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Supporting the survivors

Elizabeth Pomeroy, co-director of the Institute for Grief, Loss and Family Survival, discusses an approach to empower the grieving.

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Seemingly random and irrational acts of violence, such as with the recent shootings in Arizona, can be difficult to make sense of — especially for survivors.

“We as a nation, are called upon to search for meaning, inspiration and hope,” said Dr. Elizabeth C. Pomeroy, professor in the School of Social Work and co-director of the Institute for Grief, Loss and Family Survival.

The institute was established by the School of Social Work in 2004 as an academic and community partnership that investigates the needs of people who have experienced grief and loss.

Its goal is to enhance and support individual and family survival.

“If survivors cannot make sense of the tragedy, it is more likely that the grief they experience will be marked by further unresolved distress, as well as the potential for other mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and post traumatic distress syndrome,” Pomeroy said.

It is instances like the shootings, that can remind people of how closely the lives of strangers can be intertwined, she said.

“Our nation, once again, is called into a serious dialogue while providing support to a community in mourning, which simultaneously experienced violence, trauma and grief within hours of each other,” she added.

Pomeroy refers to this kind of loss as “traumatic loss,” a loss that is unexpected and violent in nature. She said it often leads to complicated grief reactions that shatter a person’s “assumptive world view.”

According to her research and findings, during the aftermath of a crisis, reminders of the trauma may contribute to intense psychological and physiological reactivity. For example, a person may have trouble eating and sleeping, experience headaches, muscle pain and tension and a lack of energy. There are social side effects, too.

In “The Grief Assessment and Intervention Workbook: A Strengths-Based Perspective,” written by Pomeroy and Renee Bradford Garcia, the authors explore various theories of grief and possible grief intervention approaches.

“Unfortunately, we often unintentionally, leave families and friends of the victims, as well as the bystanders of such a catastrophe, to cope with their traumatic grief experiences on their own,” Pomeroy said.

That’s where the institute can help, to disseminate best practices in addressing grief and loss issues.

A strengths-based approach, like what is written about in the workbook, assesses the strengths of the individual and empowers them.

Pomeroy and Garcia developed a basic conceptual framework for a strengths based approach, that includes the belief that “many symptoms of grief, though they may be uncomfortable and are commonly regarded as ‘negative’ symptoms, are healthy coping mechanisms.”

Pomeroy is co-director of the grief institute with Dr. Barbara Jones, associate professor of social work.