Entangled in grief: Coping with tragedy takes new twists with farm families

SALEM, Ohio – A family member’s death is difficult, but when it’s on a farm, the loss takes another challenging dynamic.
In the case where a wife loses her husband, she’s not only losing her spouse, but she may also be losing the sole operator of the farm.
Even while dealing with the shock, and then her grief, she must make sure the business runs – the animals are fed, the cows are milked, the crops are harvested. She continues to see the tractor, the bull, the auger where her husband died. Every time she walks out her back door, she sees where she found him.
She takes on the responsibility of running the farm. As much as she wishes her husband was back in her arms, she also wishes he was back to help out with chores, fix the combine, order the seed.
It gets to be too much. Keeping up with the housework, watching the kids, running the farm and maybe an off-farm job, too. And then there’s the mourning. She’s tired; the neighbors have been helping but she knows they’re neglecting their own chores to be there for her.
She wonders how her husband would feel if she sold it all. But then she’d be selling what he had worked a lifetime to create.
This is hypothetical, but the core feelings are not.

Figuring what’s next

When a family member dies or is injured, shutting down the farm for a few days usually isn’t an option, said Sally Maud Robertson, a Penn State researcher.
Robertson has spent years studying the emotional and social impacts of farm accidents. Most recently, she interviewed Pennsylvania families who had a loved one either killed or disabled in a farming accident.
It’s not long after an injury or death that the family must figure out how to keep the farm going.
That depends on who was injured, Robertson said. Was it a key worker? Will he or she be able to return to work? At what level? When?
The family doesn’t always have these answers right away.
It’s not uncommon for the farm to go under or be sold or at least to have the land rented to another farmer, she said.
In other cases, family and neighbors show up in masses to help milk the cows, get the corn in, or fill the silos.
“We found in our study that this can be both very helpful and somewhat problematic,” Robertson said.
In one case Robertson studied, a bereaved woman came out of her house one morning and saw cars and people all over her farm. She didn’t know what to do, Robertson said. Everyone wanted to help and although she appreciated that, she was also overwhelmed and felt like training them would’ve been more effort than it was worth.
That led to feelings of guilt and added pressure, Robertson said.

Addressing feelings

In one situation, a farmer asked a family member to reach over and turn on the tractor. But the tractor was in gear and ran over the farmer, Robertson said.
The family member felt responsible. A well-meaning minister, however, assured the family member it was just an accident.
This didn’t help, Robertson said.
It’s an awful reality, but this person did have some responsibility, Robertson said; the person did not check to see if the tractor was in gear. And the family member needed to address those feelings.
These feelings of self-blame happen with other tragedies, but it’s intensified with farm accidents.
It’s common for spouses, friends and family members to wonder if they had done something differently, if it would’ve saved the person, Robertson said, and it’s no different with farm families.
“If a young person or much older adult is killed – both groups liable for higher rates of ag injuries – there can be concerns about whether they were working beyond their abilities,” she said.
“Or if someone didn’t come in from the fields when they had said or usually do, and it took awhile before someone went to look for them, they might believe that they could have saved them if they had gone earlier.”

Cost of safety

One troubling thing, Robertson said, is that farmers often say they didn’t make safety improvements because it cost too much.
But afterward, she said, the families always find the money to make the changes.
By then, however, it’s too late for the victim.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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