Grief Reactions in the Wake of Community Violence


BY: Diane Snyder Cowan

CATEGORY: Grief and Loss
Day after day we hear stories of community violence. Acts of aggression happen.  These impact the lives of children and adults as well as those who protect citizens and those who mean to harm others. Some of these incidents may have happened in your home town.

It is not uncommon to experience the roller coaster of emotions that accompany grief after an incident of community violence whether you personally experience it or view it on social media or the television set in your home.   

It can be difficult to wrap your head around the violence on the campus of The Ohio State University or the senseless killings in Orlando, Santa Barbara, Dallas or Cleveland. And watching the news can take a toll on your mental health.  You may experience vicarious trauma watching all the distress and being helpless to do anything about it. Even if you live somewhere else, you can feel traumatized.  

It is important to understand that community violence falls outside our usual experience, what we expect life to be like. This can shatter our sense of well-being. We may experience very strong reactions that could include fear, helplessness, shock, anger, and, sometimes, horror.  These reactions are normal responses to an extremely difficult time in our lives. Trauma reactions mixed with our grief can be overwhelming.   

While we may feel like we are in "another world," the world around us does not stop. Feelings of trauma and grief can be compounded with additional changes and losses. Many people experience the loss of their sense of safety in the world, their trust of neighbors, those in their community and the local government.    

Grief Reminders
  • Grief is a normal and necessary process associated with any loss.
  • Grief involves physical as well as emotional, cognitive and spiritual responses.
  • Grief is hard work; it takes a lot of energy.
  • Deal with one hour, one day at a time.  The whole situation can be overwhelming if looked at all at once.
  • You do not get over grief in the sense of forgetting; rather, grief will lessen and soften with time.  
Things that Help

The signs and symptoms of a traumatic grief reaction may last a few days, a few weeks, a few months or longer.  The understanding and support of family and friends can help the stress reactions pass more quickly.  There are a number of things that can help during this very difficult time. 
  • Maintain as normal a schedule as possible (as impossible as it seems); structure your time
  • Follow the basics for good health (even when you don't feel like it) – rest, eat well, exercise
  • Avoid numbing the pain with overuse of drugs or alcohol; go easy on caffeine
  • Talk to people – reach out, spend time with others
  • Do things that feel good to you – take a walk, listen to music, keep a feelings journal, etc.
  • Give yourself permission to feel the pain and share these feelings with others 
Moving Forward:

Grief is transformative.  It can transform a single person and an entire community.  Resiliency abounds. There is an inner capacity to withstand stress and catastrophe, to adapt and to rebuild after a community tragedy. Here are some examples of changing and growing through grief:
  • Becoming more understanding and accepting
  • Becoming socially active
  • Increasing appreciation for loved ones and others
If you have experienced the death of a loved one or have been exposed to community violence which may be triggering grief reactions, know that you are not alone and resources are available to you. Please contact us at the bereavement center.


About Diane Snyder Cowan​
Diane Snyder Cowan is the director of Western Reserve Grief Services.

She oversees the hospice and bereavement programs and expressive therapy. Diane is a Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Administrator and a Board Certified Music Therapist.

She currently serves as the Section Leader for the Bereavement Professional Section of the National Council of Hospice and Palliative Professionals and previously served on the Board of Directors of the Certification Board for Music Therapy.

Diane has presented on music therapy and grief and loss throughout the country and has written for many publications on music therapy and on grief and loss.

She strives to provide support and education to grieving individuals and those who work with them.