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