The Need to Help Veterans Process Grief
Often Memorial Day is celebrated with backyard barbecues, picnics and as a day off from work. However, it is a day dedicated to remembering men and women who selflessly served in the military and paid the ultimate sacrifice of giving their lives to protect the freedom of those who live in the United States. The Brits use the term Remembrance Day, which I really like because it implies the meaningful attitude with which citizens should approach this day.
A Formidable Cost
Taking a specific day each year to pay tribute and honor those who lost their lives is important. It helps us remember the magnitude of what it takes to step up and serve. It helps connect us with the concept of sacrifice.
The blessing of liberty carries a formidable cost. Civil men of all stripes can debate the merits of the conflicts to which the U.S. Armed Forces have been called by their elected officials. However, the willingness to answer the call and to die in the process represents selflessness that we should treat with deep respect. We need to wholeheartedly express gratitude for their actions and properly appreciate that it is because someone risked their life on behalf of our country.
A Reminder of Loss
Along with Memorial Day comes the reminder of loss. This day can bring a mix of emotions and be difficult for those walking through grief. Even after leaving active duty, it is common for veterans to feel lost and struggle to find rhythm in their new normal. This often leads to a sense of isolation. Finding a support group of trusted individuals that are grieving from similar experiences can help in processing those emotions.
We are slowly losing “The Greatest Generation” — those born between 1901 and 1927, shaped by the Great Depression, who served as the primary participants in World War II. We’re also losing that bond or personal connection created by nearly all citizens of that era of wartime sacrifice. Because 1973 marked the end of the draft, we saw the shift of joining the military become completely voluntary. Currently, it is estimated that one-half of 1% of the population serves in the U.S. Armed Forces. This small fraction of citizens leaves it difficult for veterans to find empathetic companions who understand what they have gone through or are currently experiencing. There are specific views of death and grief developed by veterans that the general populous is incapable of comprehending.
Grieving That Loss
Generating an idea of teamwork and a “mission first, always” mindset, Armed Forces training can ingrain the concept of never appearing weak or needy. This makes it hard for veterans to reach out for support. Breaking down and reversing this concept to the idea that it is okay to express emotions and seek assistance for grief is something that can be taught through a variety of offered programs. In the military, death is unavoidable; some kind of loss will happen and joining a group with other veterans can make all the difference in understanding that it is acceptable to grieve that loss.
Death is the experience each one of us foresees and knows will come. When a veteran loses a loved one, it is an opportunity for a skilled community or program like GriefShare to surround our veterans. They demonstrate that grief responses take a variety of forms, and encourage veterans to explore the variety of healthy ways grief can (and should) be expressed. Denying loss and pushing through with the perspective that a mission needs to be accomplished will not work when processing grief. I’ve found that communicating my thoughts with those who’ve shared similar pasts can be transformational.
Healing and Hope
Leaving active duty does not turn off the effects of training, values, and norms absorbed while in the ranks. Veterans may feel lost, confused, and not understand life as a civilian. This leads, at times, to a sense of isolation at the individual level even though the veteran may be surrounded by throngs of people. It’s not shameful to seek support from those who have experienced what you have. It’s out there and I encourage our veterans to seek healing and hope. And I encourage churches and other organizations to look for ways to help our veterans process their grief.
Timothy P. Fitzgerald served as Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and is also a Licensed Professional Counselor. He currently serves as Director of Care & Counseling at Cedar Creek Church in Aiken, South Carolina. Tim also leads a GriefShare grief-support ministry at his church. To learn more about GriefShare visit, griefshare.org.