Stay Strong

Stay Strong

Stay Strong

My name is Sylvia Alvarez. I am a bilingual victim advocate with Homicide Survivors Inc. At HSI, we offer crisis and long-term emotional support and advocacy to the surviving families and friends of all murder victims. We offer survivor support crisis line, one to one peer counseling, home visits, and monthly support group meetings. Our staff and volunteers offer personal and criminal justice system support and advocacy.

Despite these uncertain times, my role as victim advocate has not skipped a beat. We have continued serving our community with resources, support, advocacy and assisting those in need.

As a survivor myself, I lost my son in a drunk driving crash in 2015. I was referred to HSI for emotional support. I soon discovered that I was not alone with my feelings of confusion, loss and grief. The sheer validation was enough to keep me going back. To sit in a room filled with such raw emotion, honesty and absolute zero judgment was so very healing. There are many facets, phases, and even misconceptions regarding grief. One of the many challenges survivors experience is isolation. Either self-imposed or otherwise.

This pandemic that we all are going through has created yet another layer to the already existing “condition”. To shelter oneself during grief is a choice, at times subconsciously. Having to stay home or distancing from family, friends, coworkers, and or neighbors is an additional, almost foreign feeling of isolation. Even if at times throughout your grief you self isolate or choose to stay home.

This is a time when we all need each other. The very thing that we may need to help cope, is being strongly urged not practice. To be present in the presence of comforting souls. To hug, embrace, hold hands with one who is in need of comfort are all vital to some who are currently grieving.

At HSI we are adapting, adjusting and at times improvising. Holding virtual support group meetings. Continuing with our staff meetings, virtually of course. We held a virtual workshop, encouraging our survivors and families to improvise and use what materials they have at home to create memorials for our upcoming virtual candlelight vigil. Staying connected and reassuring everyone involved that we are still here for them. All the while, we are all trying to navigate the reality of what we are currently living through. Instilling hope, providing emotional support whether it be via a zoom meeting or through our various social media outlets or our website.

To be part of an organization who is there for families at possibly the worst time of their lives is nothing short of an honor and a privilege.

We are all in this together. Let us stay healthy. Stay strong. Survivor Strong!

NOBODY DESERVES TO ENDURE THE MURDER OF A LOVED ONE ALONE

Your charitable donation helps families meet the crisis and long term needs of murder victims through support, advocacy, and assistance. Help make an impact in a survivors life by making a donation today.

Moving Forward

Moving Forward

Moving Forward

COVID19 has presented a unique perspective on life, it is showing us how important it is to live in the moment for tomorrow is not guaranteed. I keep asking myself what is the lesson that I need to learn? What does humanity need to learn? What I realized is during this intense environment growth can be cultivated. We are being faced with our own individual truth and we can’t look away. My journey of growth is taking place in difficult times yet, I know that when I find my reemergence it will be beautiful. My response to COVID is to be in the moment, choose kindness and joy. Now, all of this is easier said than done, it’s a struggle that I have with myself as some days are easier than others. Yet it’s the little things that need to be celebrated so my attention can be redirected. To be reminded of being gentle to myself when I don’t have the energy to be present. To keep searching for kindness in each other.

Paloma Sainz

When HSI (Homicide Survivors Inc.) and Ben’s Bells Project decided to collaborate on the kindness challenge it was exactly what I needed without realizing it. It was something I could physically do to document all of the positive things that are still happening in our community. Humans can get very creative when faced with adversity especially when time is a strange concept right now. The world has been put on paused yet things are moving forward. Birthday celebrations, babies being born, people dying, seasons changing, etc. As a victim advocate, especially during these times, I keep thinking about the community that I serve. A survivor was able to articulate to me how there is a parallel between the pandemic and the grief they are experiencing.

From one day to another their life completely changed, there was no preparation for when their loved one was murdered. Our sense of safety is compromised. For me, it has instilled an even deeper drive to really be present for survivors. Even if that means we have to get virtually creative. Being a witness of survivors’ journey of hope and healing is truly an honor and a privilege. I will not let my community grieve alone, ever. I will choose the light, kindness, and joy every time. For together we will always be stronger.

I remember my dad as a strong, loving man who played both roles in my life. It takes an extraordinary man to do that, and that’s just who he was, extraordinary. My childhood hero and years later, my best friend. During this uncertain time, help us continue our mission to serve those grieving the loss of a loved one as a result of a homicide.

NOBODY DESERVES TO ENDURE THE MURDER OF A LOVED ONE ALONE

Your charitable donation helps families meet the crisis and long term needs of murder victims through support, advocacy, and assistance. Help make an impact in a survivors life by making a donation today.

Arbitrary Death

Arbitrary Death

Arbitrary Death

Rick Unklesbay been with the Pima County Attorney’s Office since 1981 and served as a deputy county attorney, violent crimes supervisor, chief trial counsel, and chief criminal deputy.  Over the course of his career, Rick has tried over 200 cases with over 100 jury trials on first-degree murder cases. In 2010, Rick retired from the Pima County Attorney’s Office but has since been back in the office trying a few cases and starting a new unit on conviction integrity looking at potential claims of innocence.  Below Rick shares his on why he wrote the Book Arbitrary Death.

Of the many, many people who have had an influence on me in the course of my career, Gail Leland was right at the top of the list.  Gail founded Parents of Murdered Children, the precursor to Homicide Survivors. I first met Gail in the 1980’s when, as a young prosecutor, I began to try murder cases.  From Gail I learned the importance of a prosecutor not just establishing a connection to the surviving family, but having empathy for and understanding of what that family was going through

Gail wanted surviving victims to not just understand the system, but to have a say in it and be informed about the case involving their loved one. Through this connection Gail sought to ensure that victim survivors would not be lost in the justice system or be taken for granted.

In later years Gail and I spent many hours traveling back and forth to meetings in Phoenix when we both served on a committee formed by the Arizona Attorney General to evaluate the state’s death penalty system. I was fortunate to learn more from her about the needs of surviving families and the devastation brought to them by sudden violence. Those lessons she taught stayed with me throughout the years.

In late 2017, I began to write Arbitrary Death. For about a year and a half I tried to put together stories about the sudden violence of a homicide and the impact on the victims’ families over the years of litigation. Although there were too many cases to choose from, I selected a handful that seemed to demonstrate the pain, the uncertainty and the anguish that family members endure. The book focused on death penalty cases and how, in so many ways, the State’s attempt to seek death and the imposition of the death penalty on the murderer impacted the surviving family.

The book is meant to be an educational tool to explain not just the frailties of our justice system, but to give some insight into what survivors go through when the State decides a homicide is a death penalty case. For those outside of the lawyers and judges who try these cases, few understand the complexities of the cases, the lengthy delays and the unending appeals. Each step of such cases impacts the family in ways that many murder cases don’t. I thought it important to describe how these cases proceed and how such a high percentage of them come back to court for further hearings, often years after the case was seemingly over. It is, I think, important information to have.

Hopefully potential readers are not scared off by thoughts that the book might have too much “legalese”. I tried hard to write it for the non-lawyer and give my perspective on how these cases proceed through the court system and how they effect survivors. Arbitrary Death does come to some conclusions about our capital system, but it isn’t really about trying to persuade someone to believe we should retain or abolish the death penalty. Rather, as Gail taught me long ago, having surviving victims understand the system and making sure they have a voice in the case is what I felt was needed.

The stories in the book belong to the survivors of each of the victims. Those families were gracious enough to let me tell those stories and use photographs of their loved ones. Because the stories belong to them, and in honor of what Gail taught me long ago, the proceeds go to benefit Homicide Survivors, Inc. so that the work started long ago by Gail continues.

You can learn more about Rick in his interviews with KVOA and Arizona Public Media. You can purchase Arbitrary Death here. All author proceeds benefit Homicide Survivors Inc.

NOBODY DESERVES TO ENDURE THE MURDER OF A LOVED ONE ALONE

Your charitable donation helps families meet the crisis and long term needs of murder victims through support, advocacy, and assistance. Help make an impact in a survivors life by making a donation today.

Healing Through Equine Therapy

Healing Through Equine Therapy

Healing Through Equine Therapy

On a cool, sun-filled day, four Homicide Survivors gather at the corral of local equine psychotherapist Sherry Simon-Heldt. As rabbits cavort and quail call and scratch beneath nearby bushes, all eyes are on the horses. There is Cisco, a large bay gelding with the commanding presence of a leader; Tonto, Cisco’s miniature companion and the herd’s “mischief-maker”; Roco, whom Sherry calls “the lover of the herd” for his receptivity to human touch; and Cabo, a beautiful, independent silver-white pony.

Sherry and the herd of Equine Explorations™ have had the privilege of providing equine-interaction therapy to Homicide Survivors at her ranch in the Tanque Verde Valley since October 2015. Groups have met for four sessions, typically lasting two-and-a-half hours each.

At the second session of this group, Sherry begins with a single question: “What have you noticed since we met last week?”

“I feel less anger,” one participant replies. Other responses quickly follow: “I’m more present,” “I’m ready to walk into my grief,” “I was finally able to cry.” Pain is evident in every word. And there is something else as well—hope. A dawning awareness that, as one participant put it, “Though nothing will ever make it go away, the pain will get easier.” When asked, they attribute this renewed sense of possibility to being here, with Sherry and the horses.

As Sherry explains, equine-interaction therapy is “a way to make connections between the emotional and thinking parts of our brain, to help regulate the nervous system, explore our ‘stories,’ and learn to live more fully in the present.” Being able to connect physically and emotionally in a safe way with a horse can inspire confidence and trust for survivors.

Horses can help us learn how to live in the present

For their survival as prey animals, horses maintain vigilance over their environment, attentive to any potential danger from predators. Not unlike humans who have experienced trauma. A horse feels safe when his environment is congruent. He feels unsafe when anything in his environment is “off,” not in sync—such as a rustle in the brush, and a human who pretends to be “fine,” when he or she is really feeling sad, angry, frustrated, etc. As the saying goes, “Horses don’t lie.” They teach us to be more honest with ourselves. They also live in the moment, and can help us learn to be more in the present (not overthink). This can be challenging, particularly for those who are carrying the burden of grief…. of putting on a brave face while trying to “keep it together.”

“I’m afraid the horses will pick up on (my) pain,” someone says. This is a common concern among participants. Sherry assures the group that horses do not judge human emotions. They accept us wherever we are, as long as we are honest—congruent. In the corral, participants find just enough space, just enough acceptance, to begin the journey of healing. 

To this end, Sherry facilitates exercises that offer opportunities for connection. In one, participants sit quietly in the round pen as the horses are invited into their circle. Tonto comes in first, nudging one person and then another with his velvety muzzle, softly blowing through his nose, a sign of curiosity. Cisco then slowly enters the round pen, and the two horses begin playing. The participants rise and observe, totally intrigued and delighted.

Sherry then presents the “Heart to Heart” exercise. A horse’s heart beats slower than a human’s, she explains.  When a participant, breathing deeply and slowly, places her heart next to the horse’s, the horse’s heart begins to sync with hers, matching rhythm for rhythm. The result is an experience of deep connection, with an accompanying sense of calm. For many of the survivors, it is a moment of profound release. There are tears, sometimes sobs. The idea of something so beautiful, so powerful as a horse inviting and accepting such emotion is described as “awe-inspiring.” 

To enhance the experience of connection, Sherry next presents a deck of “pony cards,” each with a painting of a horse on one side and an inspirational message on the other. The intent of the Pony Ponderings Inspiration Cards (created by professional life coach Kami Guildner) is to tap into intuition and inspire reflection. As often happens with this activity, today’s participants receive messages that resonate with them on a deep, emotional level.

“Beloved” one card reads. “Oh, my!” exclaims the person holding it, “my heart is…” She stops, overcome. “That’s what I called my husband.” 

“Fire of Passion”: The woman who chooses this card begins to weep. She often speaks to her daughter, now deceased, and shares, “This

morning, I asked her to help bring me back my passion. I want to live again.” 

The final card shared is “Ghost Whisperer.” “Be peaceful in the solitude of nature,” it instructs. “Listen to the wisdom of your ancestors.” A young man smiles. “That’s my dad. I don’t do anything… without asking what he would want me to do.”

Sherry wraps up the session by asking participants to share a word of the day which expresses what today’s experience has meant to them.  The responses, delivered with an observable calm and uplifted energy that was absent when the workshop began the week before, are a testament to the power of this work:

“Wonderful”   “Validating”   “Healing”    “Relaxing”

In leaving, all the survivors express how they cannot wait to return the following week.

About Sherry

Sherry Simon-Heldt has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 16 years, and has been practicing equine therapy since 2006. She has developed and facilitated a variety of equine-interaction workshops for clients and other professionals, and travels to Mexico several times a year to do volunteer work and improve her Spanish language skills. Sherry lives with her husband, Tim, their four horses and two dogs at their ranch in NE Tucson. More information can be found at www.equineexplorations.com

About the Author

Annie Maier is a writer and freelance editor who works, lives, and seeks inspiration in the Arizona desert. She can be contacted at anniemaier453@msn.com. 

NOBODY DESERVES TO ENDURE THE MURDER OF A LOVED ONE ALONE

Your charitable donation helps families meet the crisis and long term needs of murder victims through support, advocacy, and assistance. Help make an impact in a survivors life by making a donation today.