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Personal Insight on a Walk Through Grief

Thursday, January 07, 2016

I first attended an AUSA Annual Meeting and Exposition in October 2014. I attended all the Family Forums, and the one that hit home with me most was “The Future of Our Military Children.” My husband and I were raising our two children when he and six others were killed in a helicopter crash near Moody, Texas, on Nov. 29, 2004. At the time of his death, our son Sean was 10 and our daughter Meghan was 13.

In the 10 years since his death and my attendance at this particular forum, the kids and I had left Fort Hood and settled in Yorktown, Va. Meghan had finished middle school and graduated from high school and college. Sean had started and finished middle school, graduated high school, and was attending college. They were now ages 20 and 23. We had become a tight-knit family of three. I was interested in what this panel of child psychiatrists and psychologists had to say about walking through grief with children.

I could not help but think of Meghan and Sean as I listened intently to the panelists and moderator. After the forum was over, I spoke with Dr. Paula Rauch from Massachusetts General Hospital and told her the points she and the other panelists had shared were spot on, as I had walked and continued to walk through grief with our children. The first takeaway from Rauch was that parents are the experts on their own children.

This hit home with me, because as a family, we always had very open lines of communication and that proved to be a saving grace after the accident. We talked. I knew our children better than anyone else, and I felt the best-equipped to help them navigate the waters we were embarking on. I also knew that I would be able to recognize if at some point I needed some help in addressing their mental well-being.

Also, it was mentioned during the forum that grief is not a snapshot in life. Grief is lifelong and what a young child is able to process is different from what a child can process as a teen or young adult.

The afternoon of the accident, Sean was out riding his bicycle and playing with friends. He found comfort in the routine of playing with his buds in the neighborhood. Both children were back at school the next day. Routine became our comfort. When they started bickering a little bit with each other the next day, I thanked God, because as a mom, that gave me a sense of normalcy amid the chaos.

Over the past 10 years, I have made a point of sharing as much as I can about Jim. Thankfully, both Meghan and Sean have many memories of time spent with their dad, but I feel that it is up to me to share as much as possible. We have many photos of him throughout the house and from Day 1 we have talked and shared about him, which has made family and friends feel comfortable sharing as well.

I discussed this with Dr. Rauch after the Family Forum. She said since both Meghan and Sean are now young adults, it is important that others share stories about my husband; that would mean a lot to them.

This is so true.

In the summer of 2014, Meghan was traveling from Pennsylvania to Texas with friends and they made a few stops along the way. One of the stops was to spend time with our 4th Infantry Division (4ID) Rear Division chaplain and his wife in Kentucky. Meghan and her two friends spent a couple nights there and one morning, the chaplain and Meghan had the opportunity to visit in their kitchen for a couple of hours before the others awoke. He called me later and choked up when he shared that he did not know how raw his emotions would be when he talked about Jim with Meghan. He hoped that he did not make her feel uncomfortable. I assured him that our kids want to make sure their dad is remembered.

This past summer, Sean was at Fort Hood for the first time since he left as a 10-year-old boy 11 years ago. He was there for three weeks of Cadet Troop Leadership Training. The first building he walked into happened to be the old 4ID DISCOM HQ where his dad’s office had been located. Sean immediately recognized this as he walked into what is now the 3rd Cavalry Regiment HQ. He attended the brigade change of command for a man who was a company commander in Jim’s battalion in Hawaii in 2000. This man shared with Sean how his dad mentored him and to come full circle, he was standing up the brigade whose lineage included the 4ID DISCOM, which was the brigade Jim was commanding when he was killed.

This past October, Sean and I attended Jim’s 35th college reunion at Norwich University. Sean was able to golf with five of Jim’s classmates and I know there were stories told of time on campus all those years ago. To be able to golf with his dad’s classmates as a 21-year-old about to commission as a second lieutenant was pretty special.

After the football game, several of his classmates, Sean and I went to the Norwich Alumni Cemetery where Jim is buried. Here there was lots of sharing as classmates discussed memories of Jim. We have done this every five years since Jim’s death and it means so much to our family as well as to Jim’s classmates.

These are examples of our walking with others as they have shared stories of Jim not just with Meghan and Sean, but also with me. It means the world to us.

It is my hope that by sharing these personal stories of our walk of the past 11 years that those who have suffered the loss of a loved one or those who are supporting the surviving family members as friends or family may glean something that can assist them in their walk through grief.