#HAWMC: Anger—Bitter Pill or Gift?

Anger and grief

Today’s post continues the month-long series called the Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge (#HAWMC) created by WEGO Health. Learned the Hard Way. What’s a lesson you learned the hard way? Write about it for 15 today.

Anger is a natural aspect of grief, loss and mourning but when you are a homicide survivor (or someone who has lost a loved one to murder) anger takes on added characteristics.  Literature on anger underscores the importance of identifying your anger and then finding healthy ways to channel that anger so that it doesn’t ultimately destroy you–psychologically or physically. Since the death of my brother, I have become intimately familiar with anger.  I’ve come to know it in ways I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.  From the beginning, I’ve tried to take actions that I believed would assist me in managing this anger.  I had extensive conversations with the expert psychiatrist that testified for the state.  This physician seemed convinced that the man who killed my brother was indeed “seriously ill,” a schizophrenic who could in no way be feigning his illness. I researched the Virginia legal code to better understand the standards for a not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect defense.  Year after year, as the hearing to maintain hospitalization for this “seriously ill” man in the VA state mental hospital approached, I would do whatever I could to support a decision to keep this murderer confined. From researching the history of the hospital and uncovering a concurrent Department of Justice investigation into civil rights violations to talking to the prosecuting attorneys to writing letters to the VA Congressman representing the district where my brother was murdered.  I implored them all to take the necessary action to prevent the hospital from discharging this mentally ill man who had proven to be fatally violent. Unfortunately, justice for my family remained elusive. It began with the ruling of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.  Insult to injury proceeded when state hospital physicians changed the diagnosis of this “seriously ill” man–a man who theoretically was too ill to understand the consequences of his actions—to schizo-affective disorder (oh, well maybe he’s not quite as “seriously ill” as we originally thought).  Sadly, my requests went unanswered and my efforts ignored.  After only 5 years of hospitalization, this “seriously ill” man miraculously became the man with bipolar disorder, “a chronic illness no more serious than diabetes”.  Never mind the fact that this man had no motivation to be compliant in taking his medication and no family structure that would support this compliance.  The inevitable was happening.  I contacted the reporter from the local Virginia newspaper to bring attention to this issue but she didn’t feel it was newsworthy. The release of a violent criminal into the community is not newsworthy.  I was unable to locate the physician whose original diagnosis was schizophrenia and my own testimony during the hearing held no weight with the judge.  This is ironic because my testimony emphasized that a community setting would not ensure that this mentally ill murderer remained compliant to his drug regime. The message from the Virginia legal system through it’s action was clear, “the life of my brother a 21-year-old African-American male was not all that valuable”.  Certainly not worthy of justice, not worthy of news coverage over the lack of justice, and the state hospital could not have reservations about releasing a violent and mentally ill man into the community because it did not have the resources to keep even the sickest patients hospitalized. The system failed my family.  Absolutely no one cared.

Grief and Anger

In all this time, since my brother’s tragic death, I had been trying to work through the system to see that justice prevailed. This was not to be.  I saw a grief counselor. I was talking things through, or so I thought. I began to find ways to honor the memory of my late brother.  There was his collection of poems. I knew I would share them with the world but exactly how, I had yet to determine.  What I’ve failed to do is seek out a support group, like-minded individuals who know the pains of violence and possibly even the emptiness of justice denied.  In my time with the grief counselor, I was aware of my anger but perhaps, I could have been doing more to work through it.  Perhaps, I’m learning the anger will continue to ebb and flow. Even as I write this, my frustration with the Virginia legal system and the lackadaisical mother of the man who murdered my brother feels like it has resurfaced.  In the end, this man–this murderer became non-compliant, ceased taking his medicine,  and ended up in a confrontation with police officers.  He was physically restrained in such a way that he suffocated and died.  That same VA legal system that couldn’t find justice for my brother deemed the death of this murderer unjust (the medical examiner determined the cause of death to be a direct result of the policemen’s actions).  This same VA legal system that would not demonstrate any respect for my brother’s life, a man generous enough to save the lives of 4 people through organ donation felt that a mother who had been too laissez-fair to seek medical treatment for her mentally ill son before he killed someone deserved to be awarded an extremely large though undisclosed amount of money.

The Lesson

So, although I’ve learned it the hard way, injustice is too heavy to bear alone. Anger is a bitter pill.  From now on, I will lighten my load with the help of a support group to benefit from the wisdom and experience of people who have survived similar tragedies as I continue to channel all this “stuff” in the healthiest ways I know how.  Perhaps, in the end this bitter pill is truly a gift.

Read posts about lessons learned the hard way from other health activists at the WEGO Health Facebook Page.

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