The death of a service member or family member can be a devastating experience, especially in our tight knit military community. Everybody is professionally or personally interrelated to everyone else, and at the end of the day, we all depend on one another to support the mission and each other. Yet whether the death of someone you know is unanticipated or expected, a major loss can leave you feeling disconnected or overwhelmed with emotions. You may also feel frustrated if you do not know the exact circumstances surrounding someone’s death, or unsure of how to reach out to those who are seriously impacted by this loss.
If you haven’t experienced this type of grief before, or even if you have been previously exposed to death, it may help you to understand about typical grief reactions, the process of grief, and what you can do to start healing. Knowing more about what to be prepared for and what to do can help bring you reassurance and comfort during this difficult time, as there is nothing easy about grieving a service member or a family member. After all, the finality of death ends a lifetime, not the relationship.
Responses to grief
Normal grief reactions are as unique as those who experience them and depend on many factors, such as, your personality, coping style, support structure, faith, and nature of the loss. After all, there is no typical response to loss, as there is no such thing as a typical loss, nor is there a defined timetable for grieving. However, there are common symptoms of grief that are specific to the grief process, and they don’t necessarily have to occur in any particular order:
Denial – You may have difficulty believing that the loss really happened or deny the truth because of the intense grief of losing a service member. “It can’t be true, this isn’t happening to me”. The disbelief and numbness may help you to maintain some normalcy and keep you from going into shock.
Anger – You might feel angry with a loved one or at the service member for dying and abandoning you, or angry with a higher power for taking him/her away from you or their family. “Why did they die, who is to blame?” You may be angry about the injustice you feel, even if it was no one’s fault.
Fear – You may feel anxious and insecure about facing life or the workplace without that person. It can trigger fears about your own mortality or about facing new responsibilities alone. You may be wondering, “How will my life be different?” because the future, as you knew it, may now be uncertain and the coinciding feelings can lead to panic attacks.
Guilt – You may feel guilty or regret the things you didn’t say or do, or wonder if you could have prevented someone’s death. “If only I had…” even if there was nothing more that you could have done. You may also have guilt about feeling relief if the person died after a long illness.
Depression – You may feel profound sadness, as it is the most widely experienced symptom of grief. You may also have feelings of despair, emptiness, and loneliness. You may be feeling like “I’m too sad to do anything,” and not be able to get out of bed or enjoy the things that gave you a sense of purpose. Even at its worst and as awful as it feels, this depression should be temporary.
Acceptance – You will feel that you are adjusting to living in a world without the deceased, even if it is not with contentment. “I’m at peace with what happened.” This emotional state is marked with a sense of calm and is the result of having allowed yourself to experience each emotion as you feel it.
The key words here are “as you feel it”. The undercurrent of loss is never fully recognized until you lose someone you know, especially someone that you love. I know—I lived it myself.
My husband died 18 months ago, a seemingly healthy man. He was not “sick” or “old.” His heart just stopped. That was it! There was no warning or warning signs, and from one moment to the next, his lifetime was over! My planned future with him was also over.
Even though I took three weeks off from work, I still found myself living through the roller coaster of grief reactions when I returned to work. I also had difficulty concentrating, and my lack of patience with others was becoming obvious.
At the time, I was a social worker for the Army. I was not a stranger to tragedy, and every death notification I received at work had a story that would generate support and assistance to those affected. But my husband’s death was different. It was personal to me and I couldn’t cope in the same way that I did through supporting others in my job.
I was perceived as a strong woman, and couldn’t share my vulnerable side at work; that really soft, loving, vulnerable side of me that was only safe to show at home around my husband and daughters. I had to maintain that strong image due to my position at work. I was always keeping it all together or “doing fine” any time someone asked, yet the social worker inside of me knew that I needed to seek help, receive support and begin to feel better.
It was hard for me to accept help because other people always depended on me for guidance, not the other way around. However, seeking help increased my credibility as a counselor and as a leader. Transparency was the beginning of the healing process, for feeling safe, and for helping others to feel safer.
My point is this—none of us are exempt from the impact of death or stress regardless of our military/civilian status. At the end of the day we are all human beings, and whether we admit it or not, we are all hoping to find ways to connect with others and feel completely accepted with all of our vulnerabilities, including our response to death.
It’s no secret that the single most important factor in healing from loss is having the support of other people.
As an Air Force family, we all have the responsibility to ensure that all Airmen are supported with resources and feel encouraged using them. So please accept the support that is offered or ask for assistance. Remember, you do not have to feel lonely or feel alone to carry the burden of grief by yourself.
Recommendations for grief support
*Turn to family members, coworkers and friends – Reach out to the people who care about you, or allow them to support you. Tell them what you need, whether you just want to talk or have the company.
*Seek solace from your faith – Embrace the comfort of religious rituals for mourning or spiritual activities that have meaning to you, such as meditating, praying, or simply attending church. Contact your chaplain for spiritual support.
*Talk with a counselor or chaplain – If your grieving process is overwhelming, contact me (see Resources below) and/or seek a counselor that can help you overcome obstacles to bereavement and healing.
*Join a grief support group – Share your sorrow with others who have experienced the same type of grief. Grief can be lonely even if you have loved ones around.
*Take care of your physical and mental health – Try to exercise, sleep, eat nutritiously and drink plenty of fluids.
* Psychological Health Services, March ARB,
Elaine Valentine LCSW
2250 Dekay St., Rm 101
Appointments are available during the week and most UTA’s. Walk-ins are welcomed.
*Military One Source
*Psychological Health Advocacy Program (PHAP)
For more information contact Frank Pavone at 951-655-4551
(Editor’s note: Reprinted for A UTA)