It is an emotional time for any family when they learn that a loved one has been charged with a crime. When the loved one admits to the crime or is convicted, those emotions are compounded. The emotional stages experienced by families during this time parallel the stages of grief and loss faced when a loved one passes. However, unlike losing a loved one, most families will experience a criminal charge only once (if at all), and there is nothing to prepare them for it. Also, because most families they know have never gone through this experience, it is easy for families to feel alone. Families will also face the stigma associated with a criminal charge, which can cause further feelings of isolation.
Recognizing where your client’s family is in the process of coming to terms with their legal situation is essential for making sense of the difficulties your client is facing at home. Below are the five emotional stages experienced by most families as they suffer with a loved one going through this process. It is important to note that not all individuals in a family will experience
1. Denial and Isolation
This can take many forms. For many family members, there may be a denial that a loved one has actually been charged, a denial of the implications of the charge, or a denial that the loved one was ever engaged in any criminal activity. This is a typical initial response to any traumatic situation, which helps us deal with the immediate shock. This will be temporary for the family but will assist them in transitioning to the next phase.
As the effects of denial wane, families become more aware of their true emotions. The initial emotion for them is likely to be anger. This anger will likely be directed toward your client, and can be displayed in a variety of ways. Anger may come and go over time. Family members may resent your client for having caused pain and bringing embarrassment into their lives. Family members will also be very angry with anyone who is perceived to have contributed to the criminal activity. This could include family of origin or business associates. If this anger is not handled constructively, further problems can result.
In an attempt to regain emotional control of the situation, families are likely to ask questions or make statements to themselves which imply that they could have had some control over your client’s criminal behavior. For example, a family member may say, “If I had only watched him more closely”, “If only I had not placed so many demands on him”, or “If only I had been nicer to him”. All of this will give the family a false sense of control. When it comes to dealing with a trauma, a false sense of control is more comforting than no control at all.
This is an overall feeling of sadness and not necessarily a clinical depression. There are two types of depression families will likely experience during this stage. The first type has to do with practical implications related to their situation. This may have to do with questions regarding finances, effectively parenting the children, or hits to a reputation. Anything considered to be fallout of the legal process will be a primary focus during this stage.
The other type of depression families are likely to experience has to do with your client personally. This involves questions related to what will happen to your client and preparing for possible time away from him/her.
During this phase, families will likely display withdrawal and feelings of calm. If your client is anticipating an incarceration period, they may experience their family withdrawing emotionally from them as a way of preparing themselves for their absence. Although this is not a period of happiness, it is also not marked by depression. It is more of a quiet acceptance of what your client has done and what is to come. It is also common during this stage that your clients will experience an emotional withdrawal from their family as they ready themselves mentally for the upcoming separation period.
Experiencing these emotional stages is a personal process that is unique to each individual. Although most families are likely to go through each of these stages, the pace and order in which they occur will vary by person. It is important that families do not become stuck in any particular phase—which may result in unresolved bitterness, anger, and depression. This can have long-term consequences for relationships and ultimately on your clients’ ability to successfully reintegrate with their families.