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Military seeks volunteers for a study that could help grieving families

Military researchers have put out a call for surviving military family members to participate in a study that tests whether two programs can help this unique community better manage their grief.

The study is open to those who are at least 18, and suffered the loss of a service member who died while serving in the military or as a result of their military service on or after Sept. 11, 2001. Eligible participants are spouses, ex-spouses, adult partners, adult children, adult siblings and parents (biological, step or foster). Participants should be able to understand written and spoken English, have an active email account, and regular access to a personal computer and/or a smartphone.

The study is being conducted by the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences — the academic arm of the Military Health System — and Columbia University. It tests two online programs to see whether they can help grieving military families find ways to adapt and manage that grief.

“We appreciate people’s willingness to participate in the research, both potentially to help themselves, as well as to help future military family members who are affected by duty-related loss,” said Dr. Stephen J. Cozza, a retired Army colonel and military psychiatrist who is a co-principal investigator on the study.

Additional information about the study and enrollment procedures is available at the Stepping Forward in Grief website. It’s funded by a $3 million, four-year grant from DoD’s congressionally directed medical research program.

Those who are chosen to participate will be given access to one of two digital programs — GriefSteps or WellnessSteps — for six months. The study is scheduled to finish in fall 2019. To date, researchers have accepted 163 people into the study; they can enroll up to 750 people.

“Bereaved military family members live in communities all around the country, and they have varying access to grief support services,” said Cozza, a professor of psychiatry at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and associate director of the university’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress. “Our goal has been to try to develop programs that could be used virtually, either on a mobile device or on the computer. In addition, these programs can complement services provided by other programs committed to helping bereaved military family members.

“For both the GriefSteps and WellnessSteps programs, participants will also have a guide — someone assigned to answer questions and engage them about how best to use the resources,” Cozza said.

“The guides provide a bit of a more personal touch, but it’s not a requirement of participation,” he said, noting that some prefer to use the program more on their own.

Dr. M. Katherine Shear, psychiatry professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work, and founder and director of the university’s Center for Complicated Grief, is the study’s other co-principal investigator. The digital program GriefSteps was developed as a result of her work. It’s based on a model of grief therapy that has been used successfully with people with complicated grief, and provides information and activities that help with successful adaptation to loss.

The other digital program, WellnessSteps, provides information and activities that promote general health and wellness, including stress management and health maintenance.

“A lot of times, folks have trouble caring for themselves and focusing on their health and well-being after bereavement,” Cozza said.

By continuing to study the military survivor community, Cozza said, researchers have found that some people struggle with grief for a number of years after the loss.

“We know that grief never goes away, but at the same time, some people have levels of grief that indicate they’re suffering with it as though it was an experience that happened very recently, and it continues to make it difficult for them to find any happiness in their lives after the death, sometimes many years later,” Cozza said.

“There may be ways of managing grief that allow people to live their lives productively, in a way that allows them some happiness, even while they still experience the loss of that person who died. …. We want to help people so that grief finds its rightful place in their lives.”

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