The purpose of this paper is to examine the impact of the sudden and violent death (particularly through firearms) of a father on the rest of his family, namely his children and spouse. It examines different features of the impact that sudden and violent death can have on children, spouses, and the family structure. It presents statistics related to these phenomena, focusing primarily on findings drawn from the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also looks at how such a death of a father can contribute to long term emotional and psychological problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder (BPD), and schizophrenia.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2016) in 2014 roughly 16,000 individuals died as a result of homicide. Though the CDC (2016) does not identify how many of those deaths were the result of firearms violence, it is obvious that violent death is no small problem in the United States. Each of those violent deaths represents a family who has lost someone – a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a friend. The death of an individual ripples out beyond that individual; it has an impact on all the people connected to that single person, for better or worse. But what is that impact exactly? When a father dies a violent firearms death, how does that affect his family? What are the experiences of his children and wife? This paper will examine the impact of the violent death by firearms of a father on his surviving family, namely his children and his wife.
Assuming that the man had a good relationship with his family, the fallout of his death – regardless of whether it was violent or not – will be grief and bereavement. They are likely to experience the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Kübler-Ross & Kessler, 2014). Whenever a person loses someone they love and value, these are the most likely reactions. However, does a violent death change that grief? There is evidence that it does. When an individual has trouble coping with the death of a loved one to the point of having difficulty functioning, this is called poor bereavement outcome (Kaltman & Bonanno, 2003). One of the most significant risk factors for poor bereavement outcome is “sudden, unexpected death” (Kaltman & Bonanno, 2003, p. 132). A sudden, violent death would fit quite appropriately in the category of sudden, unexpected death. Additionally, “violent deaths have often been implicated in excessive or traumatic grief reactions” (Kaltman & Bonanno, 2003, p. 133). Therefore, a sudden death by shooting would increase the likelihood that the man’s wife and children could experience poor bereavement outcomes.
It should also be noted that the experience of the wife and the children may be quite different. Children tend to process their grief more slowly than adults (Young, 1996). Children may also blame the surviving parent – in this case, their mother – for the death of the other parent (Young, 1996). However, the reactions of children will really depend on their age and ability to understand (Young, 1996). Clearly infants will not appreciate what is going on cognitively. However, if their needs are not met, they may exhibit distress and fear (Young, 1996). Toddlers may have similar reactions. But older children may comprehend better and therefore have more intense reactions. Regardless, the death of a parent can undermine a child’s sense of security and safety, since parents are a source of “nurturing, care, and stability” (Young, 1996, p. 26).
One such outcome is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Originally only people who had first-hand experiences with “rare and horrific events” could receive such a diagnosis (Kaltman & Bonanno, 2003, p. 132). However, it soon became apparent that people who had not immediately and first-hand experienced traumatic events were exhibiting the symptoms of PTSD, so the DSM was modified to reflect a broader category of experiences. Now, a person who has experienced, witnesses, or been confronted with “actual or threatened death, injury, or threat to the physical integrity of oneself or other people” can be diagnosed with PTSD (Kaltman & Bonanno, 2003, p. 132). This set of criteria means that “the death of another person” can be considered a potentially traumatic event (Kaltman & Bonanno, 2003, p. 132). Studies suggest that people who have lost a family member to homicide exhibit “symptoms of intrusion, avoidance, and hyperarousal characteristic of PTSD) (Kaltman & Bonanno, 2003, p. 134). Based on these findings, one may find that the family, children and mother, may experience symptoms of PTSD, contributing to poor bereavement outcomes.
But how common are these experiences? How often do men die by violent death, particularly firearms? Is there more than qualitative data suggesting that the violent death of a family member can be a traumatic experience? Unfortunately, there is a significant amount of quantitative data associated with this phenomenon. Homicide by firearm is the leading cause of violence-related injury deaths of males 25-34, representing 32.2% of that death type (CDC, 2014a). In males 35-44, homicide by firearm is the third leading cause of death, representing 21.3% of all causes of that death type (CDC, 2014b). These percentages in these two age categories – those most likely associated with married men with children at home – have the potential to signify many families deeply affected by the violent death of the man of the family. In considering impacts on the family, it is important to return to the issue of PTSD. Kaltman and Bonanno (2003) note that 23.3% of immediate family members who experienced the loss of a family member to homicide developed PTSD, usually categorized as life PTSD
Interestingly, there appears to be some connection between the sudden and potentially violent death of a father and psychotic illness. Clarke et al. (2013) sought to determine if the experience of a severe and acute stressor during early development could increase the likelihood that an individual might develop schizophrenia and/or bipolar disorder (BPD). Their findings revealed that independent of sex, a family history of psychiatric illness, the individual’s age at the time of exposure, and age at the time of the interview, individuals who experienced the sudden loss of a father also experienced increased risk of developing BPD or schizophrenia later in life (Clarke et al., 2013).
Coupled with the research on PTSD and grieving, this suggests that the most significant impact that the sudden and violent death of a father has is the potential to completely disrupt a family’s stability both mentally and emotionally. The experience can psychologically and emotionally undermine a child’s health, leading to increased risk for PTSD, BPD, and schizophrenia. While the mother may cope better owing to her maturity and support systems, she too faces some challenges. She must cope with her own grief while trying to help her children, facing the risk of PTSD and dealing with anxiety. She also has practical concerns which can increase her stress which increases anxiety. The CDC’s (2016) emphasis on violence prevention is critical for preventing such problems whenever possible to preserve these families and the individuals that compose those families.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014a). 10 leading causes of violence-related injury
deaths, United States: 2014, all races, males, ages: 25-34. National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), National Vital Statistics System. Retrieved from https://webappa.cdc.gov/cgi-bin/broker.exe?_service=v8prod&_server=aspv-wisq-1.cdc.gov&_port=5099&_sessionid=/fQKmf2mO52&_program=wisqars.dd_percents10.sas&age1=25&age2=34&agetext=25-34&category=VIO&_debug=0
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014b). 10 leading causes of violence-related
injury deaths, United States: 2014, all races, males, ages: 35-44. National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), National Vital Statistics System. Retrieved from https://webappa.cdc.gov/cgi-bin/broker.exe?_service=v8prod&_server=aspv-wisq-1.cdc.gov&_port=5099&_sessionid=/fQKmf2mO52&_program=wisqars.dd_percents10.sas&age1=35&age2=44&agetext=35-44&category=VIO&_debug=0
- Clarke, M. C., Tanskanen, A., Huttunen, M. O., & Cannon, M. (2013). Sudden death of father or
sibling in early childhood increases risk for psychotic disorder. Schizophrenia Research, 143(2), 363-366.
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- Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2014). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief
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victim assistance professionals. National Organization for Victim Assistance. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Photocopy/165814NCJRS.pdf