Written by Will Thurston Class of ‘19
Since September 11, 2001, terrorism has been a persistent concern for many Americans. Terrorists around the world, often motivated by ideological extremism, use violence and destruction to inspire fear. Terror attacks can result in the deaths of unsuspecting people, whose families must then cope with the loss of their loved ones.
The death of a family member can have long-lasting negative effects for their surviving parents and siblings. Prolonged grief disorder (PGD), or complicated grief, is a condition where bereaved individuals experience especially severe and enduring feelings of yearning and distress related to their losses. Rates of PGD have been found to be higher than average in parents who have lost children and those who are affected by a violent loss.
On July 22nd, 2011, Norwegians experienced a devastating act of terror when a man detonated a car bomb in Oslo and committed a mass shooting at a youth summer camp on the nearby island of Utøya. 77 individuals were killed and over 300 sustained non-fatal injuries. Researchers investigated the long-term effects of this attack on bereaved parents and siblings, focusing on symptoms of prolonged grief (Kristensen, Dyregrov, Dyregrov, Heir, 2016).
132 parents and 84 siblings who had been bereaved by the Utøya attack were sent letters regarding their participation in the study and 67 parents and 36 siblings agreed to participate. Due to the nature of this sample all being connected by a similar experience and family relationships, the 103 included participants comprised 42 different families.
The participants were given a questionnaire 18 months after the attack which included measures for the degree of media exposure experienced in the month following the attack and prolonged grief symptoms. Scores for all participants on the prolonged grief measure indicated that about 80% of the sample could probably be diagnosed with PGD. As expected, individuals who were exposed to more media showed higher levels of symptoms.
This study does have some limitations, including the fact that it requires participants to remember details about their lives a year and a half in the past, and as a single questionnaire it cannot measure changes over time. Additionally, no information could be gathered about those who declined to participate in the study, and so it is unknown whether those individuals were different in some significant way than those who agreed to participate.
The findings of this study suggest that media exposure in the month following a traumatic loss can have long-term consequences for the bereaved. This information brings into question the practices of news and media companies who cover terror events on TV, radio and written formats. Pressure has been placed on media outlets to alter their coverage of violent acts to remove focus from the perpetrators and their methods and place it on victims and survivors (Follman, 2015). Perhaps there should also be a change in the extent and longevity afforded to coverage of terrorism for the sake of surviving family members.
Follman, Mark (2015, October 6). How the media inspires mass shooters References, Mother Jones. Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/10/media-inspires-mass-shooters-copycats/
Kristensen, P., Dyregrov, K., Dyregrov, A., & Heir, T. (2016). Media exposure and prolonged grief: A study of bereaved parents and siblings after the 2011 Utøya Island terror attack. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, And Policy, 8(6), 661-667. doi:10.1037/tra0000131
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