I was raised in a family where military service was praised and celebrated as part of our history. My maternal grandfather, a general practice physician, served in the South Pacific during World War II and my father spent several tours in the Navy, one during the Korean Conflict. Memorial Day to me though is most remembered for two events: a rainy Midwestern day (how many Memorial Days does it not rain on in the Chicago area?) where barbecues were held in garages to keep dry, and for the parade in my hometown, Naperville, IL.
When I began to think about what I would reflect on for this blog to recognize Memorial Day, I realized I had to look it up. I couldn’t remember who we acknowledge on this day. Was it the veterans or the deceased? And that’s when I realized that my family’s military history has not been exposed to any military death (at least in recent history – I believe one of the Ohio relatives on my maternal grandmother’s side died serving in the Civil War).
That doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize military deaths in my life though. Working with people after suicide loss means it’s inevitable that I be exposed to military suicide. Last October, I was invited to speak at the TAPS (Tragedy Assistant Program for Survivors) conference outside Washington, DC, for families who lost a loved one in the military to suicide. My main piece was to do a workshop for the siblings, an often forgotten group of mourners. I was struck by the openness of the group. One family had lost a brother and the surviving siblings andtheir spouses attended the workshop. Another man lost one son and the surviving son was present for the presentation.
The sense of community at the conference was welcoming, but what I remember in particular was the family sitting across from me at the table during the banquet. I had just come from the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention Conference in Nova Scotia where I had gotten sick. After my final talk at the TAPS conference, I lost my voice. It was a challenge to speak to anyone that night at the banquet. When the slideshow appeared of all the loved ones who had died, the woman across the table began to cry uncontrollably. Her husband and her daughter-in-law (the widow) comforted her. I couldn’t do anything from across the centerpiece and the dishes where I could barely utter a word.
I felt bad leaving the banquet that night. I know the pain of losing a loved one well but I also realized she was in good comforting hands, those of her family. The next morning before I left for the airport, I found them downstairs in the breakfast area and while I still couldn’t speak well, I made a point to go talk to them and spend a little time discussing what they were going through.
The strength of these families is unparalleled and, while it's traditionally been difficult to grieve suicide death in the military (just like the rest of society), watching them band together into one community to process their pain and acknowledge the loss of a loved one to suicide was an honor for me to be a part of.
On Monday, I will think of these families and the loved ones they lost to suicide while serving in the military. It’s the least that I can do.
Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D., is an international author and speaker about finding hope after loss and change. She is the author of several books including Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families through Suicide Grief and Ginger's Gift: Hope and Healing Through Dog Companionship. Her first book, based on the suicide of her younger sister Denise, Do They Have Bad Days in Heaven? Surviving the Suicide Loss of a Si..., inspired siblings around the world in their survival after a loved one’s suicide. She is the President of the American Association of Suicidology and lives in Albuquerque, N.M. Read more about Michelle at www.michellelinngust.com.
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