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National Grief Study Launched to Help Military Families Manage Loss of a Loved One

Daughter of Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Dudley mourns during a wreath laying ceremony at Marine Week Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 8, 2018. SSgt. Dudley was assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 264, Marine Aircraft Group 26, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, and was killed in action while conducting combat operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Marine Week Charlotte commemorates the contributions of local Marines whose service to our nation has protected and preserved our way of life for hundreds of years. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Larisa Chavez)
By USU External Affairs

Military family members who have experienced the loss of a loved one in a duty-related death often describe continued challenges with bereavement long after the death of their loved one. As a result, experts at Uniformed Services University (USU) have just launched a new study to help bereaved military families.

The study -- Stepping Forward in Grief -- launched in August in collaboration with Columbia University’s Center for Complicated Grief. The team of researchers were motivated by key findings from USU’s National Military Family Bereavement Study (NMFBS), the first large scientific study on the impact of service member death on surviving family members. These findings suggest surviving family members, who have experienced the loss of a service member, may benefit from help managing their loss and grief with programs that recognize their unique experience as military families.

Elder woman's hands holding a folded flag
Colleen Palmer, receives a fold American flag during a full honors funeral service for her husband, Chief Master Sgt. Charles Palmer who was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, Va., July 27, 2018. Palmer, age 80, passed away at home with his family by his side Dec. 21, 2017. More than 100 family members, friends and SAM Fox Airmen attended the internment to pay their respects. Palmer served in the Air Force for 31 years. He spent 13 of those years serving as a flight attendant on board Air Force One and eleven years as Chief Flight Steward until his retirement in 1986. Palmer served Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. His legacy is etched in history and further honored with a display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston)

Over the last two years, the researchers have worked to develop new, innovative digital programs focused on loss, grief and wellness to support bereaved military families. The study is now seeking participants to enroll and help test out these programs. Eligible participants may include spouses, ex-spouses, adult partners, children, siblings, or parents (biological, step, or foster), age 18 or older, of a service member who died on or after Sept. 11, 2001, while serving in the military or as a result of their military services. More info about participating in the study can be found on the Stepping Forward in Grief website.

The digital programs are referred to as GriefSteps and WellnessSteps. GriefSteps is based on a model of grief therapy, used successfully with people with complicated grief, and suggests activities specifically designed to help individuals adapt to loss. WellnessSteps provides information and suggests activities designed to foster general health and wellness, including stress-management and health maintenance, which have been shown to help reduce distress.

In both programs, participants can message a program “guide” who is available to answer questions and share observations.

Elder woman crying at military cereomny
Ms. Irene Sgambelluri, Survivor of the Japanese occupation of Guam, reacts after placeing a wreath during an Army Full Honors Wreath Laying Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va.; July 16, 2018. The Wreath Laying Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in commemoration of the 74th Anniversary of the Liberation of Guam and the Battle for the Northern Mariana Islands. (DoD Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann)

“As a retired military psychiatrist, I look forward to testing how these digital programs help bereaved military family members with loss, grief and wellness. We are pleased that over two hundred have already signed up to participate,” said retired Army Col. (Dr.) Stephen J. Cozza, co-principal investigator on the study. Cozza is a professor of Psychiatry at USU and associate director of USU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress. “Equipping military families with resources that address the unique circumstance of their loss is an important part of honoring their service and sacrifice.”

“Loss and grief are universally recognized as highly challenging life experiences,” said M. Katherine Shear, M.D., Marion Kenworthy Professor of Psychiatry at the Columbia University School of Social Work, and study co-PI. “Most people find a way to adapt to even the most difficult losses when they are provided sufficient support. In studying how to help bereaved people who have not found a way forward, we came to understand the kinds of information and activities that can help. We are honored to have the opportunity to share these digital programs with bereaved military families and look forward to working with participants who join our study.”