By Chaplain (Ltc. Col.) Milton JohnsonOctober 2, 2013
High on the list of jobs nobody wants is the task of telling someone that a loved one or close friend has died, and few people volunteer to give long term assistance to survivors in the aftermath of their loss.
There is no formula, no set of correct phrases, that can ease the shock and pain. Grieving the death of a fallen hero isn't an easy process, nor is it the same for each person or military family. In reality, coping with the death of a loved one who served in the military can be a lonesome and difficult journey.
Still, death notification and follow-on assistance to Families of fallen heroes can provide opportunities for significant support and care for those who need it most.
Some bereaved people remember every detail of the early moments of grief, while others retain only vague, general recollections. In either case, they typically recall with gratitude anyone who, with sensitivity and compassion, helped them through this dark moment of life. Listen to a letter written by a surviving mother almost a year after she received the notification that her son was killed in action in Iraq:
Dear Casualty Notification Officer:
Almost a year ago you came to my door with the devastating news of the death of my son, SPC Bradley S. Beard. You waited at the curb with your fellow officer in the predawn stillness of an October morning until you saw the lights come on in the house. My clock read 6:38AM when you pressed the doorbell.
I don't know how you found the courage to walk up our front steps. Maybe that is why the Army assigns two soldiers to the mission: so they can't back out. I can't imagine how you were able to steel yourself, and resolve in your mind to say the words that would break my heart and shred my soul. Surely there cannot be a worst mission to give to a Soldier.
I cannot fathom how a soldier is able to complete even one mission of this type. It isn't a warrior task for which anyone could truly become trained and proficient… and yet you were given this task and expected to perform the job with dignity and compassion. And you did just that. It must have something to do with the instilling of the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. That is the only explanation I have been able to come up with.
It bothers me all these months later that I was unable to treat you with the respect and honor that you deserved for taking on such a horrible and thankless task: our notification. I remember yelling at my husband not to open the door, and then begging him not to let you inside the house. You were the last person I wanted to see standing on my porch, and I think I conveyed that to you. I would not speak to you or look at you or shake your hand when you offered it. I guess all my goodwill and courtesy somehow just drained away and bled out of my heart in those few moments as I saw you standing in the doorway.
I know that I cannot go back and rewrite the past so as not to be rude to you. God knows I would rewrite history if I could, but my rewrite would include Bradley still living. The only thing I can do is make amends for that, if you are willing to give me the chance. I would be honored if you could visit us again. This time I would open the door. I would invite you in. I would look at you directly. I would speak to you civilly. I would offer you a cup of coffee. And most importantly, I would shake your hand and thank you for your service to our country.
Elisabeth A. Beard
Mother of Bradley S. Beard, redeployed to heaven, October 14, 2004
What a letter! And what courage from a mother who lost her son and vividly expressed her pain and sorrow during a time of unimaginable grief - but also found it necessary to send appreciation and gratitude to the person who, in her words, was given the hard mission of making a death notification.
General Schoomaker who served as the 35th Chief of Staff of the United States Army from August 1, 2003 to April 10, 2007 once said:
There is nothing more vital to our Warrior Ethos than honoring the sacrifice of those fellow Soldiers who have died in service to our Nation. And there is no greater way to render that honor than by helping a Soldier's family of loved ones in the aftermath of their loss. Just as we will never leave a fallen comrade behind on the battlefield, we will always do our utmost to assist the families of our fallen comrades in their time of need.
Effective communication with survivors of fallen heroes involves three elements: patient listening; honest feedback; and a 'ministry of presence.'
Patient listening is something each of us can do and is vitally important when supporting survivors during their journey of grief and recovery. As a surviving mother once said, "The question that can never be asked too much or too often is: tell me about your fallen hero?"
Family members want to talk about the deceased and they want us to listen. Another survivor said, "The military told us how he died. Let us tell you how he lived."
Sometimes all survivors need is a compassionate person who is willing to listen to them talk about their loved one, their loneliness and all the other emotions, feelings and situations that accompany the grief process.
One of the mistakes we often make when dealing with Families of fallen heroes is that we talk to them by giving lots of information that we know they will need in the future -- but we neglect the opportunity to give them time to talk back to us. Sometimes we ask if they have any questions, but rarely inquire about the memory of the deceased.
Survivors have told us that they want to talk about their loss but they need permission to do so, and they want to sense genuine tolerance when they talk about the endearing qualities of the person that died. Most importantly they appreciate it when supporters are "active - patient" listeners, and permit them to take the lead in conversation. They have said that they need approval to mourn and to express as much grief as they are willing to share.
It is important to remember that the emotions of Families of fallen heroes are fragile and delicate, and unless sincere compassion is displayed they will seek help elsewhere.
Although patient listening is essential when giving support, offering honest feedback is just as critical for their healing and recovery. While it's important to acknowledge sorrow and pain, it's also crucial to assure survivors that they have our sincere condolence and that they are not crazy when they express emotion amidst the loss of their loved one.
I recently listened to a panel of six survivors discuss their grief journey with a class of survivor outreach coordinators. During the discussion, one grieving mother said, "Don't be afraid of us." No doubt she meant, 'Talk to us and tell us how we are doing. Don't be overly concerned with whether you are saying the right thing or not. Express your sorrow for the deceased and their family please mention the deceased by name.'
From that meeting, the survivors listed a number of useful suggestions for those attempting to help in the process of death notification and grief recovery.
- Silence is golden. Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all.
- Don't tell someone that you know what they're going through. Grief is unique to each individual and we never know the depth of another person's pain.
- Those that grieve need others to hold their hands. Refer them to people, not just resources.
- Ask survivors to tell you the story of their fallen hero.
- Remember to extend condolences to the 'forgotten mourners,' the grandparents, siblings, stepchildren, aunts and uncles, and cousins.
- Be observant of the surviving children, who mourn as well in their own way.
With the help a solid support system of Family and friends, people learn to live with loss, make new adjustments, and handle the changes necessary to cope with each day's challenges. But it takes time.
The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes states there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens; a time to be silent and a time to speak. (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7). There are times when words are unnecessary and all that's needed is a quiet 'ministry of presence.'
That may sound like something reserved only for ministers, but anyone can offer this simple, profound consolation to another person. Oftentimes, it's the most important gift we can give. Our ministry of presence is a way of "being" with someone, rather than a way of "doing" or "telling."
As you prepare to comfort those who grieve, don't simply focus on what to say or do. Don't try to anticipate how to react if certain situations arise. Instead, inwardly prepare yourself to focus on the "now" with feeling and care.
Also, remember that self-awareness is important when working with people in grief. Take care of yourself. Being with those in grief can be emotionally draining. To maintain a healthy balance in your own life, it's important to remain aware of your own thoughts and feelings, and share them with those you trust.