Grieving during a criminal trial: ‘Victims are often the forgotten party’

| Michaela Nesvarova

Students or researchers? UT doctoral candidates fall into a category of their own. In ‘PhD stories’, we put their work in the spotlight. This episode gives the stage to Lieke Nijborg, who studies the impact of a criminal trial on bereaved people.

Growing up, Lieke Nijborg watched a lot of true crime shows. Already then, she says, she found it strange to see how little attention was paid to the victims, and to those who were left behind. ‘When we talk about crime, such as murder, we generally talk about the murderer. We are a lot more likely to remember the names of serial killers than their victims,’ says the PhD candidate. ‘Victims are often the forgotten party.’ Something Nijborg would like to change.

lieke nijborg

PhD research topic: The psychological impact of a criminal trial on bereaved people (with a specific focus on the trial surrounding the MH17 plane disaster)

Work: PhD candidate at the Department of Psychology, Health and Technology, Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences (BMS) at the University of Twente

Education: Master’s degree in Clinical Forensic Psychology & Victimology at the University of Groningen

Originally from: Laag-Soeren, the Netherlands

The UT researcher is examining the psychological impact of a criminal trial on bereaved victims, meaning the loved ones of the deceased. ‘I want to find out: if they actively participate in the trial, for example by giving a statement, does it actually help them? Is it beneficial in some way, or can it have negative effects?’ explains the researcher. ‘There is only limited research on bereaved crime victims. My goal is to determine how they are impacted by the criminal trial and justice system – and how we could best support those who need it.’


In her PhD research, Lieke Nijborg focuses on one very specific case - the MH17 plane disaster. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was a passenger flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur that was shot down by Russian-controlled forces in 2014, while flying over eastern Ukraine. The plane disaster resulted in the death of 298 passengers and crew.

‘I look at how people who lost loved ones in the MH17 disaster experienced the subsequent criminal trial,’ explains the doctoral candidate. ‘It was a horrible and a very complex case that brought many people together. We focused on the MH17 plane disaster because all these people were bereaved in the same way, and all went through the same criminal trial, which helps us, as researchers, to draw conclusions.’

Prolonged grief

More specifically, the UT researcher studies the impact of the criminal trial on prolonged grief, posttraumatic stress, and depression levels of people bereaved by the disaster. ‘In cases like this one, when someone is violently bereaved, they are more likely to develop psychopathology. I want to determine whether their involvement in the criminal trial may reduce or increase the likelihood of developing psychological disorders,’ says Nijborg.

'Research suggests that there are six to ten bereaved people who are significantly impacted by the loss of one person'

She is particularly interested in prolonged grief disorder because it is specific to bereavement. ‘It partly overlaps with PTSD and depression but has distinct symptoms such as intense longing for, or preoccupation with thoughts of, the deceased loved one – to the point that it is disabling, and interferes with their daily life,’ explains Nijborg.

About 300 people have participated in the study, all of them connected to the MH17 tragedy. A large number, but the doctoral candidate estimates that many more have been impacted. ‘Research suggests that there are six to ten bereaved people who are significantly impacted by the loss of one person. That means, if 300 people are killed, at least 1800 people are impacted by their death.’

Providing help

While the MH17 disaster will remain the focus of her PhD research, Nijborg would also like to interview people who lost someone due to homicide and vehicular homicide. ‘That should help us generalize experiences of bereaved people. It could help us figure out how many people experience chronic symptoms, and what their risk factors are.’

The doctoral research is very practical, stresses Nijborg. ‘The ultimate goal is to provide guidelines to healthcare practitioners, agents within the criminal justice system, and others who come into contact with violently bereaved people.’

In other words, Lieke Nijborg wants to ensure that bereaved people are heard. ‘I don’t know if I want to work in academia or elsewhere, but I know for sure that I want to keep working on this topic in the future. I’d like to stay in research, but I would also like to work directly with bereaved people someday. I want to help provide timely support to those who need it.’

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