Psychologist Addresses Trauma To Community Following Abington Murder-Suicide Deaths

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The state's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled Wednesday that the killing of a family of five in Abington this week was a murder-suicide.

Investigators say 43-year-old Joseph Zaccardi fatally shot his three children and his wife before he killed himself.

Forty-year-old Deirdre Zaccardi, the couple's children — 9-year-old twins Kathryn and Nathaniel, and 11-year-old Alexis — were found dead in their townhouse Monday morning. All five family members died of gunshot wounds.

Larry Berkowitz is a psychologist and director of Riverside Trauma Center in Needham. The center provides crisis counseling and trains educators how to respond to traumatic incidents.

Berkowitz told WBUR's All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins that these tragedies affect more than just those who knew the victims. People with a history of mental illness or domestic violence might feel especially anxious upon hearing the news. But, Berkowitz says, there are things that can be done and said to help people.

Interview Highlights

Larry Berkowitz: One is to try to acknowledge the emotional reactions and acknowledge that there is an incredible range of emotional reactions to any kind of highly traumatic situation or highly traumatic loss — to normalize and sort of validate the experiences people are having and then to remind them of a number of things. Situations like this are fairly rare. Murder-suicide — that only accounts for something like 1 or 2 percent of all suicide deaths. So in a rare kind of event, it's even more rare. Try to remind people to employ the kind of strategies they've used before that help them remain calm and help them get through difficult and challenging situations.

Lisa Mullins: How would you recommend that teachers and parents talk about the deaths of children in a violent incident perpetrated by one of the parents?

First is to really think about the developmental age and stage of the children and make sure that we're addressing them in ways that are consistent with their developmental levels and their understanding. They have an intense radar for the adults around them. So part of it is that they will be watching how the adults are reacting, too.

We often have teachers ask us, 'Well, what happens if I cry or get upset myself?' And our answer usually is, well, good because you're role modeling and demonstrating that this is a really difficult and upsetting situation and extremely sad. But with young children we want to keep it very simple — answer their questions simply. And a lot of the work is trying to help them manage any concerns or fears and help them know that everyone's doing the best they can to make sure they're safe.

That's a good point, because we know that there are young people who are concerned about guns in the school — about a perpetrator shooting down kids in a school. But what about in an instance like this within the family itself? What kind of concerns does that present, especially for kids?

What we know about those situations is [murder-suicide is] almost always about suicide. That kind of state of mind has to do with suicide. I think it's important to remind young people that there's help available for people who may be struggling — if they're ever concerned about themselves or a family member or friend, that they need to talk to a trusted adult, whether it's their own family members or a counselor or a teacher at school. Anytime they're concerned about somebody else's well-being, that they should be sure to be talking about that.

What should parents be looking for to see how their child is doing in the wake of something like this?

It's not uncommon after a situation like this, particularly for younger children, to see some changes in behaviors, maybe going back to some earlier behaviors. Sometimes children are a little clingy or a little needier, that they might need to be spending more time with their parents. Some young children, particularly if they're the kinds of kids who run a little anxious anyway, might even want to crawl in bed with their parents a little more when they haven't done that in a long time. You know, it's OK to let that happen initially at first and to offer our kids reassurance. Sometimes it's slightly older kids — middle school or high school students — [you] might see some agitation or argumentativeness, some changes in behaviors, difficulties in concentrating on schoolwork for a few days. It's the kind of thing that if you're seeing it lasting for weeks, then it's probably time to talk to the school counselor or someone and get a little advice on that. But not surprising at all to see it in the first few days.

This segment aired on October 9, 2019.

Headshot of Lisa Mullins

Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.


Headshot of Lynn Jolicoeur

Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.



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