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Section 16
Complications in Mourning After Sudden Death
as a Result of a School Shooting

Question 16 | Test | Table of Contents

In April of 1999, two students, seniors at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, came to school armed with an assortment of guns and bombs and killed twelve of their classmates and a teacher before committing suicide themselves. While this was the sixth of such school shootings in 18 months, it riveted the attention of the nation because it involved well-to-do suburban children, had the greatest number of victims and "because it played out on television" (Belkin, 1999 p. F61). In fact according to a Pew Charitable Trust survey, the Columbine High School shootings became one of the most closely followed news stories of the decade (The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 1999). During crises such as this, the Office for Victims of Crimes (OVC), a part of the Department of Justice, helps mobilize state and community based crises assistance. This often involves recruiting social workers and other helping professionals from neighboring communities to provide short and long term counseling and other services (OVC, 1999). In a kind of ripple effect, social workers around the country--school social workers in particular--go into high gear, helping school administrators develop crises plans, trying to anticipate copycat crimes, reassuring students nervous about attending school and assuaging parental anxiety.

Attachment Theory, Mourning, and Sudden Death
Current thinking on the topic of loss and mourning rests on foundations constructed by the British psychiatrist, John Bowlby. Using examples from animal and human behavior, Bowlby (1977) posited "attachment theory" as a means of understanding the powerful bonds between humans and the disruption that comes when the bonds are jeopardized or destroyed. The bonds are formed because of a need for security and safety, are developed early in life, are long enduring, and are directed toward a few special individuals. In normal maturation, the child becomes ever more independent, moving away from the figure of attachment, and returning periodically for safety and security. If the bonds are threatened, the individual will try to restore them through crying, clinging, or other types of coercion; if they are destroyed, withdrawal, apathy, and despair will follow. Bowlby also examined topics such as the stages of grief, and the difference between normal and pathological grief (1980).

Mourning for the loss of a figure of attachment has been likened, in course and treatment, to a disease. As a severe wound or burn is traumatic to the body, so loss of a loved one is traumatic to the psyche. Mourning is analogous to physical healing and requires time and often the help of one or more facilitators, be they friends, family, clergy or grief counselor (Engel, 1961).

Sudden death is a specific case of loss that has unique characteristics, and makes unique demands on survivors as well as their grief counselors. It differs from anticipated death, such as that following a long illness, in the forms and the intensity of survivors' grief. A landmark study of sudden death was conducted by Lindemann (1944), who, with his colleagues, counseled the families of 101 college students who had lost their lives during a tragic fire at a local nightclub, the "Coconut Grove." The majority of those counseled exhibited some type of somatic or bodily distress, preoccupation with the image of the deceased, guilt relating to the deceased, hostile reactions, and the inability to regain their preloss level of functioning. Lindemann found that the survivors of sudden death were more likely to experience what he characterized as abnormal or pathological grief (his criteria was somewhat more narrow than which we use today), and that the grief would endure longer and be more difficult to resolve.

At first it was thought that anticipated death was more easily processed because it gave people an opportunity for preparatory mourning (Fulton & Fulton, 1971). More recent writings suggest that sudden death so overwhelms people that they are, for an indeterminate period of time, incapable of the level of functioning required for grief work (Fulton & Gottesman, 1980), and thus the mourning is simply postponed.

Sudden death survivors are more prone to experience a sense of unreality, of helplessness, heightened feelings of guilt about having failed to avert the disaster, and a strong need to blame someone for the crisis (Rynearson, 1984). In many cases, the grief work cannot be completed until medical and legal issues have been resolved. Columbine survivors had to grapple with lawsuits, an ongoing FBI investigation, and even Senate hearings. It should be noted that in some cases resolution of a legal issue, such as the conviction or execution of a criminal, can provide a kind of closure (Rynearson). Finally, survivors of sudden death experience an unusually strong need to understand why it happened, to make sense of their loss (Worden, 1991).

There is a task model as well as a stage model of grief work. The stage model is criticized for its suggestion that grief progresses in an orderly fashion, that stages may be interpreted too literally by the grief worker, and that the role of the griever is a passive one. The task model has more utility in that it suggests an active role for the griever as well as tasks to be undertaken (Worden, 1991). Worden identified four tasks toward the resolution of loss: ( 1) accept the reality of the loss; ( 2) Work through to the pain of grief; (3) Adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing; (4) emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life. The first step refers to overcoming the denial that often accompanies loss, an effect even more pronounced in sudden death. The second Step involves experiencing and processing the sadness that comes with the loss of a loved one. The third group of tasks involves accepting and learning the different roles, skills, and ideas necessary to live without the deceased. The fourth step refers to the need to find a realistic way of thinking, emotionally and cognitively, about the deceased, so that the mourner can go on with his or her life and form new relationships (Worden, 1991).
- Fast, Jonathan D.; After Columbine: How People Mourn Sudden Death; Social Work, Oct2003, Vol. 48 Issue 4, p484-491

Personal Reflection Exercise #9
The preceding section contained information regarding complications in mourning after sudden death as a result of a school shooting. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Alexander, B. A., & Harris, H. (2020). Public school preparedness for school shootings: A phenomenological overview of school staff perspectives. School Mental Health: A Multidisciplinary Research and Practice Journal. Advance online publication.

Budenz, A., Purtle, J., Klassen, A., Yom-Tov, E., Yudell, M., & Massey, P. (2019). The case of a mass shooting and violence-related mental illness stigma on Twitter. Stigma and Health, 4(4), 411–420.

Jose, R., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2021). How Americans feel about guns after mass shootings: The case of the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre. Psychology of Violence, 11(4), 354–363.

Lunn, L., Campion, K., James, S., & Velez, G. (2021). A framework for guiding transformative growth after school shootings. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 27(3), 486–496.

Wozniak, J. D., Caudle, H. E., Harding, K., Vieselmeyer, J., & Mezulis, A. H. (2020). The effect of trauma proximity and ruminative response styles on posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth following a university shooting. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(3), 227–234.

According to Fast, what four negative experiences are sudden death survivors more prone to?
To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 17
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