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Murder and Mental Health

There's nothing normal about dealing with the murder of a friend, and there shouldn't be.

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The first friend I knew who was murdered got stabbed seven times in the staircase of his apartment building. My cousin called me at five in the morning to tell me the news. His voice was as dark as my room, and when I hung up the phone, I was drowned by a wave of emotion so strong that I struggled to catch my breath.

I was still naive back then. A 15 year old kid who thought the world would change because my friend was no longer in it. My mood in the weeks to follow had soured enough to worry my teachers. They called my mom to tell her how poorly I was handling my friend’s passing. I couldn’t help it. His murder was traumatic.

Then more of my friends would be murdered. One shot in the head in a drive-by shooting. Another shot twice in the head hanging on his own block. He passed away in our mutual friend’s arms. Another murdered with his child in the car, another only steps away from his mom’s house. Another, then another.

If you grew up in any kind of community housing or at-risk neighbourhood in Toronto (likely North America), these aren’t unfamiliar stories. We suffer this trauma repeatedly, to the point where it stops feeling like trauma, at all. To the point where I personally stopped attending funerals because I didn’t know how to sum up the appropriate amount of emotion needed to grieve their loss.

The overwhelming majority of these murders happened when I was still a teenager, still in my formative years of trying to figure out who I was. My mind was focused on basketball and securing attention from girls, both of which I excelled at. These murders became momentary interruptions. Something I expected, a routine punctuated by a bottle of spilled liquor and clouds of blunt smoke.

Those murders were a normal part of my life.

I want you to stop right now and read that last sentence over again because that’s where we mess up. There is absolutely nothing normal about losing your friends to violence. The event isn’t normal, trying to process it isn’t normal, trying to normalize it isn’t normal. It is traumatic and it should be. Every single time you lose someone should feel like too much. Every wake should shake your soul, every funeral should slice a little piece of your heart.

Jeezy and Gucci

Watching the Jeezy vs Gucci Verzuz battle was uncomfortable for me as it was for everyone else. Yes, part of me was enjoying it, but the other part felt a familiar tension that many of the 9 million viewers certainly shared. All you had to do was look at the comments to confirm this communal anxiety. So many of our hip-hop icons have been murdered, and Gucci had come close to being a victim, which was the source of the beef between himself and Jeezy.

No one knew how Gucci would react to being in the room with someone who allegedly tried to have him killed. It was clear he was still carrying that trauma because he said some disrespectful things to Jeezy throughout the battle. Many people were disappointed at Gucci for his actions, but I saw it differently.

I saw someone who was healing in real-time. Someone whose anger and fear caused him to lash out aggressively through his words. It had been 15 years since the alleged, life-threatening incident and Gucci was letting it all out. We shouldn’t judge that, we should praise it.

Because the opposite would be to pretend that murder, even the threat or possibility of murder, is a normal part of our lives. It would assume that speaking to someone close to you today then seeing them in a casket a week later has no impact on your mental health.

That’s a dangerous assumption, one that ignores the trauma that stems from losing someone you care about. In normal circumstances, someone passing because of old age or some kind of illness, we still acknowledge this loss as momentous. And even though it’s accepted as a natural repercussion of life, we understand those losses as tragic. We grieve, take time off work, gather with our family. We actively participate in the process of healing.

When someone is murdered, that person is taken away from us at the hands of someone else. Murders are violent, sudden, and the unpredictable nature of the act should add another layer of trauma that should never feel ordinary. Yet when these victims are our friends, we don’t act with the same intention to heal. We don’t take time off work, we don’t seek counselling. Outside of the funeral, we don’t create the room in our lives to grieve.

We need to deal with this as trauma

That’s where things need to change. We’re not even dealing with our friends being murdered as a traumatic event. People seek therapy because they’re uncertain about their career, because they have trouble sleeping, because they want to rid themselves of daily anxiety. Yet the violent and abrupt loss of someone we care about, multiplied by four, five, ten, twenty – we never deal with that trauma head on. We don’t take time to address it, discuss it, sit with someone who can help us through it. Instead, we attend funeral after funeral, grieve in the moment, then continue with our lives as if we haven’t permanently been scarred.

And I mean that literally. Every murder is a wound. It’s a puncture to our psyche that needs to be filled before it deflates our mind into thinking this is normal. To tolerate murder, to endure it and accept it as common without intentional means of healing sets us on a path of disturbed, unbalanced mental health.

This imbalance can show up in our lives in different ways. It affects our relationships, the way we’re able to communicate, our level of intimacy. This imbalance conditions us to accept a level of violence that is extraordinary, and the acceptance of that violence becomes a hidden burden. A burden we may not be aware of, but that weighs down on us just as heavy as our conscious ones.

We need to create outlets to help people get through this, young people in particular. We shouldn’t be taking the effects of murder on the friends of the victims as something they will “get over.” We need to treat these events as the trauma that it is and that it causes. Until our urgency in this matter rises, we’ll continue to raise generations of boys and girls who transform into men and women incapable of fully connecting to or expressing the emotions necessary to heal from this kind of trauma.

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