Gun violence often leads to the death of beloved family members and friends, co-workers, and neighbors. When someone you cared about dies suddenly as a result of a shooting, survivors are left with the pain and sorrow of grief. Everyone will experience grief at some point in their lives. It happens to all of us. Grieving is not an event in itself, but a process that lasts a lifetime. Everyone’s grief experience is their own and everyone grieves in their own time.
The Many Faces of Grief
For some people, the grieving process begins when they learn a loved one is dying from a terminal illness or disease. This is called anticipatory grief. While painful, the time spent with someone who is dying can be precious and meaningful by giving everyone involved a chance to talk, think and feel before the death. When someone is killed in an act of gun violence however, the grieving process may be very different for survivors. Victims are killed suddenly, violently, often leaving no time for goodbyes for family and friends.
“Normal” grief almost sounds strange because the thoughts, feeling and behaviors related with grief don’t always seem normal to the person experiencing it. However, sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness and other symptoms of grief are typical, common responses and expected. The bonds that tie us together as family or friends are changed in death and our relationships with those who have died change too. Some other signs and symptoms of grief include:
- Helplessness and/or hopelessness
- Agitation or irritability
- Mood swings
- Difficulty concentrating
- Eating too much or too little
- Sleeping too much or too little
Grieving and Gun Violence
Sometimes, grief turns into something that is more extreme and the person trying to cope may need professional help and support. Prolonged, severe grief symptoms lead to what is called traumatic or complicated grief. This is intense grief lasting more than six months that might negatively affect someone’s health and wellbeing. We understand this kind of grief to be different than depression or anxiety because it doesn’t respond to medication and treatment in the same way.
Signs and symptoms of complicated grief:
- Intense pain and sorrow
- Extreme focus or avoidance of reminders of your loved one
- Intense and constant wish for your loved one
- Problems accepting your loved one’s death
- Numbness and detachment
- Feeling like life has no purpose
- Ongoing belief that there was something you could have done to prevent your loved one’s death
There are many factors that contribute to someone experiencing complicated grief, including the nature of death (sudden, violent), exposure to trauma or multiple traumas, personal trauma history (for example, if you experienced trauma at an earlier point in your life), social isolation, prior history of mental illness and a combination of other life stressors (financial hardships, loss of job, etc.).
Throughout our lives, we have relationships with other people. Some bonds are closer than others, like a parent and child. These bonds help create meaning in our lives. When someone dies, that bond is changed, leaving a survivor to make sense of what happened. Not only do we have attachments with others, but we also hold certain beliefs about the world around us. Ideas about the world may change or be disrupted after someone dies by gun violence.
Many grief researchers suggest people who are grieving have four important tasks in their healing:
- Accept the reality of the loss, finding or creating meaning in the death of a loved one
- Process grief and pain
- Adjust to the world without a loved one it by doing things that help to make meaning in life, both within and with other people
- Find new ways to connect with the memory of the person who died while moving forward in life, thinking about how this changing connection can help in healing
For a survivor of gun violence, the act of meaning making can be difficult because their loved one’s death was sudden, unexpected, violent and senseless. Traumatic death leads survivors down a path where taking action can be important to healing. Asking “What matters now?” or “What can I do today?” may help a survivor gain a sense of control when some of the other question surrounding the death may never be answered.
Taking Care of Yourself
As you grieve and work towards what is often called “a new normal,” be gentle with yourself; grief is a process and takes time. While not everyone grieves in the same way, the following tips might help you in your healing journey.
Take care of basic needs.
While it might feel hard to do so, getting back into a daily routine may help to make you feel grounded as routine helps make us feel safe and secure. This is particularly important if you have children at home. Your daily schedule will likely look different than it did before your loved one died; try starting out small and know it’s okay if you don’t get to everything on your list. Even if you take on one task at a time, it’s a start. Begin with brushing your teeth daily or taking out the trash. These small activities will help you feel accomplished and will slowly bring you back into a regular pace.
Stay engaged with family and friends.
After the death of a loved one, maintaining relationships with family and friends can be difficult as relationships require effort. Family members may be grieving differently than you and you may feel out of sync with those you love, even your immediate family. However, these relationships may also give you the comfort and support you’ll need as you heal. Social isolation can lead to increased stress, loneliness, poor health and may make your grief journey more painful. However, not everyone will be a good source of support as you grieve. Seek out those who do support you while having some patience with others, or consider limiting your time with people who do not lift you up and give you the space you need.
Honor your feelings.
Not all feelings are rational, but all feelings are okay. People who grieve talk about feelings of anger, deep sadness, guilt, fear, confusion among others. Allowing yourself to feel what comes to you will help you to process your loved one’s death. You may have learned that one or more of these feelings are not necessary or appropriate. They are your body’s way of helping you through the meaning making process. Many grievers say you can’t walk around grief or under it; you eventually have to walk through it. If we shut out the feelings that make us feel uncomfortable or worse, in despair, we also risk losing the ability to feel joy, happiness, and love.
Know your limits.
As you grieve, you may feel pressured to do things, say things or feel things that are painful. That pressure may be from others or self-imposed. While honoring your feelings is a part of the healing process, you set the pace. It’s okay to set limits for yourself and to tell others while you appreciate them, right now you have to take care of yourself.
Seek support from peers or professionals.
Some people find it helpful to join a grief support group with others who have a shared experience. While no one knows exactly how you feel there are people whose loved ones died by gun violence. Their grief is not exactly like your grief, but you might find comfort from knowing others are walking a path to life without their loved one. Support groups are geared toward connecting people with one another, teaching skills to help cope and providing a safe space to do both. If you don’t feel ready to be in a group (and perhaps you never will), a grief counselor for one-on-one counseling may also be a good choice if you think you might need additional help in your grief journey.
It is not uncommon for people whose loved ones died from gun violence to experience traumatic or complicated grief. When someone dies as a result of a shooting, they have likely died unexpectedly and you had no time to prepare. If you find it difficult to slowly move back into your daily routines, and you are isolating yourself from others and the things you once enjoyed, you may want to consider talking with your doctor or a counselor who specializes in grief recovery.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
If you are having thoughts of suicide, reach out to a trusted friend or family member, or talk with your doctor or another helping professional. If you feel you might act on your suicidal thoughts, call 911 immediately for help. You can also use the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
To find additional resources, please go to the Finding Help section of our web page.
DISCLAIMER. This information does not and cannot constitute or substitute medical advice. Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund is an organization dedicated to educating and bringing awareness around the issue of gun violence prevention, and does not provide treatment advice. This fact sheet merely provides general information and coping tips. More importantly, mental health conditions are complex, people differ widely in their conditions and responses, and interactions with other conditions and treatments are best evaluated by a physical examination and consultation with a qualified clinician. Everytown suggests that this page is a good starting point to discuss potential needs with your physician or other health care practitioner.