Defense Department Studies Families Mourning Service Members
By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 25, 2012 The Defense Department’s Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences is conducting the nation’s first large-scale study of the impact of a service member’s death on surviving family members.
The university’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, based in Bethesda, Md., received funding through DOD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program to conduct the five-year study to fill a void in understanding the myriad ways families are affected by a service member’s death ranging from the emotional impact to loss of benefits, Dr. Stephen J. Cozza, director of the center’s child and family program and a principal investigator of the study, said today.
“This is an opportunity for recognizing that military service has certain unique challenges, certain strengths, certain risks or potential protective factors,” Cozza said in an American Forces Press Service interview. “So this is an important opportunity to really understand the experiences of surviving family members and by understanding, to inform future policies.”
In the first phase of the National Military Bereavement Study, the center is seeking about 3,000 participants through its website whose family member died while on active duty since 9/11, Cozza said, noting that several hundred participants already are lined up. One-third of those deaths have been combat-related, one-third have been from accidents, and a significant number have been from illnesses and suicide, he said. The study will include any causes of death, and participants may be spouses or ex-spouses, parents, siblings or children by birth, marriage or adoption.
Participants will be asked to fill out a questionnaire in the study’s first phase. Then, they will be asked if they and their families will participate in the second phase, which studies families, including children ages 6 to 18, with in-person interviews.
In the first phase, participants also will be asked if they are willing to provide a saliva sample to provide genetic information to help understand whether a genetic factor applies to risk and resilience, Cozza said.
“Most people after a death – adults or children – have clear and significant mourning,” he said. “Over time, most return to healthy functioning, even if they continue to harbor grief and sadness. … But there does seem to be some population of adults and children where there are more complicated courses of bereavement. … We want to understand the likely risk factors for that.”
The study will follow families over the course of two years to understand how bereavement changes over time, Cozza said, adding that investigation of families isn’t well-known in the civilian world either.
“No two people’s experiences are the same,” Cozza said. “We really want to give as broad a description of these surviving family members as possible in all these relationship categories.”
The center has several nonprofit partners with the study, including the National Military Family Association, the Military Child Education Coalition, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and others.