We all deal with murder and loss differently. We all have our own ways of responding to family troubles, and each family is unique. I’d never pretend to understand the complexities of all family dynamics (I can barely understand what’s going on in my own), but, recently, I’ve been privileged to begin to work with a number of families of the inmates on Tennessee’s death row.
Now of course each of these families has been forced to deal with an extremely traumatic situation on a number of levels. First, imagine knowing that you’re loved one was going to die – like a terminal illness except that there’s nothing wrong with them. Then, imagine that you could barely see them, and when you did had to go through invasive searches, be viewed with suspicion, and see them in a de-humanizing and degrading environment. I thank God that I have never had to discover whether or not I possess the strength that these families have summoned.
And while every family, and every person, deals with this experience in their own way, there are some common themes that I’ve seen already emerging. The pain that these families feel is, of course, obvious. To have their loved one facing death and reviled is a horrible experience. Moreover, to know that their brother/sister/son/daughter/husband caused that kind of pain to another family is hard. And this has lead to a feeling of guilt, wondering if they could have done anything to prevent it, or if they should have testified or said something different when they did to move the jury. “Could I have saved them?”
Sadly, there are other, more insidious, trends that I’ve had to see, and the biggest of them is ostracism. Our society has tended to blame these families for their loved ones. Family members have told me of losing jobs when people recognized their names, of being excluded from social groups, of having to move because of hostility. And being told that their grief and concern for their loved one is unimportant.
Meeting with a family recently, one of the members told me that they had always previously supported the death penalty in the past, but that they thought life in prison might punish the offender more. It might, I’d hate to speculate, but the death penalty certainly punishes their family more. These good people are the hidden victims of the death penalty system, and we as a society have done nothing to look out for them.
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