Seven Ways Americans Can Help the Families of Fallen Warriors
By Joanne M. Steen, MS, NCC Author Speaker Instructor on Line-of-Duty Loss
(Reprinted with permission of the author. This article first appeared on the cover of The VOICE for Military Families, an NMFA publication, in July 2007. It has been modified and updated by the author.)
Since the days of colonial America, bad guys have threatened our freedom, values, and homeland. America’s first citizens were attacked at home and abroad, and fought to protect their families, homes, and way of life. It’s no different today.
More than two hundred years later, American citizens have been attacked in the United States, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq, to name a few hot spots. Just as in America’s early years, the job of protecting and defending America belongs mainly to the United States military. And, it’s a dangerous profession.
The price of freedom. Since September 11, 2001, nearly six thousand service men and women in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard have died as a result of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). In addition to these war casualties, between 1,000 and 1,500 service personnel die each year in an active duty status. They are killed on training missions and in accidents, while others die from illness, disease and suicide. Most die while honing their war-fighting skills, preparing to protect and defend our country if -- or when -- their tasking orders are executed.
In peacetime and in war, the number of fallen warriors grows. A number of these service men and women were stationed in your city or town. To some, you can attach a name and a face. To others, you know the family that loved them.
The families of fallen warriors. Surviving military families are a cross-section of America, a blend of ages, races, nationalities, and backgrounds. They are ordinary Americans, coping with the unimaginable. A surviving military family has been dealt an unexpected and life-changing blow, and they struggle, often with great difficulty, to survive and adjust to a world they dread -- a world without their loved one. They possess no special skills for dealing with this nightmare, yet they learn to survive, cope, and eventually live happily again.
Seven ways you can help. If you’re like most Americans, you want to say and do the right things around the families of our fallen warriors. But sometimes, not knowing what those right things are, you say or do nothing, for fear of making a mistake. This is one of those times when silence is not golden. The grieving family can easily misinterpret silence as disinterest or abandonment. They don’t know you’re struggling to find the right words or actions.
The subject of death has a way of pushing buttons in many of us, even when we’re not personally affected by it. It’s hard not to be moved though, when you meet a family whose loved one has died in the service of our country. Here are seven practical ways you can help:
1) Learn about military loss. When a military death occurs, it’s both a personal loss to the military family and a national loss to America. When their loved one wears the uniform, no matter what their job or warfare specialty, family members believe their service member will come home safely, even when we go to war. No military family expects their loved one will die in the line of duty.
Military deaths have multiple layers of complexity. A military death is often sudden and unexpected, potentially violent, and sometimes in another part of the world. The surviving family members are often living at a duty station, far away from the support of family. The rites and traditions of a military funeral and memorial service are fitting tributes to a fallen warrior, but they’re profound and touch the deepest places of patriotism, love and loss. They’re also news events, forcing family members to expose their grief to local or national media. Reports and investigations can take months, and sometimes years, to be finalized, often delaying a healthy grief response. And, in addition to the bureaucracy that surrounds any death, surviving military family members must navigate through the resulting changes to their military benefit and health care systems.
A sudden, traumatic military death often leaves the surviving family members emotionally numb, psychologically fragile, cognitively impaired, and physically exhausted.
2) Be patient with the family. Military grief is complex, complicated, and sometimes just plain messy. When a family member is confronted with a sudden and traumatic death, the ability to accept this death is often compromised. It often takes more than one year for the reality of the loss to sink in. Many military survivors call the second year the ‘lonely year.’
Deployments add another layer of complexity and can make it more difficult to accept the death of a service member. Until the unit returns from deployment, a glimmer of hope exists in the hearts of the family members that the military made a mistake and their loved one is coming home with the returning forces. It’s not denial; it’s a reality of military loss.
3) Choose your words of condolence carefully. It’s a natural tendency to comfort a grieving family member with words of sympathy or encouragement. Occasionally, these well-intentioned words may sound like an attempt to fix the grieving person’s pain, and can be misunderstood by the family member as minimizing their loss. For instance, the words of comfort offered at the passing of an elderly person, (“It was his time,” or “Cherish your many memories.”) are often not appropriate when a young service member dies suddenly. It’s never a good idea to start a conversation with “I know exactly how you feel…” A good, safe choice of words of condolence is simply, “I’m sorry for the loss of your (son, Josh; daughter, Jenn; husband, Jack; wife, Julie).” Use their first names, not their rank. A family has lost a loved one first and a service member second.
4) Acknowledge the sacrifice of the family. At a military funeral, when the folded American flag is given to the family, it’s presented with the words, “Please accept this flag on behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful Nation.” This flag, and the sentiments that accompany it, honors the ultimate sacrifice made by the fallen warrior. In the years that follow, the surviving military family lives that ultimate sacrifice in big and small ways. We can honor the fallen warrior by personally thanking the family for their loved one’s sacrifice, and also by thanking the family, for their on-going sacrifices that never make the evening news.
5) Ask about their loved one. Everyone loves a man or woman in uniform, but a military family really loved their man -- or woman -- in uniform. Surviving families like to talk about their loved ones. In fact, they need to talk about them; it’s a healthy part of the grief process. Ask a surviving family member about their loved one. Don’t ask how he or she died. Instead, ask how they lived! And listen. You won’t have to say much.
If you’re stuck on how to begin a conversation, simply start with the basics: “Tell me about his smile,” or “What was her sense of humor like?” The conversation will take off, and you may even see a smile on the family members face.
6) Be a good friend, co-worker, or neighbor. If you’re not a listener, but want to help, offer some manual labor for the ‘honey-do’ list. Loss and grief tire a person out. Regular chores can overwhelm surviving family members. You can do your part by offering to cut their grass, clean the house, wash the car, or put up and take down the Christmas tree. It’ll all be appreciated. If you have a new widow in your midst, help her by recommending a good handyman and mechanic. Give her some guidance on what to expect.
7) Give a military family a break from grief. Grief can be physically and emotionally overwhelming, and just about everyone needs a break from it. In fact, a break is necessary, as it recharges one’s psyche, and strengthens a person’s resolve to keep working though their loss. Give the family of a fallen warrior a chance to recharge their batteries. Offer to do something fun with them.
Humor and laughter can give a grieving family member a few moments of enjoyment. Don’t be taken aback by their gallows humor. Finding humor in the midst of grief gives the family member a sense of control when they have little control over life’s events. Humor is not disrespectful to the memory of the fallen warrior; it’s reinvesting in life.
To the families and friends of the survivors. You’re not alone in trying to understand and help the families of fallen warriors. The families themselves are trying to grasp what’s taking place within them. They’re learning, in real-time, how to cope with their loss. And sometimes, they don’t know what they need.
As a friend, neighbor, co-worker, or professional you can help the surviving military family by recognizing that the family member may not be ‘back to normal,’ no matter how together they appear. Be patient with unpredictable moods. Be aware of their vulnerabilities. Protect them. And, treat them as you would want to be treated if, God forbid, fate placed you in their shoes.
I’ll end with some rock-solid advice: It’s better to reach out to the family of a fallen warrior in ways that you’re comfortable with, perhaps even making a mistake or two along the way, than to do nothing. Remember: In these circumstances, silence is not golden.
I welcome your thoughts and comments on this necessary, but sobering, subject. Write to me at Joanne@militarywidow.com or Joanne@military-parents.com
Friday, April 29, 2011
Sunday, April 17, 2011
I just finished reading the book that was first given to me on September 21, 2010, six months and 27 days ago, nine months and 19 days after I was married to the most amazing man that, I think, ever lived. I wish I could have known how the rest of our life would have turned out, and that it had a different ending. That is the largest wish that I have or will ever have.
Anyway, this book is called Military Widow: A Survival Guide, by Joanne M. Steen, MS, NCC and M. Regina Asara, MS, RN, CT (2006). Both authors are accomplished and credentialed in grief and crisis. Joanne was (-note, there is NEVER a was, so, is, but I had to leave this slip up in to prove a point) a widow of a Naval Aviator killed in the line of duty, and Regina, a military wife herself, assisted her with the writing and publishing of the book, and together, I feel they came up with quite a helpful product. I could go on about their credentials forever. They are quite impressive. If interested in this book, please go to www.militarywidow.com. You can purchase it there. I will be writing a review on it shortly.
The authors addressed the issue of military widowhood in all different branches, and filled a huge gap that I have been missing in many, many other titles that I have tried to read through. While some of these grief books applied in some areas to my situation, so much was always missing, which lead to me putting it down, and trying another, only to go through the cycle again. This book, while of course had many different scenarios, completely explained me and how I am feeling. I read, in almost every chapter, the book feeling like they were in my head and knowing how I was feeling. Thank goodness. I needed it.
This book confirmed that I am not crazy. I am not the only widow that has had a really hard time coming to terms with the reality of the situation, especially because it was during deployment- in fact, there was even a scenario where the widow thought her husband was on a secret mission (sound familiar?). It confirmed that I do feel alone, isolated, and as if I do not fit in. This also hit close to home for me, because, as it states, I do not still fit in to the military community, however, I do not yet fit again in to the civilian community, in my life at this point. This, to me, explained why I feel as if I am clinging with all my might to our military "family", still trying to fit in, while not being able to completely feel comfortable with my civilian friends and family, almost to the point of isolating myself, without actually intending to, because I do not fit in to that life, after having married Matt and lived this one. And the fact that many of our military family is soon leaving via ETS or PCS, I am inevitably facing further isolation and abandonment, while also feeling elated and happy for those going on to their new life paths, which may not be understood fully by a civilian realm. (I have read and re-read those last three sentences over and over again for clarity, but the confusion of the situation is such that it needs to be left the way it is.)
I have had people ask how they can help me from both the military and civilian worlds. They are reading my words and story, and also visiting from other blogs. I was featured on another blog offering a differing perspective. My perspective is the one that discusses every military spouse's worst fear, but one that no one really wants to talk about. Thankfully (although it sounds and feels weird to me to say that, but I have to find SOMETHING good about it), this experience has allowed others to view in to this life, without actually having to live it- Thankfully.
The blog that noted me as a differing perspective is To Love A Soldier. Megan's blog has been so inspirational for so many, and she truly has brought the different branches of service, different military experiences, and different difficulties as well as triumphs together, of the military life (http://toloveasoldier.blogspot.com). I was honored to be featured on her blog, so that spouses can get a different perspective.
With that being said, I found a major feature in this book, that hopefully no one else will have to receive in the manner that I did, that could help those wanting to know how to help a friend in need. This applies not only to military personnel and families wanting to help, but to the general public as well. I didn't even know how I "could be helped", but these suggestions are great for those wanting to know. I want to post the Appendix, however, I thought twice of the legality of it, and emailed the authors to ask permission. I hopefully can share it with you soon- more information to come.
Just know that to help a military widow, be there. Reading through this, I suppose my summary would apply to any widow, really. Offer assistance, but don't pressure it. Mean it when you offer it. Don't act like she is crazy, as she is going through a huge plethora of emotions, role changes, life changes, fears, anxieties and many other adjustments. Say his Name. Talk about him. Share stories- I promise, I will love them. Don't be afraid of her, its not a contagious cootie. I so hope I can post the Appendix, because I really can't verbalize this better than they did.
Note: I just received a call from Joanne Steen, one of the authors, and a military widow. We had a wonderful, hour long conversation about our lives. She has some more projects coming up, one that I am SO excited about! I am waiting on a response from her co-author prior to posting the Appendix, but hope to be able to share it soon. I will soon write a review of her book to share with everyone also.
Thank you, Joanne, for your call. You give me so much hope.
Saturday, April 9, 2011
So, I finally unburied my desk and found the prayer that my 10 year old brother David wrote for and recited at Matt's Memorial in Monmouth. I am so proud of my brother for his words, and for his insight in to life as we now know it. I love you, David. Matt loves you too.
PS- David has asked that no one copy his prayer. :)
Please may you have lifted Matt's soul into Heaven, and let us keep him in our hearts for all eternity, for he was willing to give his soul for the country. But let us focus on being happy, instead of gloomy. May the wounds of emotionally hurt families be mended, may his friends see Matt in everyone they meet. And also may the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be with Matt, and us. Amen.