Families of fallen soldiers talk about grief

News Dec 31, 2014 Hamilton Mountain News

By Gord Bowes, News staff

Dozens of Canadian families have had to deal with the combat death of a soldier son or daughter in Afghanistan.

But how they deal with their grief had not been studied in depth until a Hamilton woman tackled the subject while completing her PhD in social work.

There is an assumption that all families grieve the same way, says Christina Harrington, but that is not the case.

“This is an area of grief and bereavement we really know nothing about,” says the east Mountain resident. “I can count on one hand the number of articles that talk about what grief and bereavement look like following a combat-related death.”

Harrington, whose business, Social Work Solutions Canada (socialworksolutionscanada.ca), includes helping people cope with injury, bereavement and post-traumatic stress, recently completed her doctorate at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She had in-depth interviews with 14 different military parents across the country.

She says she was surprised by some of what she discovered while researching her dissertation.

For example, some of the people Harrington interviewed would watch a YouTube video of the incident that took their son’s or daughter’s life.

“They were describing this as comforting,” says Harrington.

Viewing graphic details is counter-intuitive to the normal view of the grieving process, she says, but eventually she understood it as another way to “master” the traumatic incident. Sometimes by piecing the incident together themselves, grieving family members are better able to tolerate it, she said.

In the last 20 years, the understanding of how people grieve has changed significantly from the simplistic Kübler-Ross five stages of grief, said Harrington.

In regard to combat deaths and bereavement, there have been no Canadian studies.

“One of the new areas of grief and bereavement is understanding that rather than the idea of moving on, getting closure and forgetting the deceased is not reality for many people,” she says. “Many people want a sustained relationship in memory. They recognize it is a physical loss, but it’s more of a continued bond.”

The public often thinks of a combat death in terms of heroism or sacrifice for the greater good, says Harrington. But family members’ perception is shaped by their personal beliefs on the military.

Someone who believes in the work the troops are doing was better able to cope because it fit with their personal beliefs, she says. Those who didn’t believe in the mission, or thought the deaths were in vain, struggled with their acceptance of the death.

“People who described themselves as pacifists, or didn’t like the mission or war in general, had a more difficult time making sense of this and figuring out ‘How much do I embrace this new identify of family of the fallen?’ ”

She says she was also surprised there was a difference between those who were part of a Highway of Heroes repatriation and those whose loved ones died before that tradition.

“That public outpouring of support was very significant,” says Harrington.

“Even people who were really traumatized by this, and completely overwhelmed, talked about the strong feeling of pride — even the pacifists,” she says, and it helped them get through that very difficult time of their lives.

Harrington says she hopes her research will be used to establish government policies regarding post-traumatic stress and practices to use with families who have went through similar trauma.

“It has application not just in the military, but other line-of-duty deaths,” she says.

Harrington spoke at three conferences in the fall to share her findings and plans to publish her work for a wider audience, perhaps in book form.

Families of fallen soldiers talk about grief

News Dec 31, 2014 Hamilton Mountain News

By Gord Bowes, News staff

Dozens of Canadian families have had to deal with the combat death of a soldier son or daughter in Afghanistan.

But how they deal with their grief had not been studied in depth until a Hamilton woman tackled the subject while completing her PhD in social work.

There is an assumption that all families grieve the same way, says Christina Harrington, but that is not the case.

“This is an area of grief and bereavement we really know nothing about,” says the east Mountain resident. “I can count on one hand the number of articles that talk about what grief and bereavement look like following a combat-related death.”

Harrington, whose business, Social Work Solutions Canada (socialworksolutionscanada.ca), includes helping people cope with injury, bereavement and post-traumatic stress, recently completed her doctorate at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She had in-depth interviews with 14 different military parents across the country.

She says she was surprised by some of what she discovered while researching her dissertation.

For example, some of the people Harrington interviewed would watch a YouTube video of the incident that took their son’s or daughter’s life.

“They were describing this as comforting,” says Harrington.

Viewing graphic details is counter-intuitive to the normal view of the grieving process, she says, but eventually she understood it as another way to “master” the traumatic incident. Sometimes by piecing the incident together themselves, grieving family members are better able to tolerate it, she said.

In the last 20 years, the understanding of how people grieve has changed significantly from the simplistic Kübler-Ross five stages of grief, said Harrington.

In regard to combat deaths and bereavement, there have been no Canadian studies.

“One of the new areas of grief and bereavement is understanding that rather than the idea of moving on, getting closure and forgetting the deceased is not reality for many people,” she says. “Many people want a sustained relationship in memory. They recognize it is a physical loss, but it’s more of a continued bond.”

The public often thinks of a combat death in terms of heroism or sacrifice for the greater good, says Harrington. But family members’ perception is shaped by their personal beliefs on the military.

Someone who believes in the work the troops are doing was better able to cope because it fit with their personal beliefs, she says. Those who didn’t believe in the mission, or thought the deaths were in vain, struggled with their acceptance of the death.

“People who described themselves as pacifists, or didn’t like the mission or war in general, had a more difficult time making sense of this and figuring out ‘How much do I embrace this new identify of family of the fallen?’ ”

She says she was also surprised there was a difference between those who were part of a Highway of Heroes repatriation and those whose loved ones died before that tradition.

“That public outpouring of support was very significant,” says Harrington.

“Even people who were really traumatized by this, and completely overwhelmed, talked about the strong feeling of pride — even the pacifists,” she says, and it helped them get through that very difficult time of their lives.

Harrington says she hopes her research will be used to establish government policies regarding post-traumatic stress and practices to use with families who have went through similar trauma.

“It has application not just in the military, but other line-of-duty deaths,” she says.

Harrington spoke at three conferences in the fall to share her findings and plans to publish her work for a wider audience, perhaps in book form.

Families of fallen soldiers talk about grief

News Dec 31, 2014 Hamilton Mountain News

By Gord Bowes, News staff

Dozens of Canadian families have had to deal with the combat death of a soldier son or daughter in Afghanistan.

But how they deal with their grief had not been studied in depth until a Hamilton woman tackled the subject while completing her PhD in social work.

There is an assumption that all families grieve the same way, says Christina Harrington, but that is not the case.

“This is an area of grief and bereavement we really know nothing about,” says the east Mountain resident. “I can count on one hand the number of articles that talk about what grief and bereavement look like following a combat-related death.”

Harrington, whose business, Social Work Solutions Canada (socialworksolutionscanada.ca), includes helping people cope with injury, bereavement and post-traumatic stress, recently completed her doctorate at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She had in-depth interviews with 14 different military parents across the country.

She says she was surprised by some of what she discovered while researching her dissertation.

For example, some of the people Harrington interviewed would watch a YouTube video of the incident that took their son’s or daughter’s life.

“They were describing this as comforting,” says Harrington.

Viewing graphic details is counter-intuitive to the normal view of the grieving process, she says, but eventually she understood it as another way to “master” the traumatic incident. Sometimes by piecing the incident together themselves, grieving family members are better able to tolerate it, she said.

In the last 20 years, the understanding of how people grieve has changed significantly from the simplistic Kübler-Ross five stages of grief, said Harrington.

In regard to combat deaths and bereavement, there have been no Canadian studies.

“One of the new areas of grief and bereavement is understanding that rather than the idea of moving on, getting closure and forgetting the deceased is not reality for many people,” she says. “Many people want a sustained relationship in memory. They recognize it is a physical loss, but it’s more of a continued bond.”

The public often thinks of a combat death in terms of heroism or sacrifice for the greater good, says Harrington. But family members’ perception is shaped by their personal beliefs on the military.

Someone who believes in the work the troops are doing was better able to cope because it fit with their personal beliefs, she says. Those who didn’t believe in the mission, or thought the deaths were in vain, struggled with their acceptance of the death.

“People who described themselves as pacifists, or didn’t like the mission or war in general, had a more difficult time making sense of this and figuring out ‘How much do I embrace this new identify of family of the fallen?’ ”

She says she was also surprised there was a difference between those who were part of a Highway of Heroes repatriation and those whose loved ones died before that tradition.

“That public outpouring of support was very significant,” says Harrington.

“Even people who were really traumatized by this, and completely overwhelmed, talked about the strong feeling of pride — even the pacifists,” she says, and it helped them get through that very difficult time of their lives.

Harrington says she hopes her research will be used to establish government policies regarding post-traumatic stress and practices to use with families who have went through similar trauma.

“It has application not just in the military, but other line-of-duty deaths,” she says.

Harrington spoke at three conferences in the fall to share her findings and plans to publish her work for a wider audience, perhaps in book form.