Academic journal article Social Work

After Columbine: How People Mourn Sudden Death

Academic journal article Social Work

After Columbine: How People Mourn Sudden Death

Article excerpt

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.

This article attempts to increase our understanding of how people respond to multiple sudden deaths. The author begins by reviewing Bowlby's theory of attachment (1977), the stage model of mourning as described by Worden (1991), and the differences between mourning an anticipated death and a sudden death. The next part of the article, the case study, examines how people responded to the Columbine killings nationally, as a community, and as individuals and family members. The final part, practice implications, suggests that many grief projects are best understood within the context of Worden's task model of grieving (1991).

The mourning strategies described in this article suffer from a selection bias; media and scholarly sources that were available to the author reported externalized efforts, the decoration of fences and shrines, the creation of art objects and websites, the organization of social action efforts, and so forth. Art is meant to be shared and offers "photo-ops" for the news media. Social action efforts are also meant to be publicized. The internal struggles that people endured, the sleepless nights and days of despair, remain a private matter. Those who processed the pain through art or decoration, or by organizing for social change are known to us and discussed in this article; the others ate not.

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). …

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