On October 22, 2014, a Canadian soldier was killed as he stood guard at our National War Memorial in Ottawa. The day before, two soldiers were deliberately rundown in a Montreal parking lot by a newly converted jihadist: one of them died. Our flag is flying at half-mast. The deaths of these two soldiers will have significant impact on their families, friends, colleagues and the community at large. Moreover, long after the flag is raised, their hearts will remain broken.
Although we pay great honor to those who die in service, the pain of losing a loved one lingers beyond the funeral and public dedication. For years to come, the families who are left behind will travel a long and unpredictable grief journey. They will seek comfort in their precious memories and struggle to make sense of why the death of their loved one happened when it did and in the way it did.
The grieving families of Canadian and U.S. military personnel, who have died in Iraq and in previous wars, also understand the heartbreak of losing a loved one unexpectedly. Likewise, the families of police officers, firemen, sheriffs, correction officers, and other professionals who lost their life “on the job” can empathize with such sorrow. There is immense pride in knowing that your loved one died while serving his or her community and country. On the other hand, the wound of suddenly losing a father or mother, son or daughter, sister or brother, is deep and not easy to heal.
In addition to their suffering, the sorrow experienced by the surviving families is often compounded by several factors. First of all, there is the fact that we remain a dismissive and mourning-avoidant culture grounded in this assumption . . . “people will get over what has happened to them with time.” Society is tolerant for only so long before falsely expecting that people should have the ability to leave behind their pain and return to be the person they were before tragedy struck. The grief process doesn’t work that way. For starters… it’s a process… not a time-specific event. Even if we could limit the days we grieve, the truth is that time doesn’t heal a broken heart; rather, it is what we do with the time that brings healing.
Another compounding factor for the survivors is that the person who died is the family’s “gatekeeper” to an exclusive community (i.e. their profession of choice). After the person dies, the inclusion to this community often wanes and is even denied. It isn’t that the colleagues of their loved ones don’t remember, or don’t want to include them. The reality is that the relationship takes on different parameters and the unintended, but natural consequence of the worker’s death, is that the deceased person’s family no longer fits within that structure. This isn’t to say that “personal” friendships won’t remain intact. Often they do. What it does mean is that the day-to-day connections, social functions, and camaraderie is no longer available to them. This is another loss experienced by those left behind and can result in feelings of disappointment, abandonment, anger, and profound sadness.
What do we need to keep in mind when reaching out to these families? It’s critical they receive short-term and long-term supports. These supports can be formal (e.g. individual or family counseling, support groups) or informal gatherings with friends and family. The key is that the supports are non-judgmental, consistent and in place for however long the individual or family are in need. When offering support, being aware of the layers of loss that people experience when a loved one dies, is crucial. Knowing that a person may feel “cut off” from the community they were once immersed in can assist in initiating an open discussion so supporters can actually “normalize” the experience for the grieving person. By normalizing the experience, survivors can begin to understand the changes in their relationship with their love one’s work community and not take it personally.
For colleagues, the grief journey takes on an added twist. Many will search for meaning and begin to evaluate their career. Is this job worth the risk? How can I work with another partner? What’s going to happen to me? These too, are normal questions and experiences. Nonetheless, workers need to be allowed time to suspend life, turn inward and explore their pain to determine their own answers. They also need supports for however long they need it – not on a predetermined schedule.
The grief process is complicated, unpredictable, and life-changing. While those who die in service are recognized as being brave and honorable, and rightfully so, let’s not overlook the tremendous void permanently left in the lives of those who loved them. When reaching out to support them, do so with a “teach me” attitude. Allow them to show you how this loss has impacted their life. Empathize and understand, but do not direct the journey for them. Moreover, remember that the only wrong way to grieve is to not grieve! Be there for them – for however long that they need you. Your time and unconditional support are precious gifts – offer both freely.