As a military spouse the nightmare of uniformed men knocking on my door to share news of my loved one’s life being lost in a time of war is one I’ve had more than once. I wouldn’t say it’s an experience I am in any way prepared for, but it’s a fear I had actually imagined. What I didn’t see coming was my own man in uniform walking in my door to tell me of my mother’s sudden passing.
When the parent of an adult dies, there is almost an unspoken expectation that it will not be an intense loss. As adults we are expected to accept death as a part of life, to be simply appreciative of the many years we did have with our loved one, rather than focusing on the years ahead we had been robbed of. This expectation is a false one.
Grief is a direct reflection of the intimate connection that has been lost, and my mother and I had a remarkable one. I talked to her every day and despite being an “adult” I still looked to her for constant support and guidance. Though I no longer needed her to raise me, she had become my friend and remained my mentor. I was 25 when she died and her passing rocked me to my very foundation. I experienced disbelief, anger and grief. And then I experienced a level a guilt I had not imagined possible. Guilt that I wasn’t nearby when she died, guilt that it had been a month since I last hugged her, guilt that I didn’t talk to her long enough the day before, and finally guilt that in wanting to be with my whole family I was damaging my own growing family by depleting our family savings as I flew from Maryland to Washington, then California, and back to Washington before finally flying back to Maryland. And then when I was back in my own house I experienced a new intense despair at weathering all these emotions alone. Being stationed on the East Coast I was separated from those who shared a similar connection with my mother. No one I knew in Maryland could share in my grief or mourn her loss alongside me, no one there had known her. While there are support groups for widowed spouses, care packages for children who’ve lost their service member parent, it sometimes seemed like there was no one around to help pick up the pieces since the person I lost was “just” a civilian family member.
Military families face unique challenges as they grieve.We will face guilt that we weren’t nearby, guilt that we hadn’t kept in touch as often as we wanted to and sometimes guilt that we don’t have the funds to fly home to attend a funeral. There is also a unique level of despair in experiencing all the emotions brought on by the loss alone, cut off from the support and comfort of home. We are separated from those who may have shared a connection with the same lost loved one. And often we’re also even separated from our spouse who we would otherwise be able to lean on. While my life was ripped apart at the seams when I lost my mother, the same can occur with the loss of any loved one, father, brother, cousin or friend. That loss does not diminish because they’re not your spouse or because you are an adult. Each loss has its own imprint, as distinctive and unique as each of us, it doesn’t matter how old we are as we experience it. We do not have to “accept” anything as adults other than the knowledge that it is OK to grieve, that it is ok to intensely mourn the loss of the ones we love, no matter who they are.
In the simple act of recognizing that its ok to grieve, we can better weather the mourning process. We can endure the challenges by allowing those around us, whoever they are, to help.Though those nearby may not be grieving with us their offers of food, friendship and assistance can give us the time to do so. And even though it might not be well publicized, as military families we have the support of a unique community behind us. There are groups, both big and small, out there to help us through the mourning process. In the words of Steven Sonheim, “No one is alone, truly. No one is alone.”
Contact your Family Readiness Group (FRG) or command Ombudsman. They have access to a number of support networks that you might not otherwise be aware of. They can provide contacts for local chaplains, doctors and point you toward other command resources.
Military One Source has several resources available for dealing with grief and loss. They can help refer you to a therapist and point you in the direction of other great web-based resources.
The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society offers Quick Assist Loans to active duty service members to help with emergency needs for basic living expenses such as housing, utilities, food and clothing; medical or dental expenses; vehicle or transportation expenses, or to assist during family emergencies. Like the Society’s other loans, QALs are interest-free. The Society can also be an excellent referral for other services to help as you manage your experience with loss.
The American Red Cross provides emergency communication, access to emergency financial assistance, and counseling to help services members and their families through times of loss.
The Armed Forces Crossroads has a casualty and loss section that provides a wealth of information on loss, while acting as a support network for those in need.
HelpGuide.org is a nonprofit organization that provides access to a variety of information on coping with grief and loss.
The National Resource Directory connects wounded warriors, service members, veterans and their families with those who support them.