When a loved one is incarcerated, his or her family expects that they will exit jail as they entered, alive. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many questions arise when a loved one dies while incarcerated. Did they receive the protection they needed from other prisoners, or even from themselves? Was brutality, neglect or chaos contributory?
As a funeral director, I see the deaths of inmates pass through my funeral home. I also see the survivors. They search for reasons and speculate answers for the loss of their loved one. These survivors are often confused, as the details of death are generally not immediately available to them. Initially, there are many unanswered questions surrounding the death.
Because the death occurred under police or guard protection, an investigation must take place to assure the prisoner’s rights were protected. Until this investigation is final, the cause of death will most likely be designated as pending. This pending certification may be very difficult for survivors to bear. Closure and grief work may be greatly hampered for them until, and after the cause of death is identified.
In some cases, the cause of death really does not answer why their loved one died. For instance, if their loved one were found hanging from the rafters, the cause of death is obvious. The questions regarding the motivation of death however, remain unanswered. The survivors actually want to know, why their loved one was found hanging. Was it suicide or was it murder?
Incarceration is difficult for any survivor to bear. An incarcerated death is unbelievably challenging for those left behind. Aside from the questions over cause of death, survivors may be unable to grieve their loss freely, due to shame. This type of death is classified as a non-loss or a socially unacceptable loss. The survivors must discover how to cope with their loss, along with the shame and embarrassment that accompany it. Not only are they grieving the loss of their loved one and coping with the shame of incarceration, they must also deal with any guilt they feel.
Guilt may be motivated through several different scenarios. Survivors may feel guilt at not being able to protect their loved one from the harm that caused their death. If the loved one were suicidal, they probably did not know it. If they were uncomfortable with visiting their loved one in jail or prison, they may also feel neglectful. These are very sad and difficult contributors to guilt that may lead to depression among the survivors. This is a delicate time when survivors need to pull together, and be mindful of each other. Feelings of guilt, neglectfulness and depression put survivors in a greater risk category of suicide attempts.
There is no quick or easy remedy for the pain and suffering survivors will endure in this situation. Pulling together for support and strength is critical for their recovery. If available, a copy of the investigative review may offer some answers. One should realize these findings might just as easily shed light on darker issues surrounding their loved ones death. Darker issues may increase the survivor’s feelings of guilt, pushing them closer toward depression or moving them nearer a dangerous state of despair.
Survivors suffering the loss of an incarcerated loved one will endure a complex and dreadful grief experience. It is often wise to work with a professional counselor in this situation. Professionally licensed counselors are educationally prepared to know the issues that accompany this tragedy. Their training and experience equip them for prescribing positive methods to help guide survivors through substantially less complicated recovery processes.
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