By Kristine Schellhaas
Oftentimes, it feels as though we in the military community are more conscious of the delicate nature of life and the reality of death because we regularly face separations and hardships. The highs and lows seem more vivid, and we get caught up in our beautiful hectic life. Sometimes, though, something horrific happens that stops us in our tracks, and we have to say goodbye to our loved ones unexpectedly. Life becomes unbearable.
When that happens to someone you love, many just don’t know what to say to you. There’s no playbook to consult, and everyone deals with grief differently. Should they acknowledge the pain you’re going through? Do they just avoid the subject for fear of making things worse?
I can only tell you my experiences and provide advice based on my life. I was moving forward as any military wife could — and suddenly I was planning a funeral for my one-year-old son.
What not to say to someone grieving
Life didn’t make sense, and I couldn’t understand why my son was taken from me. No parent should ever have to pick out a grave site or plan a memorial service for their child. But things were made worse when others said, “I know how you feel.” They didn’t. They hadn’t lost a child.
As well-intentioned as remarks might be, inappropriate ones can add to the pain — especially around the holidays when you’re supposed to be able to hold the ones you love close. Avoid at all costs saying “I know how you feel” to others.
What to do for someone in mourning
If you’re looking to genuinely comfort grieving family or friends in the military community during this time of year, here are some simple ways you can express your condolences and love.
Let them know how sorry you are.
Tell them how much the person they lost meant to you.
Bring them a meal (or several) even if they say no. Sometimes people don’t want to accept help, but it’s better that they have the option of throwing away a meal than having to function and provide support for themselves or others.
Flowers are always nice, but be sure to deliver via a florist in case they’re not accepting company right away.
Phone every few days and leave a message to let them know that you are thinking about them. Don’t ask them to call you back; if they feel up to it, they will. Sometimes even stating that you don’t expect them to call you back is nice.
If you are close, ask if they would like help planning the memorial or simply would like company while they make arrangements.
Don’t compete in your grief
When you’re the parent of a service member who was married: As hard as it might be, don’t insist on planning the memorial with the surviving spouse.
If your son or daughter signed up to serve our great nation and got married, you need to respect your child’s decisions and trust their spouse to create the memorial they see fit. Ask if you can help — and if you are told no, respect their decisions.
Use this time to grieve in your own way; if you don’t like the memorial service, instead have your own small service with a few personal friends. Do not compete with the spouse for the main service and do not make a public announcement of what you are doing. Be respectful of your child’s life partner, even if you don’t agree.
Moving on without forgetting
As time moves forward, here are some helpful reminders for remembering loved ones, yours and others’:
Birthdays: Sometimes birthdays are the most difficult, especially the first one the family experiences without their loved one. Send a note or card to the survivors to let them know they are in your thoughts.
Anniversary of their passing: Let the family know that you remember this date. Again, a written note is a good option. Pick out a special memory, or a funny or meaningful quote that their loved one might have liked.
Special occasions: If the family is gathering around, it’s perfectly acceptable to say something along the lines that you miss their loved one and tie in a special memory. For example, “If Paul were here, he’d love seeing you all. You know how he would be fighting over that wishbone with the kids.” I think sometimes the hardest part of losing someone is when people refuse to talk about them anymore. They were an important part of your life, and sharing positive memories is a great way to let others know that they are not forgotten.
Dealing with the death of loved ones is never easy, especially around the holiday season, but allowing an opportunity to discuss the person is always appreciated. You never know when the surviving family members will be ready to talk, but a few sentences here and there throughout the months is a great way to keep their memory alive.