The loss of a service member who was close to you is a devastating experience that can leave you feeling sad, scared, lost, overwhelmed and experiencing a host of other emotions. Some of your feelings may take you by surprise or may seem strange or even wrong. You may feel incredibly frustrated if you do not know the exact circumstances of your service member's death. You may also experience intense anger directed towards our government or towards the conflict that result in your service member's death. Especially if you haven't experienced this kind of grief before, it may help you to find out more about "normal" reactions to grief, about the grief process and what you can do to start healing. Nothing about grieving over the loss of a service member is easy, but knowing more about what to be prepared for and how to help yourself can help bring you reassurance and comfort in a difficult time.
What you may feel
"Normal" reactions to grief are as individual and unique as the people who experience them. Some people might be unable to function for a while after a loss, while others may also be in great pain but find that staying busy helps them to cope. Although everyone experiences grief differently, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. There are, however, specific "symptoms of grief" that do not occur in any particular order but are common to the grief process:
- Denial - Because of the intense pain of losing a service member, it's normal to deny the reality of it. It might feel like the person can't really be gone or that he or she will appear again at any moment. This is a normal reaction; the numbness and disbelief you may feel help you to continue to function and protect you from lapsing into shock.
- Anger - You might find yourself feeling angry at individuals who worked with your service member, their leaders or the branch of the military they served. You might be angry with a higher power, or angry with the service member you've lost for "leaving" you. These feelings are also normal - when someone you love has died, it's natural to feel angry and want to assign blame.
- Guilt - You may have thoughts along the lines of "If only I had . . ." wondering if you could somehow have prevented the service member's death. Guilt is another completely normal reaction to your devastating loss.
- Depression - When you're faced with a loss this profound, a period of crushing sadness is natural. For a time you may feel hopeless, defeated or that life is no longer worth living. You might find it difficult to concentrate or find the will to even get out of bed in the morning. The things you used to enjoy or that gave you a sense of purpose just may not seem to matter anymore. As awful as it feels, this depression is normal, but at its worst, it should be temporary. The passage of weeks or months with no improvement signals a larger problem.
- Acceptance is the result of embracing, and allowing yourself to experience, each emotion as you feel it. This emotional state is often marked with a sense of calm and peace, though not necessarily happiness and contentment. Acceptance is a sign that you're adjusting to living in a world without the service member you lost.
Coping with loss
In your grief, it may seem like nothing but having your loved one back could ever make you feel better. But there are steps you can take that may comfort you a little now while also helping you make some progress toward recovery and safeguard your emotional and physical health:
- Let yourself feel your emotions. If you are busy comforting or helping other family members or friends, set aside some time when you can think about your own loss. Be careful not to use supporting others as a way of avoiding your own feelings. Avoiding your own pain now can cause serious mental and emotional issues down the road.
- Know that loss affects everyone differently. We are all individuals, and we all experience loss in individual ways. Some might want to share stories and talk about your loved one right away, but for others, doing those things immediately following a loss may only intensify their pain.
- Moderate your media consumption. If your service member died during active duty, his or her death might attract media attention. Although it might be difficult to avoid TV reports, newspaper articles or news websites with coverage of your loved one's death, be aware that repeated exposure to accounts of the death of your loved one can interfere with your coping process. It might be helpful to have a close friend or family member help you define media exposure limits that work best for you.
- Manage your stress. Many people take comfort in maintaining routines, exercising, meditating or reading. Social ties help to reduce stress so while you may not want to be around groups of people, be careful not to isolate yourself. Journaling may also help. You might be surprised at the comfort or relief you feel as a result of simply pouring out all your thoughts down on paper.
- Consider joining a support group. Talking with others who have lost a service member may help you feel less alone. Look into support groups in your local community for individuals who have experienced a similar loss. These groups often list their meetings in the events calendar of a community newspaper or local hospital.
- Ask for help if you're having difficulty managing your feelings. Many people underestimate the grief that follows the loss of a loved one. If you feel alone or are having trouble navigating your emotions, a therapist or counselor can help you find resources and support.
It's natural for anyone in intense emotional pain to want to know when it will end, or when they'll feel "normal" again. But as much as we may wish that there were a timeline for grief, the truth is that emotional healing happens more quickly for some, more slowly for others. And the process isn't usually linear. You may feel better on one day only to be down the next, and then back up again the following week. What you can take comfort in is that, under normal circumstances, you will, eventually, feel better. While you may never "get over" your loss and will always cherish your service member's memory, you will also gradually learn to be happy and enjoy life again.
Resources and support
No one has to struggle alone. Sharing your grief with family and friends and reaching out to clergy or counselors can be productive and therapeutic. If at some point you feel overwhelmed, hopeless, or "stuck" in your grief, or even if you're just curious about how a professional counselor might help you, reach out:
- Military OneSource can provide you with further resources - including branch specific casualty assistance links - and help you connect with a non-medical counselor.
- Military and family life counselors are also available to provide non-medical counseling services; you can contact them through your installation military and family support center.
- To learn about grief support, visit the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a national organization offering a broad range of support, mentoring, and other services to those grieving the loss of a loved one whose death occurred while serving in the military services.
There may be little anyone can do or say to ease your pain following the loss of a beloved service member. But in the midst of your grief, you can know you're not alone in your loss, that help is available, and that the day will come when you feel better.