Aurora Suspect James Holmes's Family's Painful Emotional Hurdles

Family of James Holmes will likely experience wide range of difficult emotions.

ByABC News
July 20, 2012, 6:31 PM

July 23, 2012— -- The family of Aurora, Colo., shooting suspect James Holmes faces a difficult emotional road in the days, weeks and months ahead as they struggle to cope with the enormous reality of his alleged actions, experts told ABC News.

In a statement, the family said their "hearts go out to those who [were] involved in this tragedy and to the families and friends of those involved." His mother also told ABC News earlier her son was likely the accused gunman.

By acknowledging what happened, they are taking important steps in the healing process. Mental health professionals who do not know the Holmes family, and are speaking about the aftermath of violence in general, said that the healing process will likely include disbelief, anger, guilt and grief. How they cope depends on factors such as their individual characteristics.

"Invariably, they need to be as candid as they can and give one or two interviews so everybody knows what they know," said Charles Figley, director of Tulane University's Traumatology Institute. "They will undoubtedly be hounded."

After that time, however, the family will need some privacy to deal with the wide range of emotions they are likely to experience.

"They are in the disbelief stage right now, but they may go through an anger stage, then maybe a guilt stage," said Catherine Mogil, an assistant clinical professor at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. "They may also feel shame that they didn't do more, and may ask whether they missed warning signs or whether they should have done more."

Grief is also a common reaction in traumatic situations, she explained.

"They may be grieving for someone they thought was their brother or son, who is no longer the person they knew," she said.

And that loss can be compounded by other losses.

"There can be societal stigma toward family members of individuals who have committed these kinds of crimes," said Dr. Amir Afkhami, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University Medical Center. "There's some degree of thought that they somehow colluded with the killer at some level, or are at least collaterally guilty and created some sort of environment that bred this person."

They may also suffer financially if they have business or economic ties to the community.

"Because of the stigma, they may be threatened with the loss of jobs," he added.

The heavy emotional toll may lead to other serious consequences as well.

"In the long term, this can lead in two directions," Afkhami said. "There is a high risk of developing psychiatric illnesses because of the social pressure -- major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress have been reported in family members of killers. In other cases, family members who are resilient may use their experience as a means of engaging in activism."

Despite the pain of their ordeal, the family may be able to take solace in the fact there is help for them, and over time, they can heal.

"It's very traumatic, but they will be able to cope," said Figley. "Because there is so much attention on them, inevitably their close supporters will stand behind them, encourage them and reassure them."

It may also be helpful to seek out support groups or counseling, and it's especially crucial to watch for signs of mental illness.

"They need to take it one day at a time and keep a log of their feelings and experiences. It may seem as if they are in a dream," Finley said. "But every day, it will get easier."