask to make sure that if I do seem that I'm ranting and carrying on, make sure I am not talking about it too much. It's my way of dealing with it, talking about it.”