The fall-out from a killing in the family
New specialised counselling service for children affected by homicide aims to help ‘forgotten’ victims in the sea of adult grief
Lisa Kennedy, whose brother Alan was stabbed to death in 2007, and four of her five daughters: Emilia; Kate; Elizabeth and Milly. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
It was the first weekend Lisa and Jimmy Kennedy had gone away without their five children and she couldn’t stop herself regularly ringing her sister Lesley, who was minding them, just to check everything was okay.
Jimmy became exasperated at one point, telling her: “This isn’t even a break, this is ridiculous”. So on the Saturday evening, she put her phone away in her bag to give their rare time together alone her full attention.
Lisa remembers chatting to the young porter at the hotel in Co Clare that night while she smoked a cigarette before going up to bed. A few hours later, that same porter was knocking at their bedroom door, waking them to say her sister had phoned the hotel as she had been trying to get in touch with them and that they needed to check their mobile phones.
Jimmy rang Lesley back at their home in Newcastle, Co Dublin. “I am watching him,” recalls Lisa, “and he said, ‘I’ll put Lisa on to you’ – he couldn’t say it to me.”
The news Lesley had to break to her sister was that their brother Alan Young (19), the youngest of the 11 children in their family, was dead. As Lisa asked how he died, she was presuming he had been in a road accident.
But when she heard he had been stabbed to death that night in Irishtown, not far from the family home in Ringsend, Dublin, “I just couldn’t get my head around that at all, I just couldn’t. You don’t ever think in a million years you are going to get a phone call for that to be said to you.
“It nearly killed me,” says Lisa, who is the oldest of the siblings. “We left the hotel and drove straight to my mother’s. I just rang, randomly, everybody,” she says, breaking down at the memory 10 years later. “I think I just thought somebody was going to say it wasn’t true, it was a dream. But it was very real.”
“You can’t rationalise why a human being would kill another person. You can rationalise an accident or an illness but you can’t rationalise somebody killing your family”
Her immediate concern was for her parents, who had lost the “baby” of the family. Nobody had a clue, she says, of the processes involved when somebody’s life is taken away like that.
“There was the trauma of the body not being released straight away because it’s part of evidence.”
Lisa was also acutely aware of being “broken” in front of her five daughters, Elizabeth, who was 16 at the time, Megan was nearly 15, Kate (10), Milly (six) and Emilia, who was just 18 months old. “I think we all know, if you see your mother upset, you are upset.”
It was the children’s first experience of a death in the family, never mind a violent death, as Elizabeth had only been about a year and a half old when Jimmy’s father died.
All five went to the funeral of their beloved uncle Alan who “just loved kids – he had that thing about him”, explains Lisa. Capped twice for the Republic of Ireland as a schoolboy soccer player, he had completed his Leaving Cert and was enjoying his first job working with a freight company in Poolbeg.
“The girls were devastated – God help them. They wanted to help me, I couldn’t even help myself, which is heartbreaking for them. You feel sorry for them that they have to experience something like that so young and how do you cope? As an adult, you can’t cope, so you are trying to think what must it be like for them?”
This is why she is so pleased to hear that AdVIC, the advocacy group for families of victims of homicide, has launched a new bereavement counselling service for children affected by homicide. It is a specialised service that is the first of its kind in Ireland and is offered free of charge as an extension of the counselling service which AdVIC has run since 2007 for families and friends who have lost loved ones through violence.
One minute life is perfect, life is great, the next minute . . . They were probably saying ‘what has happened to my mummy?’”
Figures from the Central Statistics Office for the period 2004-2015 show that the number of homicides, which includes dangerous driving leading to death, in the Republic dropped from a high in 2006 of 138 (62 murder and eight manslaughter) to a low in 2015 of 63 (29 murder and four manslaughter).
Lisa availed of counselling provided by AdVIC within the first year of Alan’s killing on March 11th, 2007. She wanted “to try and process it; try and get myself together for the children”, and she believes it would have been “fabulous” for them if they had been able to go to their own counselling.
“They were kind of forgotten, when you think of it.” People may say, “ah they’re only small”, but she knows children tune into their parents’ upset straight away.
“You have no control over your emotions yourself – you are on the floor. One minute life is perfect, life is great, the next minute . . . They were probably saying ‘what has happened to my mummy?’.”
Homicide is an horrendous death for any family to have to cope with, says the co-ordinator of AdVIC’s counselling services, Noeleen Slattery-Lee, and is completely different from a sudden, accidental death.
“You can’t rationalise why a human being would kill another person. You can rationalise an accident or an illness but you can’t rationalise somebody killing your family.”
In cases of domestic killings, both the victim and the perpetrator may be beloved parents, so it can be like a double bereavement for children, with one dead and the other in jail. And, to compound the trauma, the child might have witnessed the killing.
Children will be very bitter when they find out that they have been told lies”
After a homicide, the surviving parent, or a grandparent, doesn’t really know how to handle the children, says Slattery-Lee.
“They are trying their best but a lot of time they are trying to hide what has happened.” Whereas child bereavement counsellors would advise that it is always best to be honest – in an age-appropriate way.
She recalls one case where a 14-year-old boy came home from school one day to his mother, having only finally heard the truth about how his brother had died from classmates. He told her: “You should have told me in the beginning”.
“Children will be very bitter when they find out that they have been told lies,” says Slattery-Lee. It means they will be upset all over again, “because they will always find out – sooner or later”.
Even if children do receive counselling, it is no “quick fix”, as grief is bound to resurface when they only really start to understand what has happened as they get older. But if counselling has pointed them in the right direction of how to deal with their emotions, “they will be much more stable and better able to handle it”.
The counselling also aims to equip parents to offer ongoing support to their children through the grieving.
“We will be seeing the parent as well as the child and we will go through a series of appointments, and the counsellor, who will be the specialist, will decide the best way to guide that family.”
AdVIC does not have a waiting list for its counselling services, adds Slattery-Lee. “If somebody rings today, I can most likely have them into counselling tomorrow.”
She developed the new service in conjunction with Brid Carroll, chairwoman of the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network, who says that in the wake of a homicide, “often the adults are so consumed with all of the issues involved, the children become invisible and disenfranchised”. Having a specialist service like this really helps them articulate the issues from the beginning.
In cases of a domestic killing, in particular, relatives may not want to tell the children. But the worst has happened, she points out, and the truth cannot be avoided.
Some people who have been bereaved through violence describe it as “grief with the volume turned up”, according to Winston’s Wish, the first charity to establish child bereavement support services in the UK. It has developed “a killing in my family” therapy programme, “where children can story board the events,” says Carroll, “which helps to relieve the trauma”.
Early intervention with specialised counselling for children is so important because it can prevent future behavioural problems, addiction issues and violence issues, she explains. If the effects of the bereavement are not addressed when they are children, they can manifest years later in young adulthood.
However, grief needs to be revisited at different stages. “We have this notion that it is a once-off event but it is a cascade model.”
As they get older, children have to renegotiate their relationship with the adults – both the deceased and living. Resentment may build in teenagers if somebody in the community is responsible, or someone known to the family – we see that in inner-city areas, Carroll adds.
“I didn’t have anger, you know the way some people say they do?” says Lisa, who had no desire for retribution. “Looking back, I thank God that I did not have that so, thankfully, my children did not have that.”
She is also very grateful that she can now sit in the living-room of her home, where a large black-and-white framed photo of a smiling Alan sits in a small cluster of family photographs arranged on the floor under the mantelpiece, and say that she, her husband and their five daughters have got through this.
Lisa knows that for a long time after the killing of her brother she didn’t function as the mother she had been.
“You would cook and you would clean, and of course you would feed them and make sure they were clean, and you would talk to them – but you were talking to them crying most of the time, especially in the early days.”
The first Monday morning after Alan died, a neighbour around the corner volunteered to take Kate and Milly to school.
I know who Alan was. The community was devastated [at his death] because that was the connection Alan had with everybody”
“People are telling you the most important thing to do is to let them go to school because normality is important.” She reckons that kind woman ended up bringing the two girls to school every day for nearly two months.
“I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to talk to people,” says Lisa.
Before long a trial was looming, as a friend of Alan was charged with his murder. Lisa sat the children down to tell them that this was coming. “I had to explain that I didn’t even know what was going to happen at this trial.”
Her sister-in-law, Lizzie, flew over from the US to help look after the children, while Lisa stayed with her parents’ for the duration of the trial in April 2008. “The trial took that much out of you – you were back to when Alan died, if not worse to be honest.”
She felt she wanted to protect her daughters from the details, “but you realised afterwards, they knew certain things anyway because they would have been told and they had only to google it”.
Lisa knows barristers are just doing a job but the defence team’s version of the circumstances of the stabbing, characterised in court as “two friends who fought over something stupid”, was hard for the family to hear.
“I know who Alan was. The community was devastated [at his death] because that was the connection Alan had with everybody. So for a stranger to talk like that . . .” she trails off. “You work through it and get over it.”
Her children were asking “how are they allowed say that Mam?” and she was trying to explain that they shouldn’t be allowed to say that but they are. “It’s the justice system and they can say what they want about you when you are dead and not there to defend yourself.”
The jury found the 20-year-old defendant not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter, at the end of a seven-day trial in the Central Criminal Court and he was later sentenced to eight years in prison.
Looking back, Lisa thinks the bereavement and all that went with it probably did not affect her younger daughters as much as the older ones. But “maybe it kind of did and I missed something,” she continues. “I would often talk to Milly about it and she’s 16 now and she says ‘Mam, I just remember how sad you were’.”
Ten years on, Alan still crops up naturally in family conversations. “He is part of everyone’s life on a daily basis,” says Lisa. “I have five grandchildren now and we constantly talk about Alan.”
She believes it was close family bonds and the love they had for Alan – and knowing the love he had for them – have pulled them all through.
“Love,” she adds, “always shines through in the end.”
For more information see advic.ie