Unsolved homicide is an epidemic; shadowing the lives of victims' families. The aftermath of murder is synonymous with trying to stay on top of a cliff during an avalanche.
A "coin-flip": Nearly half of U.S. murders go unsolved as cases rise - CBS News
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When The First 48’s filming of my brother’s (William F. Fenzau) homicide investigation resulted in a botched case and all charges dropped on the suspect, I became the driving force behind the continued investigation by the City of Miami Police and the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. I jumped between the roles of mother, teacher and sleuth. My life depended upon getting the case to trial until my life depended upon finding a way to live in peace.
In the retelling of the Native American Legend, The Story of Jumping Mouse, by John Steptoe, a young mouse faces an onslaught of obstacles, sacrifices parts of himself to others, and laments that he is not the same mouse from when his journey began. As I pursued the investigation into my brother's murder, I was comforted while reading this book to kindergarteners at snack time. Each time Jumping Mouse lost another part of himself, he found courage by repeating the phrase, "there will be a way." Likewise, I believed that eventually there would be a way to justice.
My identity of teacher and mother were my salvation. Whether resolving conflict at recess or reading a bedtime story to my daughter, I shut off the case and entered the present moment. Over seventeen years, I transformed and manifested another identity, that of sleuth, or more descriptively as one witness nicknamed me, "hunter." The transformation was ugly. Eventually, like Jumping Mouse, I accepted how I changed and learned to fly.
Before I speak to where I have arrived, I must provide the context of how and why I got here. My hope is that by recalling this journey and what I learned, it will be helpful to those catapulted into the aftermath of homicide and/or the absence of justice.
Not a day passes that I do not in some manner, reflect on William's death. I have become accustomed to his absence, but time will not render me accustomed to what was done to him. Every day I think of justice. Accountability is instinctive.
In the days immediately following William's murder I was known under the profile name, "Still I Breathe" on a gay men's hook-up site called Manhunt. This began as a desperate attempt to reveal anguish and encourage witnesses to come forward, but it came to serve an internal drive to demonstrate my existence and my strength. It was a mechanism for survival. "Still I Breathe" became a way of being and interacting with others as an outward presence of a formidable foe; a message that William was not defeated as he lived in me.
Murder gives birth to an instinctual fight. It can be tamed, but not extinguished. Loved ones of homicide victims live in the space between what could have been and the possibility of what might be, while trying to stand on the ever changing landscape of reality. I did not face the evil William faced the day he fought for his life, yet, I actively immersed myself in the evil that surrounded him for many years. I hoped witnesses, information and answers would create meaning for me to frame a context to the chaos I lived.
Non-attachment is a necessary skill born from trauma. Whether justice is served or not, homicide elicits profound feelings of defeat. Human nature draws upon an urge to persevere through failure. The various roles I embodied allowed me to be strong and calculated when needed - a false sense of control. I became paralyzed where I needed to move and inhabited constant motion where I needed to be still. As I left the crime scene and headed to my mother's apartment on June 8th, I detached. Grief replaced with my fight against defeat. There is a price to be paid for avoidance and preventing the flow of life; even if it feels like it is saving you.
William's failed homicide investigation was my greatest defeat. Eventually, I learned to live with two diametrically opposed internal drives: a consistent fight for justice and a reasoned acceptance of a failed homicide investigation. No amount of fighting for justice or investigating prepared me to navigate the path from living a life surviving the absence of justice to a life choosing peace in spite of that absence.
Using William's homicide investigation as my template, the primary questions I will explore in this blog are:
1. When that which is designed to take your fight (ie. the criminal justice system) fails, how does a loved one of a homicide victim not seek an eye for an eye?
2. When justice does not prevail, how do loved ones’ manifest stability in the absence of justice?
3. Is it possible to feel success while living in the shadow of defeat?
In The Story of Jumping Mouse, Jumping Mouse survives his journey of hardships and reaches the far-off land. As he arrives he says, "I am here. I feel the earth beneath my paws. I hear the wind rustling leaves on the trees. The sun warms my bones. All is not lost, but I'll never be as I was." (Steptoe). Jumping Mouse took one final jump as high as he ever jumped, transformed into an eagle and began to fly. I did not reach the far-off land I chased. I choose to fly anyway.
"While attempting to shut down distressing sensations, one pays the price of losing the capacity to appreciate the subtle physical shifts that denote comfort, satisfaction or warning of clear and present danger. Sadly, as a result, the capacity for feeling pleasure, garnering relevant meaning and accessing self-protective reflexes also shuts down." (Levine, pg.136)
Traumatic bereavement is a singular journey that is benefited by the company of others. Some might find healing in support groups, others with individual counseling or with a trusted friend. Still others will turn to short or long-term use of psychiatric medicine, or find support in a religious community, or maybe even a community not related to bereavement at all, but where one feels seen and heard. Likewise, one approach for support may begin to fade in its effectiveness and necessitate a replacement. Traumatic bereavement needs a healthy container where it can be addressed, nurtured, expressed and honored. However, one size does not fit all.
This is the reason behind this section. My hope is that it offers enough options of support for bereavement after homicide that no one has to feel alone. It takes more than one root to support a soul.
Traumatic Bereavement Articles
National Organization for Victims of Crime
Victim Connect Resource Center
National Organization for Victim Assistance
Grief and Loss Organizations
Lyda Hill Institute for Human Resilience