Grief & Wounded Warriors

Wounded Warriors

I have been especially moved lately by television commercials I have seen about wounded warriors.  A poignant story is shared about a soldier who has been severely injured in the line of duty.  The effect of the injury on this individual’s family is shared as well.  Some amazing examples of human determination combined with what to me seem to be impossible feats of prosthetic technology and medicine are featured.  One can’t help but be moved and inspired.

Grief & Loss

I teach an online course about grief and loss at a local university.  We start every semester with each student creating his or her own loss history timeline.  Some students always say they haven’t encountered any losses, and what they mean is they haven’t had anyone close to them die.  We talk about the fact that the definition of loss includes loss through death but it also includes other losses like broken relationships, loss of health, the death of a pet, the loss of a dream or a future you thought you were going to have, and so on.  Loss can also include things that are not necessarily healthy or good for you, but they have become familiar – giving up smoking or drinking alcohol or the end of an abusive relationship.

Losses of Wounded Warriors

It is through the lens of an expanded definition of loss that I view the commercials about soldiers who haven’t died but who have lost so much – body parts, skin, a ‘normal’ appearance, the ability to withstand stress or to think critically…  I think about how their daily lives are affected.  Are they able to work?  Can they hold a beloved child?  Can they talk?  I wonder about their significant others and how their lives have changed.  The commercials display incredible loyalty and love coming from spouses and families, but there must be so much more happening that we don’t see.  How has the balance of labor and doing chores changed in the household and with the family?  What about an income?  What about intimacy?

There’s a line in the movie ‘A Few Good Men’ spoken by actor Demi Moore when she is asked what she likes about the soldiers she is defending in a murder trial, and she replies, “Because they stand on a wall, and they say ‘nothing is going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch’.”1  What is implied is that each soldier is willing to die in defense of that code.

That willingness is not just expected; it’s demanded.  And every time I see a commercial that features a soldier with obvious and hidden injuries, I am jolted into remembering that every second of every day, there are people who have extremely dangerous jobs all over the world, who risk their lives and their futures so that I can sit in a warm house and post my thoughts online.

Grief & Soldiers’ Ghosts

Years ago I had the honor of co-facilitating a grief support group in the residential facility of a men’s drug rehab program.  Most of the men had been in prison.  All had substance abuse issues, and most of them were in the rehab program because they’d been legally ordered to be there.  In the several years I did this work, only one or two participants were in the program voluntarily.

Once, on a smoke break half-way through the group meeting, one of the group’s members approached me privately.  He had served in the Gulf War and now had a serious crack cocaine problem.  He shared with me his experience of killing an enemy soldier and how it still haunted him.  It was an horrendous story, and I could only imagine the pain this man was now experiencing.

The meeting break was only going to last a few minutes, and, for reasons I can no longer remember, I felt the need to ‘solve’ this ‘problem’ before everyone returned.  I told him that he had been doing his job.  I told him it wasn’t his fault – it was war.  I told him the man he had killed had likely killed soldiers on our side.  I feel quite sheepish now, thinking about what I said to him.  Everything I responded with was, perhaps, true, but that’s not what he was dealing with.  He was haunted by the fact that he had killed someone’s son…husband…father.   Nothing I said could change what had happened.  It didn’t matter why, and it didn’t matter that it was militarily condoned.  He had still ended a man’s life.

I tried to convince him that he needed to share his experiences and feelings with the group when the smoke break ended.  In the hallway behind him, I could see men returning to the group meeting room.  He could hear them.  I looked at his face and will never forget what I witnessed.  This man who had opened his heart to me took a deep breath and transformed himself.  In seconds, his tears evaporated and his face turned to granite.  Suddenly, it was almost impossible to believe that he’d even spoken to me.  Did I just imagine that exchange?

During the second half of the group meeting, I glanced at this young man several times, hoping he would read the invitation in my expression to share with the group what he had shared with me.  There was no connection.  It was as though we’d never spoken.  He shared nothing with the group, and after that day, I never saw him again.

I tell this story in my online grief and loss class and end it with “If I could do it over, I would….”.  The assignment is to give the story a different ending based on what is learned during the semester about how to support those who grieve.  The students’ answers are varied, but some of them describe perfectly what I now wish I had done.

If I could do it over….

I wish I would have sat down with this young man with a sign to my group co-facilitator that this conversation could take some time and that he should resume the group meeting in the adjacent room.   I would have listened to everything this former soldier wanted to say.  I would have maintained eye contact and an attentive posture.  He would have believed I had nothing else scheduled that entire day.  I would remained silent until he was done talking, and then I would have remained silent some more.  I might have touched his hand.  I might have leaked a tear.  I would breathe with him.  He would have known that I had heard him and that I had validated his grief.  What he was experiencing and remembering was genuinely and horribly sad.

The truth is that nothing could have been said to ‘fix’ this man’s grief.  Fixing should never have been on the list of options.  The best possible outcome was that he would have had the opportunity to express his feelings to someone who would receive them without judgment and without pouncing to respond.

I think about this man every now and then – every time I see a commercial about a wounded warrior – and hope the best for him.  I hope he is drug-free, and I hope he is achieving his dreams.  I hope he is OK.

I wonder…how many more of him are there?

1Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104257/reviews

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