Economics and Family Bereavement Following a Fatal Farm Accident


Paul C Rosenblatt and Terri A. Karis, University of Minnesota


Members of 21 families in which a fatal farm accident had occurred were interviewed. In every family, economics (operating the farm, providing for the family, and/or managing resources of time, energy, and capital) were entangled in the grief process. Neighbors and relatives might provide help for a few weeks, but the loss of the farm operator or another key worker created an economic crisis, particularly in families with livestock. Even if the person killed did no farm work, grieving led, in some families, to inefficiencies that undermined the farm economically. Insurance litigation provided economic resources to some families, but making insurance claims or carrying out a lawsuit created additional problems and did not necessarily provide new economic resources. In some cases, a death meant a transfer of responsibility to a younger family member who could not do the job. The death of a young adult meant that an intergenerational transfer process supporting the retirement of older parents was undermined. Economic matters also were entangled in whether people found helpful mental health services.

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States (Cordes & Rea, 1991; Kraus, 1985), and the statistics on farm injuries and deaths understate the dangers (Rosenblatt & Lasley, 1991). Although attention has been paid to the prevention of farm injuries and deaths, very little has been written about the aftermath of a fatal farm accident. While general knowledge of bereavement and family systems provides some understanding of a farm family's experiences following a fatal accident, farm families are unlike most other families in important ways (Rosenblatt & Anderson, 1981; Rosenblatt, Nevaldine, & Titus, 1978). One of those ways is the entanglement of farm economics in the everyday life of the farm family.

Any death may have economic consequences for surviving family members. They may have to replace an income or learn to cope without it, cover the work in the home of the person who was killed, deal with medical and funeral expenses, deal with income losses of the survivors as a result of their involvement in terminal care or their bereavement, and negotiate with bureaucracies that might provide economic help (eg, insurance companies and the Social Security Administration). In these ways farm families are like other families. Farm families, however, have the potential for other economic challenges as a result of the organization of family farming. The present paper explores these matters, addressing what happened economically in 21 farm families where there had been a fatal accident.


Respondents. Four of the 21 farm families in the study were drawn from Minnesota death certificates listing a farm accident as the cause of death. The death certificates were for a year that was 3 years previous to the time interviewing began in this study. Members of 14 other farm families responded to requests for volunteers that were published in Minnesota farm magazines and broadcast on Minnesota radio stations that serve farm families. Members of three other families volunteered after hearing about the study from another respondent in the study, from one of the researchers, or from their therapist.

Thirty-nine people were interviewed. In 11 families there was only one respondent. Twenty-four of the respondents were female, 15 were male. They ranged in age from 10 to 79. The median time since the death was 6 years, with a range of 8 months to 50 years.

The Interview. The semistructured interview schedule included background questions about respondents, the family, and the farm, and a list of 106 probes to use, if necessary, about the accident and individual and family experiences following the accident. In 7 of the 10 families in which more than one person was interviewed, all who were interviewed were present together. In one of the other three a teenager was present for about 10 minutes; otherwise his mother was interviewed alone. Members of a second family (and a hired hand) came and went during the interview, though at least four people were present at all times. In the third family, there were two interview sessions. In the first session, a young man was present for about 10 minutes; otherwise his mother was interviewed alone. At the second session, seven family members were present, six of whom participated in the interview. The median interview duration was approximately 2 hours, with a range from roughly I to 6 hours. Rosenblatt was the interviewer in 13 cases and Karis the interviewer in 8. Extensive interviewer notes were made during and/or immediately following all interviews, and 17 of the interviews were audiotaped. All audiotaped interviews were transcribed verbatim.

Data Analysis. The data were coded through both close reading of printed transcriptions and interview notes for the topics at the focus of this paper, and through keyword searches of computer file versions of transcriptions and interview notes. In editing quotes for the present paper, restarts, sounds that are not words, and the phrase "You know" are deleted, and crucial identifying information that was not deleted have been altered. Ellipsis dots are used in quotes to indicate that material has been edited out. Brackets "[]" are used to indicate when what was said in the interview has been paraphrased (often to mask the use of a personal name or other respondent-identifying information.


Economics of Community Support

Following an accidental death, social support for farm families is in many ways like what one might find for a death in any other kind of family. However, one thing that seems different for farm families is that the support they receive initially includes support of the labor requirements of the family enterprise. Without exception, people who were adults at the time of the accident reported that neighbors, friends, and distant relatives provided extensive help with farm chores.


"We had the cousins there pitching the silage, plowing the fields. We had neighbors plowing the fields. We had people cleaning out the pasture, cutting wood, bringing in baking ... We had so much help. In fact, I have pictures of these tractors on this field. All of a sudden this field is no longer green or full of corn. It's black; there!s black dirt sitting on top." S04, whose brother was killed.
"The creamery people came out and ... the field man from AMPI and helped with chores, and this fellow that bred cows helped with chores. And another one of the neighbors helped. So I had no worries about that. I fed [the dairy herd] their grain and stuff, 'cause what do you do? You don't know what you're going to do right then and there. So you just try to keep things as normal for them as possible ... Some farmers ... came and helped us finish putting stuff in the silo." S12, who husband was killed.

A few widows experienced long-term economic help (in terms of chores, help with farm management, and even financial support) from parents, parents-in-law, a brother-in-law, or a neighbor. One widow (SOl) for example, had neighbors who were not particularly close before the accident work the land for her. They became her mainstay. "They're my neighbors. . . . They'd do anything for me." S20 had considerable farming and farm management help from her brother-in-law, who also listened to her talk about her grief and her concerns about the farm more than anyone else. In most cases, however, the economic support was short term - help getting through the harvest or help until the dairy or beef cattle could be sold. People who were providing help had their own work to do.


"It got to a point . . when.. people just kind of left us alone, and left us to kind of find our way by ourselves ... You can only do so much for people. They got to do it for themselves too ... God helps those who help themselves ... I mean, people needed you to get back on your feet pretty fast, at least with farming." S12, who husband was killed.

Economic Losses When the Person Killed Is a Young Man

When the family member killed is a teenager or young adult who carried a substantial load of farm work, that person's work must be picked up by others. Three families in the sample experienced the death of a young man (age 17 to 27) who carried a substantial load of farm work. In all three families there was an immediate and sustained demand to replace the lost labor. In two families the additional workload fell on the farm operator, a grieving father who felt the pain of the loss in aching joints and muscles as well as emotionally.


"I guess I've realized all the things he used to do" (crying and trying not to cry). He went on to talk about how his son did all the work with their large herd of pigs, helped milk their large dairy herd, and did a lot of field work. The father then talked about how much more work he had to do since his son's death. "It takes two more Tylenol to get to sleep." S07.
Husband: "I'm getting old enough I've got aches and pains and I'd like to put in shorter days. I don't want those damn long hours, days anymore. And I've got to do them alone ..." Wife: "Like I said before, you're stressed and depressed. We still had the same chores to do, plus 'cause [our son] wasn't here you're tired." S09.

In the third family, the sister of the deceased talked about the changes that had to be made to cover the work of her brother.


"To the one bale I threw [before his death] I'm probably throwing two today ... I never really cleaned a barn line before. I've done that several times since his death ... [My parents] have hired a cousin to help. There's no way Dad could do it himself ... He's hiring the neighbor to plow the fields ... [Also, one of my older brothers left school and returned to work on the farm.] If there was anybody who didn't want to farm for a year, it was probably [him]. But he felt a need to do it because my folks were on the farm, and he was part of the family." S04.

Economic Losses When the Person Killed Is the Farm Operator

All 10 of the farm operators killed were men, and all were defined by the family as the sole operator. All left a widow. In 8 of the 10 families the widow or a son had been providing substantial labor for the farm. But the death of the operator set off an economic crisis in each family, particularly when the family had dairy cows. So in addition to the challenges of grieving, there were the problems of deciding whether and how to continue the farm operation. Four widows liquidated the farm almost immediately.

"One of the neighbor men and another guy came and milked ... for... three weeks... And they had jobs too. One was a farmer who did his milking, and then came over and did mine. And I knew they couldn't keep that up ... I had to get rid of the herd ... It was really hard when all the cattle went ... We had an auction, and we got rid of all the equipment ... We haven't closed on it yet, but I've sold it ... I had to make so many changes immediately that I think it was really a lot harder than if I could have been able to continue on the way we had been going." S17.
"There was no way that I was able to [continue farming]. Our youngest son was in the service, and two boys ... and the girl lived [away from home]. And the other boys were [in jobs away from home]. So everyone had their own work to do. So two weeks after the funeral ... I had sold the beef cattle, because there was no way that I could take care of them. . . . [my husband] died in November, and then in March I had a farm auction ... 'cause ... there was no one going to be taking over." S02.

No widow continued to farm for more than 3 years after the death. Liquidation brought additional challenges, such as having to change residence (in three cases), even of leaving the home community.


Interview notes: S19, widowed with four small children, spent the days after her husband's death seeking permission from creditors to auction off the assets of the farm. Following the sale, she and her children moved in with her parents; she took a job in town, while her mother took care of the children.

Following the death of the farm operator, in four families one or two sons moved home to help a widowed mother and to protect her. Every son had to drop out of school or leave a job, leaving friends, a residence, and the security of a job or future.

Interview notes: The son quit his job the day after the death and moved back home with his mother. When she was in the depths of depression about money and whether she would ever find a job, she thought of suicide. Life didn't seem worth living. The son came home and she told him how she felt. He smashed one of the kitchen chairs on the floor, yelling that she couldn't kill herself, and if she did, he would kill himself too. She said that pulled her through. She could see that he had already suffered the loss of one parent. S14.

Five widows did not liquidate the farm immediately because they had sons who wanted to farm. In all five families there had been a hope or expectation, if not a plan, of intergenerational transfer of the farm. Although the death made transfer of responsibility premature, the transfer was based on parental hopes, imagined possibilities, or expectations. In two cases, the son was a teenager, and in both cases the son soon realized that he was not able to farm.


[My fifteen year old son] wanted to be a crop farmer, and sit on the tractor ... I said, 'Okay, you go out there and do your crop farming.' I was there to do a little bit of the help, and then I got the seed corn and the fertilizer and stuff ... So he ... planted it that year... By the time it was that he had to, he cultivated one field, and he had to cultivate the other one. He should have anyway. He just plain got tired of crop farming, He didn't want to do that ... I felt kind of good about that ... He had his opportunity, and he decided that he would rather not" S12.

Eventually all five of the widows who had kept the farm in order to give a son the opportunity to farm had to give up family operation of the farm. In two of the five cases, the decision to give up farming was a matter of intense resentment by the son. Both sons felt that they could, with time, succeed as farmers, that selling was a critical statement about their competence and potential and meant the loss of their farming identity and dreams.

"I had .. said ..., 'Keep on as though nothing had happened. As far as the work is concerned, we will make it.' Nooo, a thousand times no ... Don't ever think that you can handle it where two men have been doing it ... A 21 year old cannot handle it. ...[My son] was still crushed from that trauma, and he worked and worked and worked and worked ... and then he couldn't make the rent . ... He ran totally short of alfalfa ... He borrowed from FmHA ... [Finally] I says, 'I think I'm going to have to give you notice.' He wasn't giving me any cash. He couldn't pay for the tax of the farm ... And he come into the bedroom and cried and cried and cried, 'I'm killing myself. I'm doing everything I can ...' I says, 'I see nothing in here but financial chaos from my point of view and yours. Stop and think,' I says, 'I must do this." SO8.

Grief and the Economics of Farming

In some families, grief seemed to undermine farm work and effective farm management


"The first couple months after it happened ... cows didn't get fed too good and you just kinda, you're a little too emotional. You go through the motions of your work." S10, whose father was killed.

"When I sold the herd out . . I kinda thought that, if he'd been here still we wouldn't have had the problems ... Maybe we would've paid more attention to this or that ... We wouldn't have been distracted by our grievings." S15, whose son was killed by a bull.

Some families decided to sell what they perceived to be the agent of the fatal accident, for example, a piece of machinery or the bull in the case quoted immediately above. In some cases, such a sale was economically disadvantageous.


Man: 'I never would have sold that machine, you know, because of the usefulness around the farm if [my son] hadn't been killed with it ... As long as he was killed with it I was glad to see it go." S09.

For some, it was extremely difficult to live and work at the scene of the death. For a few, the discomfort was one of the factors motivating them to sell the farm. In those cases, it is possible that the sale of the farm involved choices that were economically disadvantageous.

"I couldn't go out to the barn anymore [where my husband collapsed before dying] I just couldn't go out there ... And it was real hard for me 'cause it seemed like everywhere I went (crying) I thought of something we had done or I could almost see him standing there. And so it was real hard for me to be there ... I think part of selling the farm was I'm running away from, I'm trying to run away from it ... I feel like I'm running away from thinking." S17.

The Economics of Retirement and Succession

Retirement from farming and succession to farm ownership are economic issues, though they also are issues of identity and of obligation to past and future generations (Anderson & Rosenblatt, 1985). Matters of identity and intergenerational obligation can be entangled in grief, as the family struggles over whether and how to continue farming or to liquidate.


Interviewer: "Is there a possibility that one of the other kids in the family would take over the farm? "Respondent:- "Not at this point no ... The fact that it was the place where my dad was reared, and his folks were there, and Dad was there, and it could have been [the farm of my brother who was killed] It could have been a long, long term thing." S04.
"I feel like ... this was going to end up probably being [my son's] place... I'm unsure about who is going to take over after we decide to quit ... I want it to be a person in the family.... I knew it was going to be [his] before, and now who's it going to be?" S15, man.

The retirement plans of a middle age couple can move from an economically secure certainty to what seems like a near impossibility with the death of the son who was the designated successor to own and operate the farm. If a phased retirement was already in progress, the older couple who was retiring may face complicated and demanding financially issues.


Father: "It's kind of a double tragedy because we was paying him a good percentage to get him started farming... Now we have to turn around and buy [the equipment we have been using] from the estate [which has gone to the wife of the son who was killed] ... It'll take quite a few years ... I thought it was a nice deal to have all this upgraded machinery as long as he bought it ... We're going to finance it through her, pay her so much a year. Mother: "My anger is more at the effect it's having on our lives (crying) You think you got it set up where he could take over the farm. Now who's going to? (pause) It's not easy to sell a farm." S07.

Insurance and Litigation

Litigation and life, accident, and liability insurance are potential sources of economic resources following a fatal accident. However, insurance and litigation also burden and frustrate the bereaved and, in some cases, complicate the grief process in ways that seem detrimental. One family experienced internal division following an accidental death, with differences in attitudes toward pursuing an insurance settlement one of the dividing issues.


Father: I carried liability, and the only one that can get liability is [our grand]kids, and the only way to do that is for the father to put a claim against the insurance company, and he won't do that ... It has to be him. I went to different lawyers, and they said, 'You cannot bring a suit.' ... So it just covers them two little boys, not [their father] but the two little boys. And, man, I think he's ripping them off, 'cause all he has to do is phone the insurance company ..." Mother: "I think the one thing he thought of at first was that he would be suing us ..., and he said he'd never do that. But I told him it wouldn't be us; it's our insurance. I said, "And that's why we carry insurance.' But he just didn't want to follow through on it." S06, parents of woman who was killed.

In another family a schism was created because family members disagreed about important facts at issue in the litigation of a wrongful death suit.

Nobody who was involved in testifying in court or in giving pretrial depositions had good feelings about the legal process. One family eventually lost their expensive and emotionally draining lawsuit when a coalition of insurance companies won on appeal to a higher court. Members of two families felt worn down by long and unpredictable legal processes and finally settled out of court for sums that only briefly brought them out of poverty. In one family still in litigation, economic difficulties remain intense and major life decisions are one hold.


Woman: "We won't know for awhile. Investigation is under way ... They've all got their engineers, and they're all looking it over, and everybody's trying to worm out of the liability ..." Man: "I thought it's just a simple matter. It happened on [my brother's] place. It'd be his liability. But they pushed it off onto the auger and then the auger company will push it off onto the gear box manufacturer, and then they'll in turn push it off onto the one that manufactures the shaft, saying that it was defective. So it ain't a matter of where it happened. It's who's at what percentage, who's at fault." S07, whose son who was killed.

Two families were unaware that liability insurance covered their loss, and in one, family members only learned that they could make a claim after the statute of limitations for making a claim had passed. In some families a legal settlement or an insurance payment was taken as a measure of what they had lost, so receiving little or no money added to their grief. One couple said that the person who had sold them their insurance had misled them.

"The damn insurance policies ... Make you feel God damn it, the kid wasn't worth nothing. Nobody had to pay. So we paid for all of it out of our pocket." S09, father.

Economic Issues In Finding Counseling or Support Groups

In 11 of the 21 families at least one member of the immediate family reportedly used mental health services, including support groups, in the aftermath of the death. In 9 of the 11 families, at least one family member participated in therapy or a support group within a year after the accident In four of those nine, at least one person sought help from more than one source.

As elsewhere in the U.S. (Wagenfeld, 1988), mental health services in rural areas of Minnesota may be inadequate. Moreover, unless a person needing services knows that services are available and understands what they are for, the services might as well be nonexistent. Some respondents did not know about available services, and some did not have a clear idea of what services might do. Even for respondents in an area of the state that is comparatively rich in mental health services, it might only be because a friend or neighbor knew about a useful service that they received help. In a few cases it was because a child in the family came to the attention of a school counselor that the family received help. For one woman, useful services were hidden inside of a careers program.


"I went to a class at the vocational school. I don't think I would've gone if it wasn't [free] .... It was called 'Expanded Careers Choices.' And they helped you find out where you were at, give you a bunch of tests and stuff.... And the lady that was there ... made us really dig into what our feelings were ... I mean she really dug deep. And we had to really come up with some inner feelings, and it was a real cross section. I had lost a husband. There was a couple of other women who had lost jobs. One of them was divorced .... And we found out ... that we all had different problems. And we kind of like almost, if they were all put on the table, we'd pick 'em up, and take our own (she laughs) rather than taking anybody else's:" S12.

Knowledge of services, availability of services, and family willingness use mental health services were of key importance, but economic factors had a role in people seeking services. For example, two families with livestock said that they could not spare the time required to travel to counseling or support group sessions.


Mother: "We did get letters off and on from a support group for couples that had lost a child. And I didn't feel like I needed to go, but there were times since then ... that I kinda wished that I ... had gone or would go ... They're meeting up in [a small city that is about a 45 minute drive away] ..." Father: "Well one thing we said a lot of times when we got the letters is, 'Gee, look what time they got the meeting set for ... We won't even be done milking before they start.' They must have set that up for city people." S15.

The economics of time and travel also affected whether people could get to services that met their needs. Often locally available services were generic - for example, support groups that dealt with a wide range of losses. Some people found generic services relatively unhelpful or were unwilling to use them.


"Right after the funeral I had a letter front . . a [nun] I think she's in ... the Church Family.... You could come to their meetings, and they have social gatherings. And once a month they have a social order at (sighs) oh it's some restaurant or ... bar... And then they have a meal. And at the time I didn't want to go, and I just felt 'Oh, there'll be guys there (she laughs) ... I think if it would have been all widows there I probably would have went." S02, widow.

The time costs of obtaining distant services meant that some people turned to locally available funeral directors, clergy, or community volunteers who might have little training or experience in dealing with bereavement or with the wide range of individual and family issues that might be entangled in bereavement. The quality of services reportedly varied enormously. The time costs of distant services also were an issue when locally available paraprofessional or professional mental health services were unsatisfying. One couple illustrated the amount of detective work, persistence, and expense it might take to find satisfying services. After receiving brief supportive counseling from a funeral director and having unfortunate experiences with a rural counselor and a rural physician, they found help that met their needs from a metropolitan area psychologist and grief counselor whose office was more than 100 miles away.


Mother: "[The doctor at our local rural clinic] told me that if You weren't through in two years with your grieving there was something the matter with you." Father: "It's not true." Mother: " ... That's what I said. Had I not talked to [the grief counselor] I'd of really felt like I had a problem." Father: " ... If anybody goes through anything like this ... I'd say go to a counselor like we did." Mother: "Definitely-" Father: "When you go through something like this and you've been to counseling and you learn how to talk ... and not swear at one another and get into fights, so you find out you're not the only person out there that's having the same problems ... [Our neighbor] lost a son and a husband, and I went to see her, and she said, 'The best thing you can do, and believe me I know because I've seen a lot of counselors, go see some counselor. if you don't like the guy, tell him where to go, go see another one. Because there's some good counselors out there and I know they're going to help you. Go talk to them ... Otherwise you stay mad the rest of your life." S09, bereaved parents.


Economic issues are only a fraction of all that must be dealt with surviving family members when somebody is killed in a farm accident and by mental health workers trying to help the survivors. However, economic issues must not be neglected by mental health workers.

It seems clear from interviews carried out with members of 21 farm families in which there had been a fatal farm accident that economic issues were entangled in individual and family grieving. The economic issues include replacing the work of a person killed in an accident, deciding whether to liquidate the farm operation, carrying out the farm work and managing the farm while in the depths of bereavement, coming to terms with radical changes and limited options in matters of intergenerational succession and retirement, wrestling with the processes and consequences of insurance claims or wrongful death litigation, dealing with economic support from the community, and coming to terms with the economics of finding mental health assistance. All of these issues have the potential to create additional grieving, mask or prolong intense grieving, to complicate family processes set in motion by the fatality, and to be central to what must be wrestled with counseling or support groups.

The interviews in this study suggest that rural mental health providers need to be creative and persistent in informing the public of available services and also need to be astute about the economics of using services (in terms office hours and locations as well as fees). Rural mental health practitioners must be aware that as economic issues play out in the aftermath of a fatal accident, they limit the use of available services and frustrate people whose needs seemingly are not met by locally available services. Rural referral works should include grief specialists and grief support groups, and in areas where there are many farmers or ranchers it seems appropriate to include support groups of people who are coming to terms with a fatal accident.

It seems paradoxical to say that grief therapy must in some sense be economics therapy, but the interview material in the present study makes clear that grief for an accidental death in farming can be entangled in grief over attendant economic losses. Effective mental health work in such cases includes an openness to probing about economic issues, to helping people to think through their economic situation and their economic decision options, helping people find and evaluate economic resources, and to helping people come to terms with their economic losses.


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Rosenblatt,P. C.,& Anderson, R.M.(1981). Interaction in farm families: Tension and stress. In R. T. Coward & M. W. Smith (Eds.), The family in rural society (pp. 147-166). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Rosenblatt,P.C, & Lasley, P. (1991). Perspective on farm accident statistics. Journal of Rural Health, 7(l), 51-62.

Rosenblatt, P. C., Nevaldine, A., & Titus, S. L. (1978). Farm families: Relation of
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Wagenfeld, M. O.(1988). Rural mental health and community psychology in the post community mental health era: An overview and introduction to the special issue. Journal of Rural Community Psychology, 9(2), 5-12.

The authors are grateful to Sandra L. Titus, PauI Gunderson, and Jack True for their help in the development of this project, to the Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of Minnesota for financial support, and to Anna Hagemeister and Patricia Ohmans for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

Send reprint requests to Paul C. Rosenblatt, Ph.D., Department of Family Social Science, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108.

Original Journal Pages 37 - 51