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We Regret to Inform You

The Book Brigade talks to behavioral health counselor Joanne Steen.

used with permission of author Joanne Steen.
Source: used with permission of author Joanne Steen.

The military provides support to the families of the fallen. Yet the circumstances of death and the unexpectedness of that knock on the door can have an enduring impact on their grief.

This is a book for families of the fallen in military service—something you know about firsthand as a widow. Yet you’re aiming this book at parents. What made you decide to turn your hard-earned insight into an instruction manual for others?

I once had it all: a happy marriage, a successful engineering career, and a new home with a sunny bedroom that begged for a crib. Then my husband was killed in the line of duty. I naturally expected there would be dedicated resources and support, but both were in short supply. The existing books on grief fell short in addressing the factors common to military loss, and I stumbled not only with understanding the grief I was contending with, but also with finding ways to do the work that grief demands. Outreach to other military widows made me realize I wasn’t alone; others struggled with the same issues that I did.

Eight years after my husband was killed, I left my first career and earned an advanced degree in counseling. The following year, the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. With the looming threat of war, I coauthored Military Widow: A Survival Guide (Naval Institute Press, 2006), the book I longed for when my own husband was killed in the line of duty.

Prepared by professional and personal experience, I launched a new career as an instructor and author in military loss and grief. In my own journey, I came to realize there was little training for behavioral health professionals on military grief and few dedicated resources for families of the fallen that understood our loss or laid out a trustworthy path through our grief.

How is military loss different from nonmilitary loss?

Gold Star families contend with a dual loss, as the personal loss of their loved one is entwined with the national loss of a service member. This dual loss is one that few understand. Here’s how: More than 80 percent of military deaths are sudden and unexpected, usually occurring far from home. They are often violent in nature and can result in unviewable or unrecoverable remains. Details of the death may be limited or classified. For most families, the casualty notification and assistance processes are unnerving at best, but usually traumatic.

Soul-searing traditions of a military funeral leave a lasting impact on families and all in attendance: the flag-draped casket, a rifle salute, the haunting notes of “Taps,” and the official presentation of the folded casket flag with the message, “On behalf of a grateful nation.” Common American symbols, such as the flag or the National Anthem, become triggers of grief for the families of the fallen, as does Memorial Day, a federal holiday that pays tribute to service members who have died in the line of duty. The military is also a constant news item, and politics often intrudes into military loss and grief issues.

Families have been sacrificing their children in military service for millennia. Why a book now?

Many military personnel are married when tragedy strikes, and much attention is given to the newly widowed spouse and the young family left behind. All too often the needs of the service member’s parents go unnoticed. They become outsiders looking in, overwhelmed by the loss of their child, weighted down by both parental and military grief, and chronically misunderstood by those around them. Gold Star parents learn the hard way that the death of their child in military service changes everything. Relatives, friends, and the communities in which they live and work are uncertain of what to say or how to act and have a tendency to keep their distance. Even the behavioral health community has limited hands-on experience with, or guidance for, working with military loss.

Until now, no other guide has thoroughly addressed the flag-draped grief that surviving military parents bear or offered guidance to the family, friends, and service providers who assist them. We Regret to Inform You: A Survival Guide for Gold Star Parents and Those Who Support Them fills this need.

Loss is always a possibility in military service. Does that knowledge make the reality any easier?

Military families are well aware that military service is a dangerous profession, especially if their loved one is in a combat theater of operations or a high-risk field, such as special operations, aviation, or ordinance disposal. While families know full well that there’s a possibility their service member could be injured or killed, they also know that there’s a greater probability their loved ones will come home safely. After all, their loved ones are professionals, and with this comes confidence in their ability to do their jobs expertly, with the right training and equipment, and the guidance of highly capable and principled leadership. That’s not to say the risks of military service are ignored. But families always anticipate a safe return for their loved ones—never that knock at the door.

What do you consider the most important thing for grieving parents to know?

Grief does not have to be the end of their journey. They have the internal fortitude to survive their life-changing loss, cope with its profound grief, and develop the resilience to move forward, while continuing to remember and honor their child in positive and healthy ways.

Do the armed forces provide any services to grieving parents?

The military provides dedicated support from the time of notification through the end of the casualty process, usually 30 to 90 days. Long-term assistance is also provided by the service branches. Since most Gold Star families are civilians and live apart from military installations, they often must rely on their individual communities for support.

How does the manner of death shape the grieving process? You cite “disenfranchised grief” as a possibility for survivors of military loss. Could you explain what that is and why it occurs?

The suddenness and unexpectedness of death influences how parents initially react to the news, while the cause of death impacts what they will contend with for years to come. With a military loss, there is a misconstrued hierarchy of importance, and society often sees non-combat deaths as less relevant. This disenfranchisement results in families feeling like their loved one’s death is not valued, and their legitimate grief is not fully supported.

What one message would you like the nonmilitary public to know about military loss?

With unnoticed regularity, three to four military personnel die in the line of duty each day. Some die in combat in times of war. Apart from war, service members regularly lose their lives in other military operations, on peacekeeping missions, in protection of our national interests, from terrorist attacks at home and abroad, in maintaining operational readiness, on training exercises, because of accidents, from suicide or homicide, or as a result of illnesses or diseases.

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