One early weeknight, I accompanied military personnel to announce the most dreaded news that any family could receive. Once we arrived at the address, we walked up to the lighted front door and knocked. A few seconds later, the owner opened the door while blocking the entrance. We introduced ourselves and verified his name. Then the curious father learned that his son had been killed in action.
The gentleman stood speechless. Moments later, his wife came down the stairs. “Who is it?” she asked as her husband widened the door for the curious family member to see the two visitors in uniform. Upon hearing the report, the wife and mother fell to the ground and wept.
Numerous families have received notices like these that resemble the one we’ve seen a thousand times in the movie Saving Private Ryan. As you recall, it is a sunny day when a military vehicle makes its way through the dirt road to a small home just up the hill. Inside the house, a mother is washing dishes. Looking up and out of her window, she spots the car nearing the front yard and becomes startled. You can feel tension in the silence as the mother of four boys is putting two-and-two together. When the car arrives, two men in uniform get out. As the strength in her legs gives out, the shocked mother sits down on her wooden porch awaiting the devastating news.
As a surviving family member, you may relate to the sudden alarm of this mother and of the parents I described. As a former military chaplain who has attended three Casualty Assistance Calls, conducted several funerals, and witnessed the residue that such agonizing events leave on the military population, I would like to extend a few words of comfort that may normalize your new pain.
First, articulating heavy emotions at the beginning is indeed a muddy task. Many whom I served could not find their feelings during the initial phases of grief. Second, making meaning out of chaos demands breathing space to redevelop. Later on, your existential crisis will diminish. Third, anger may seem gigantic and out-of-control, but it is not omnipotent. To put it in cliché form, “We have anger; anger doesn’t have us.” And fourth, blame is a temporary outlet that will later put into motion a lasting healing cycle. In other words, blame has a place in the grieving process.
The initial jolt from hearing the news of a loved one killed in action is unspeakable. I have seen it in the faces of fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and relatives and friends. Lost for words, these surviving family members have no clue where their grieving hearts will take them next. In the midst of such great darkness, they do not know that the initial shock will eventually diminish and healing will surface. But it will!