Grief and Loss Following Gun Violence

In recent years, mass shootings have prompted extensive media attention and fostered increased gun control debates. While mass shootings only account for 2% of gun-related homicides, researchers at Harvard state that mass shootings have 80 times the impact of non-mass shootings homicides on legislation. Despite incidents of mass shootings making national headlines, many communities continue to be plagued by gun violence with little or no media coverage and with little or no political debates.

Gun Violence Facts

Gun violence is a national concern and is considered a major public health crisis. Here are just a few facts regarding gun violence:

  • More than 100,000 people are shot each year
  • People between the ages of 15 and 24 are most likely to be targeted by gun violence as opposed to other forms of violence. From 1976 to 2005, 77 percent of homicide victims ages 15-17 died from gun-related injuries.
  • Gun homicides are responsible for most firearm deaths among African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, whereas gun suicides account for most firearm deaths among Whites and American-Indian/Alaska Natives.
  • African-American males ages 15 to 19 are almost 5 times as likely as their white peers and more than twice as likely as their Hispanic or American-Indian/Alaska Native peers to be killed by firearms
  • Older youth (14-19) residing in urban areas are more likely to be hospitalized due to gun violence than rural youth; however, younger youth (5-14) residing in rural areas are more likely to be hospitalized due to gun violence than urban youth.
  • Gun violence costs 2.8 billion dollars annually in hospital charges

Gun Violence and Families

Despite the vast impact of gun violence, much of the discussion on gun violence centers on perpetuators of gun violence, including but not limited to their mental health, and how to keep guns out of the hands of would be perpetrators. Little attention is given to the consequences for communities, families, and individuals who experience gun violence. Moreover, when researchers do explore the consequences of gun violence within victims, much of the focus centers on youth. However, adults, especially parents, are greatly impacted by gun violence.

Because youth are more likely to be injured or killed because of gun violence, their parents and adult bystanders may be witnesses to and victims of gun violence as well. Gun violence can result in substantial physical injuries that may require a family to provide long-term care to the survivor. Moreover, families may mourn the loss of family member who died from gun violence. Families may also mourn for the perpetrator of gun violence who may be imprisoned for their acts.

Grief and Loss

Because gun violence is so pervasive, researchers have begun to explore the ways families may grieve following gun violence.  The suddenness, violence, and feelings that the death is a meaningless loss may complicate the grieving process for parents who lose their children to gun violence. Some parents may also be overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, sadness, and shame when their children die from gun violence. Depressive and PTSD symptoms may also develop.

In recent years, our understanding of grief has moved away from a linear process with specific stages to a dynamic process that varies considerably from one individual to the next. Within our new understanding, is the concept of complicated grief. Complicated grief is defined as prolonged intensive grief that results in significant occupational and social impairments. Researchers have found that parents of the deceased and racial/ethnic minorities are more likely to experience complicated grief.

Researchers have linked complicated grief to several negative outcomes:

  • Suicide/Suicidality
  • Higher rates of heart disease and cancer
  • Increased risk for substance abuse

Grief in all forms can require unique treatment considerations; thus, psychologists are needed to help families and individuals cope after a loss.

Ways Counseling Psychologist Can Help

  • Increase awareness about pervasiveness of gun violence: Gun violence, community violence, and suicide need more attention within our academic discourse.
  • Research bereavement issues among diverse communities—majority of the grief and bereavement literature focuses on Caucasian populations. Racial and Ethnic minorities experience loss of their children and loved ones at an alarming rate; however, there are few empirical studies that explore grief among ethnic minorities.
  • Advocate for issues that may minimize the impact of gun violence—Gun control is only one aspect of gun violence that needs legislation action. Issues such as poverty, adequate mental health funding, neighborhood revitalization efforts, and substance abuse are additional factors that need legislation action.
  • Provide services to persons and communities who are impacted by gun violence— gun violence impacts everyone; however, persons in low-income community are at a greater risk to experience gun violence. Thus, providers may want to provide some low-cost or no cost services to persons impacted by gun violence.
  • Ensure our training programs are preparing psychologist who can address bereavement, grief, and trauma.

 

Shareefah Al’Uqdah PhD, Assistant Professor and Director of Training, Howard University Counseling Psychology Program

 

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