Community Outreach: Stepping Forward in Grief Study

By on Wednesday, September 16, 2020

In fall 2018, the Stepping Forward in Grief Study, a research study that developed and tested innovative, mobile and web guide-supported applications to assist grieving military families, hired us to assist with recruiting participants. The research project was led by Dr. Stephen Cozza, at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University through the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine and Columbia University.

The researchers were awarded a collaborative $3-million, four-year grant by the Department of Defense Congressionally-Directed Medical Research Program  to support the development and testing of innovative, mobile and web applications designed to help military family members and friends who experienced the death of a service member to better manage their grief reactions. These online programs were pilot-tested with content experts, community partners, and end users, and then studied in a randomized controlled trial to test their effectiveness.

This project had several challenges:

  • participants were scattered throughout the country and from a small population not commonly found (immediate family members of those who died while serving in the military)
  • participants  had to agree to put the app on their phone and use it, as well as to completing follow-up surveys and phone calls.
  • participants were bereaved, and some people were so severely bereaved that it impaired their functioning.
  • participants often needed to be asked to participate in the study multiple times before signing up.
  • participants had to be from the current war era (post September 11, 2001) to participate in the study, meaning those bereaved prior to that date were initially excluded from participation.

We designed an outreach strategy that targeted gold star families by reaching out to partner organizations that assist them. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors helped share information through its peer mentor network, which reaches hundreds of bereaved military families, and shared information multiple times on its popular Facebook page and Twitter feed. The Travis Manion Foundation posted information in its e-newsletter and on its Facebook page. The Department of Veterans Affairs published a blog post by one of the researchers, who is a veteran. This was important because the VA administers survivor benefits, and continues to provide some ongoing care for survivors through bereavement counseling at the Vet Centers.  AUSA’s family readiness program also shard information and invited one of the study researchers to be on its podcast.


This precise approach was important. It was important that bereaved families hear about the study multiple times from sources they were familiar with and trust. The Department of Defense/VA Survivors Forum hosted the researchers, who spoke about the study and how to participate. Attended by organizations assisting survivors around the country, this forum was very helpful at distributing information. Dozens of Facebook pages for Gold Star families shared information about the study with their followers after we reached out to them with a paragraph and some graphics. Fliers were sent to events as well, so survivors could learn about the study, and the study exhibited at the TAPS seminar over Memorial Day Weekend too.

Organizations for gold star families from earlier war eras contacted us and we put them in touch with the researchers. They wanted to know if their members might also participate, and were upset to find out the study’s parameters for post-9/11 deaths excluded them. The study researchers heard their concerns and were able to submit a modification to the oversight committee for the study to allow these families to participate as well. This meant that a number of gold star families with deaths from the Vietnam War era were able to sign up. Here’s a story that was done after the criteria expanded and Military.com, the largest site for military-related news, also did a story.

We reached out to Connecting Vets radio, which hosted Dr. Cozza in studio to talk about the study. Their broadcasts travel widely in the veteran and military family community, and are also part of CBS Radio’s offerings. To reach survivors who might not be connected to support services, we also issued information through a news release that was distributed to weekly newspapers. This release was picked up by dozens of newspapers and bloggers, who helped amplify outreach. Here’s an example.

Ultimately, we exceeded recruitment goals for the study, giving the researchers lots of data to help them better understand ways to assist the bereaved.

We are Steppingstone LLC, an independent practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites (contact us to discuss your projectreview our portfoliosign up for our e-newsletter). 

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