Ruth Rollins dedicated her life to helping survivors of domestic violence as an advocate in Boston. Yet when her 21-year-old son Warren Daniel Hairston was killed in community violence in the city’s Roxbury neighborhood in 2007, she wasn’t open to accepting help.
Rollins found herself “suffering in silence” as she dealt with the loss of a child and the stigma she felt as the parent of someone who contributed to violence. She suffered from severe depression, isolating herself for months. But eventually, she got treatment for her mental health and grieved by doing even more activism.
“I was a mother impacted by both sides of gun violence,” she said. “I felt like I had to make places for my healing.”
Rita Henderson’s daughter died when she was 24 years old of a heart murmur. Her death sent the longtime church choir director away from the church and into a “blue fog” of depression and physical illness. “I was not taking the time to properly grieve,” said Henderson.
In one week, a patient of New Orleans clinical psychologist Dr. Baraka Perez lost three family members to COVID-19: her father, brother and a nephew. “I’m seeing more of that than I care to,” she said.
More than 18 million parents in the United States like Rollins have experienced the death of a child for any reason: sudden, unexpected infant death, violence, accidents, illnesses, mass shootings or, more recently, the COVID-19 virus, according to an estimate by Joyal Mulheron, founder and executive director of the nonprofit bereavement advocacy group Evermore. And yet, bereavement care is “virtually absent in our health care system,” said Mulheron, who started Evermore after losing a baby at five months old.
And with COVID deaths spiking again across the country, the number of people who need bereavement care will only go up. For every COVID-19 death, about nine Americans will lose a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse or child, according to a study by Pennsylvania State University professor Ashton Verdery published by the National Academy of Sciences. By February 2021, about 3.6 million people will be left bereaved because of COVID-19, Verdery said.
The tradition of helping a neighbor through death with food and sympathy isn’t enough now. “Casseroles aren’t a solution,” said Mulheron. “This is a crisis. The scale of the solution has to match the scale of the problem.”
Grief has negative effects on health
Grief harms the health of the grieving. Bereavement leads to increased rates of marital disruption and early exit from the workforce, Mulheron and Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Sharon Inouye reported in an article on the National Academy of Medicine’s website. Studies also show bereaved parents are more likely to suffer cardiac events, immune dysfunction, depressive symptoms, dementia and even premature death, and that these effects on physical and mental health are long-lasting.
Black parents are more at risk. They’re nearly three times more likely than white parents to lose a child by age 30 and more than four times more likely to lose a child by age 80. Black children are also three times more likely than white children to lose a mother by the age of 10, according to Debra Umberson, professor of sociology and director of the Center on Aging and Population Sciences (CAPS) at the University of Texas at Austin.
“These losses add to that health disadvantage over time,” Umberson said.
The pain of losing a family member may make it more difficult for bereaved children to focus in class or attend school and may negatively affect educational development. Umberson recommended “monitoring systems” to identify these children as the “effects build over their life course.”
There are no legal protections for employees suffering from grief; the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) doesn’t cover the death of a family member. Workers may get paid bereavement leave of three days to one week, but there’s no consistency between employers, Mulheron said.
Employers don’t understand how debilitating grief is and how difficult it can be to go back to work, said Jena Kirkpatrick, who became an advocate for better bereavement care after her son died in a 2011 car crash
“The system always failed me,” Kirkpatrick said at Evermore’s summit.“The Monday after my son was killed, I begged my husband to stay home from work. He lost his job.”
No help for the grieving
Grief experts, activists including Hollywood actors and industry leaders are calling on the incoming Biden administration to establish the first White House Office of Bereavement Care. At a virtual summit on November 19, they outlined research findings on detrimental social, economic and health effects on the bereaved, their families and communities to push for a comprehensive vision of care for those who experience loss.
Kenneth Feinberg, an attorney and victim compensation advocate who was in charge of the fund for victims of 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, said grieving families need the opportunity to “vent about life’s unfairness, to discuss and validate the memory of a lost loved one” with the administrator of funds set up to compensate the families, he said. A White House Office of Bereavement Care could help standardize care and communication in communities after mass casualties.
“Learning on the ground about bereavement and empathy is something that’s not easy,” said Feinberg. The most important element of community response to tragedy is transparency, “to let them know, we’re here to help.”
Dr. Toni Miles, a physician, epidemiologist and professor at the University of Georgia, said in 2018 and 2019 alone, two million people in Georgia were “newly bereaved,” totaling about 45 percent of the population.
The bulk of the grief is experienced by adults in mid-life, Miles said, and those are the people who “hold up the sky for all of us.”
Grief an ‘ongoing process’
Entertainment journalist Anita Busch became an advocate for mass casualty victims’ families after her cousin was killed in the Aurora, Colo., theater mass shooting in 2012 that left 12 dead and 70 injured. The length of time after an event and how people are notified needs to be improved, she said. It took more than19 hours for her family to learn her cousin was dead.
After mass shootings, family members are “herded into a room” at the scene where there will often be lists on the wall of hospitals where people were taken. Busch recounted one instance when a mother asked a police employee where her child was, and the person replied curtly: “If she’s not on the list, she’s dead.”
There is a need for trained trauma specialists, Busch said, not only for families but for the entire community. There should be security and privacy provided for families at funerals, and it should be up to the families, not the media, whether the deceased’s coroner’s report is made public. Memorials should also be held somewhere other than where the murders actually took place, as “no family really wants to see their loved one’s killing ground over and over again,” she said.
Rollins is seldom far from the site of her late son’s still-unsolved killing — or grief.
To help prevent others from experiencing what she has, Rollins co-founded the nonprofit Operation LIPSTICK (Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killing) to stop gun trafficking and straw buying of firearms in urban communities by appealing to the women who help their partners hide, buy or hold guns. More than 5,000 women signed the pledge and about 100 remain active in the group. She also created We Are Better Together, the Warren Daniel Hairston Project, to help mothers whose children have suffered from or inflicted violence in the community and create a support system so parents wouldn’t feel as alone as she did.
Thirteen years after the loss of her son, “Thanksgiving was hard for me,” she said.
When she grieves, she cooks, and she had plenty to cook for including the 16-year-old daughter of her late son and her formerly incarcerated son, who is still grieving the loss of his brother while he was behind bars. His beloved grandmother, Rollins’ mother, also died while he was in prison, along with five friends in other homicides. With the women she works with, Rollins said it’s important to “lift that mother up” so the mental illness, addiction and heart attacks Rollins sees so often are prevented and the women can “interrupt the cycle of violence.”
Now 21 years in recovery from drugs and alcohol and stronger from her activism and mental health treatment, Rollins can be there for the other mothers and her son, 36, who is struggling with social isolation due to COVID-19 along with the losses.
“Grief is an ongoing process,” said Rollins. “We have to allow, respect and honor people where they are with their grief.”
Contributing: Samarah Bentley of the Urban Health Media Project, www.urbanhealthmedia.org
Editor’s note: Workshops for Urban Health Media Project student reporters who contributed to this story were funded by The National Council for Behavioral Health www.thenationalcouncil.org.