Peer Homicide and Traumatic Loss: An Examination of Homicide Survivorship among Low-Income, Young, Black Men

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Smith, Jocelyn R.
Roy, Kevin M.
Community violence remains a critical public health concern in the United States and a chronic threat to the well-being of boys and men of color. Homicide is the leading cause of death for Black males ages 15-34 (CDC, 2011). This health disparity simultaneously places them at risk for experiencing the traumatic loss of a peer and becoming homicide survivors. The likelihood that Black youth will have someone close murdered is 7.8 times that of Whites (Finkelhor et al., 2005), and previous research evidences significant mental and behavioral health consequences for surviving loved ones of homicide victims (Hertz et al., 2005; Zinzow et al., 2009). However, insufficient attention has been paid to experiences of surviving youth in urban contexts, and the experiences of Black male homicide survivors have been almost entirely overlooked. Grounded in a Life Course Perspective (Elder & Giele, 2009), this study used an ethnographic approach, including life history calendar methods, to investigate the lived experiences of young, Black male survivors of peer homicide in low-income, urban contexts. Specifically, this study examined: 1) how the context of place shaped young men's exposures to violence, traumatic loss, and perceptions of safety and vulnerability; 2) the frequency and timing of peer homicide(s) across the life course; and, 4) survivors' grief, coping, and recovery strategies and processes. In-depth interviews and field observations were conducted with 40 young, Black men (ages 18-24) in Baltimore City, Maryland. Data were analyzed using a modified grounded theory approach and the data were coded in three waves: open, axial, and selective. Study findings indicate that chronic and unpredictable violence in young men's Baltimore neighborhoods constantly positioned them vulnerable to witnessing, experiencing, surviving, or dying from violence. Young men on average survived three homicide deaths across the life course, revealing the disparity of traumatic loss among this group. A contextually relevant, trauma-informed framework of homicide survivorship emerged from participant narratives of grief, vulnerability, coping, and recovery. These findings indicate peer homicide and traumatic loss as multidimensional threats to healthy transitions to adulthood for young Black men, and present implications for multilevel systems research, prevention practice, and policy development.