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Understanding Grief When Your Loved One Dies in the Military

When a loved one dies while serving in the military, it affects your entire family and the ensuing grief can be overwhelming. One is immediately thrust into shock and disbelief. The shock is a natural physical and human response when you experience the death of someone you love. It provides the ability for the griever to do the impossible and prepare for the funeral, take care of business and hold the family together in times of crisis. When the shock wanes thin and the full emotional impact of the loss become real, we may start to experience trauma without the protective numbness that the armor of shock provided. When the reality of living with loss becomes apparent in all that you do, the true grief journey begins. The following information has been prepared by bereaved parents who have, themselves, experienced the death of a loved one who had died in service to our country.

The death of a family member is a life-changing event for the entire family. Although bereavement eventually occurs in every family, the loss of a child of any age can be life changing. Surviving members of military families find themselves in a unique position from other losses in that their loved one voluntarily put themselves into harm’s way, knowing the potential for the death and injury. Serving in our country’s armed services carries with it intrinsic dangers distinct to the military that family members are aware of when their loved one enlisted. As such, they gain a different perspective in processing the loss. This is not to say it makes the loss any easier to bear, in fact the circumstances that surrounded the death of their loved one may even complicate the grieving process.

From the initial distress of notification when two soldiers knock at your door, to the presentation of the American flag at the funeral service, families of the military face difficult emotional issues distinctive to a military death. However, families impacted by a military death may also possess unique protective factors that affect their bereavement process and experience of loss.

Family members may experience feelings of psychological cognitive dissonance, where they feel the immense pride for their loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice, and yet may be conflicted with their own deep feelings of despair. Dependent on the circumstances of the death, there may be anger at the military for lethal accidents, friendly fire, or the politics of engagement of military combat.

Some military losses may result from heroic action which can provide the griever with the “feel good” hormones released from intense pride. This physical reaction is autonomic and can help to neutralize the stress hormones released in the stress of grief and the intensity of pain can be buffered. Conversely, a death from suicide or needless accident may lead to anger at their loved one and or at the military for possible culpability that may have influenced factors that resulted in their death. Anger can increase the release of stress hormones and magnify the intensity of pain associated with loss.

Another unique aspect of the grief journey with a military loss is the camaraderie factor with other families of the military who have suffered loss. There is a huge network of support with veterans and family of veterans who share similar journeys. One organization that stands out in the support of Gold Star families with their grief and healing is T.A.P.S., the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which was created by Bonnie Carroll in 1992 to assist military families who have suffered a loss. For further information, please visit their website at www.taps.org.

The Trauma of Loss
As you begin the long process of bereavement, you will experience many emotions as your body, mind, spirit and soul integrate and assimilate the loss into your life. There will be despair, sadness, loneliness, apathy, and anxiety. There may be emotions of anger, depression, confusion, guilt and regret, many of which can be emotionally debilitating; everyday life can be challenging and a struggle to survive. The trauma can last for months and even years. There are no effective shortcuts or diversions in processing loss, the grief has to be felt and dealt with to move through the trauma and accept the challenge to survive.

Each of us will approach the process of grief in our own unique way. Some can express their pain easily and openly, while others keep their feelings locked inside. While there is no “right” way in which to grieve, many bereaved parents and family members have found it helpful to have some guidance along the way.

Physical Aspects of Grief
Grief often manifests itself in physical ways. You may find yourself unable to sleep, or wanting to sleep all of the time. Feeling tired, walking in a fog, long and short-term memory loss, and an inability to concentrate are not uncommon. Sleep deprivation and the extreme stress of the situation often lead to the feeling that you are “losing it,” but this is a normal psychological and physiological reaction.

At this time, drinking a lot of water, a balanced diet, rest, and moderate exercise are especially important. It is especially important to avoid the abuse of drugs and alcohol in hopes of making the pain go away. Prescription medication should be taken sparingly and only under the supervision of a physician. Many substances are addictive and may lead to a chemical dependence that stops or delays the necessary grieving process.

The Journey is Different for Everyone
Grief, with its many peaks and valleys, lasts far longer than society in general recognizes. When your loved one dies the grief is not over in a week, a month, or a year. The loss of a child isn’t something we get over; it is something we learn to go through. Expectations others may have of you should not be a guideline for your own progress. Be patient with yourself; you’ve been through a lot.

Because each person’s grief is unique, you may find that you, your spouse, your siblings, your loved ones’ spouse/significant other and children may travel this journey at different speeds and in different ways. It helps to be tolerant of the different approaches your spouse and other family members may take.

What Can You Do?
Many professionals recommend additional support to help you work through your grief. The support of others who have experienced a similar loss can help you more fully understand the grieving process and give you hope that if others can survive this loss, so can you. Let others who can lend a hand help you by cooking the meals, cleaning the house, or running errands for you. The help of others can give you the needed space to do the hard work of grieving.

How Can TCF Help?
Many families turn to The Compassionate Friends for assistance, finding hope and comfort through sharing their story with others, and being able to speak the child’s name without fear of others turning away when the tears do come. Sharing eases loneliness and allows expression of grief in an atmosphere of acceptance and understanding.

The Compassionate Friends offers support through monthly meetings of its more than 600 chapters, through its national website and Online Support Community, its Compassionate Friends/USA Facebook Page, annual national conference, Walk to Remember®, and The Compassionate Friends Worldwide Candle Lighting.

While every parent or family member ultimately will have to find his or her own road through grief, you do not have to do this on your own. There is plenty of support available from those who have already been where you are today. You Need Not Walk Alone.

This brochure sponsored by Doreen and Patrice Cappelaere
in loving memory of their daughter, LT Valerie Cappelaere Delaney, USN

© 2014 The Compassionate Friends, USA

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