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A Dissertation Presented to

the Faculty of Simmons College School of Social Work

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree

Doctor of Philosophy

By Denise E. Hildreth

© April 2016


Exploring the Relationship between Homicide Bereavement and Employment: Homicide Survivors Describe the Meaning, Value, and Challenges of Working Following Traumatic Loss

Denise E. Hildreth

Simmons College School of Social Work

Michelle Putnam, PhD, Chairperson


The homicide of a family member presents survivors with unique grieving challenges that affect all areas of life. There is a growing body of research and practice literature that reflects efforts to describe the multidimensional bereavement experience of homicide survivors, as well as methods to assist and support them. However, a discussion of their employment challenges and needs is largely absent. This qualitative study examined the juxtaposition of homicide bereavement and employment through interviews with 20 individuals, all people of color, bereaved by the homicide of a close family member who were living in Boston and working at the time of the murder. Specifically, this research explored the effect that homicide bereavement has on the survivor’s employment and the influence of employment experiences on the grieving and coping process. The research findings suggest that the homicide of a family member is a devastating, traumatizing, and destabilizing loss, creating physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges that affect one’s ability to function and cope. As an integral part of one’s life, employment was found to be inevitably affected by the participants’ bereavement experiences and new identities as homicide survivors. Relatedly, survivors’ employment experiences, both positive and negative, had an effect on their bereavement process and ability to cope and move forward in the wake of the murder. Furthermore, the findings suggest that having a supportive, flexible, and coping-conducive workplace characterized by patience, empathy, understanding, and sensitivity could serve a stabilizing function, helping survivors cope and effectively maintain employment while grieving. This study has the potential not only to contribute to the growing research, but to inform clinical practice with this population and, perhaps most centrally, shape employment policy and practice around homicide bereavement.

“I died. This is my best description...you ride roller coasters? ... I think the intensity of riding the ride is hearing the click, click, click ... and then the roller coaster starts to roll ... your stomach goes, like crazy, and you reach instinctively for that bar ... it's like reaching for that bar, but never having it and never falling any further to level off.”

- Cleopatra Pendleton, mother of Hidiya Pendleton, 15 year old girl murdered in Chicago on January 29, 2013 when asked what happened after she was informed of her daughter’s death

CBS 48 Hours May 18, 2013


I am deeply grateful to the 20 Boston family members of homicide victims who trusted me with their stories. It is to these women and men, and the family members they lost, that this dissertation is dedicated. Their willingness to share their experiences of loss and survivorship has created the possibility for greater understanding around the unique challenges of homicide bereavement and, hopefully, change employment practice and policy. Alongside my participants, I am immensely thankful for the support of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute staff members. These individuals welcomed me into their professional community, treated me as a friend, and guided me through the many phases of this project. It is through their generosity, patience, and belief in my ability to conduct this work with sensitivity and integrity that this study was made possible.

In addition, I would like to thank my dissertation chair, Dr. Michelle Putnam. It was her early interest in my work and willingness to invest in my development as a researcher that allowed me to gain the confidence and skills needed to become a social work scholar. Like Dr. Putnam, my other committee members, Dr. Mary Gilfus, Dr. Kristie Thomas, Dr. Kenneth Doka, and Dr. Edward Rynearson provided critical guidance and input at key points along my dissertation journey, each contributing richly to the way I understood and conducted this research.

Finally, I’d like to thank my family, including my parents, in-laws, siblings, and extended family members whose sacrifices and support allowed me to fulfill this dream of doctoral education. Most especially, I am grateful to my husband and children whose steadfast dedication to me and this project allowed me to get to this point. My husband, Michael Hildreth, sustained me through this process with his calm, steady demeanor, unfailing humor, confidence in my abilities, and refusal to let me give up. He unselfishly made my goals his own and created the space I needed to think, write, and immerse myself in this research in a way that would do it justice. My children, Sam and Maddie, grew from young children into teenagers during my time as a doctoral student, maturing as my research did. Being able to share in their lives, interests, and activities provided a constant source of positive energy, fueling me to push on. I am incredibly proud of the ways they have been able to understand, appreciate, and support my choice to do this work and the social justice goals behind it.






Statement of the Problem 1

Purpose and Goals of the Study 4


Bereavement and Grief 6

Complicated, Prolonged and Persistent Bereavement 10

Homicide Bereavement 14

Bereavement and Employment 19

Bereavement-Related Employment Policy 22

Literature Review Conclusion 25

Theoretical Framework for Understanding Bereavement and the Workplace 26

Symbolic Interaction Theory 28

Attachment Theory 30

Trauma Theory 32

Ecological Perspective & the Lens of Critical Race Theory 34


Study Design & Rationale 38

Community Partner Collaboration and Participation 39

Research Questions 42

Definition of Terms 42

Study Sample and Inclusion Criteria 43

Sample Stratification 43

Sampling Strategy and Participant Recruitment 45

Study Participants 47

Data Collection 52

Instrument Piloting and Inclusion of Co-Interviewer 53

Data Sources 54

Ethical Considerations 55

Data Management and Analysis 58

Credibility, Trustworthiness and Rigor of the Research 61


Homicide is a Unique, Devastating & Traumatizing Loss, 69

Challenging all Areas of Life

Shock, confusion, and overwhelming grief 71

Homicide is “not normal”: Sudden, untimely, violent, and senseless 75

Stigma, racialization, and disenfranchisement 79

Victimization and anger 80

Physical and emotional effects 83

Working While Grieving a Homicide is Challenging 87

Being unable to work and taking bereavement time off 87

Amount of time off 87

Purpose of time off 92

Returning to work 96

Managing grief and sadness in an unprepared workplace 99

Grief related job loss 105

Working While Grieving a Homicide is Beneficial 109

Work as a protective factor, buffer, and coping resource 109

Work as normalcy, stability, respite from grief 109

Work as social support and coping resource 114

Support in the immediate aftermath of the murder 114

Support upon return to work: Creation of coping- 118

conducive employment settings

Support over time: Supporting the long term needs of 129

homicide survivors in the workplace


Summation and Interpretation of Findings

The homicide bereavement experience as a unique, devastating 137

& traumatizing loss, challenging all areas of life

Homicide bereavement and employment influence one another: 141

The benefits and challenges of working

The benefits of employment – work as a protective factor 142

during homicide bereavement

The challenges of employment – work as a risk factor 145

during homicide bereavement

Creation of a coping-conducive workplace: supporting the 148

working homicide survivor

Implications for Bereavement Theory 152

Strengths and Limitations of the Study 159

Implications for Social Work Practice 162

Implications for Clinical Work 165

Implications for Policy 169

Implications and Recommendations for Future Research 171