“Losing touch with Reality”: The science behind murder-suicides

MONTCALM COUNTY, Mich. – Days after a Pewamo-Westphalia elementary school principal and his disabled son were both found dead of gunshot wounds in their car, police are still piecing together the details surrounding the incident.

Michigan State Police have labeled the investigation a murder-suicide, but haven’t released information on circumstances surrounding the event.

The bodies of George Heckman and his 28-year-old son Grant were found Monday night in a van on a dirt two-track off of Tow Road near Boyer Road in Bushnell Township. Autopsies were performed Tuesday.

Dr. Jared Skillings, a PhD psychologist with Spectrum Health, says there’s a good amount of data surrounding murder-suicide and the science behind it. According to Dr. Skillings, most instances of murder-suicide are impulsive and are hardly pre-planned by those carrying out the crime.

There are, he mentioned, rare cases of pre-meditated murder-suicides, sometimes involving caretakers and those they’re caring for.

“When you’re caring for someone, especially long-term, it can be a very isolating and lonely situation,’ said Dr. Skillings. “From a psychological point of view, there could be a few rare cases where a parent becomes, I would argue delusional or nearly delusional, to imagine that somehow they’re doing better for the child by ending their life.”

Skillings recommended that caretakers who feel isolated or depressed reach out to their care provider for an official diagnosis and direction on professional help. Many religious organizations also offer programs for caretakers, and some health clinics can provide respite care – or temporary professional care to briefly relieve in-home care providers.

But, Skillings says, murder should never be viewed as a solution.

“I could imagine someone perceiving that they were doing it out of compassion. I think in a general way… we would still say that that’s the wrong thing,” he said. “Even if their child is ill or sick, it’s really losing touch with reality to go so far as to think about ending their life.”

MSP is awaiting the results of Tuesday’s autopsy before releasing any additional information on the deaths.

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