In 2012, 229 US troops were killed in Afghanistan.
In 2012, 349 US troops committed suicide.
Yes, you read that right.
Suicide among veterans and active duty service
members is on the rise. The total for last year represented a double-digit
increase, regardless of branch of service.
This is not just an issue for US troops. Suicides
have also risen alarmingly among the UK’s forces in Afghanistan.
The first order of business, of course, is why?
Suicide is a complicated issue. Are the armed forces
doing a good job screening applicants, rejecting those with obvious mental
health issues? Are there contributing factors, such as alcohol or drug abuse?
Is the shock of war too much for some people?
All of those are valid considerations, but one of
the saddest reasons is grief…and guilt.
Young men have always died in war (young women, too,
though not always ‘officially’), so this is not a new phenomenon.
Maybe it’s the way they fight now: undefined battlefields,
IED’s, drones. Maybe it’s just that at long last, suicide and survivor guilt
are finally being talked about – not as something to be ashamed of, but
something to be treated and prevented.
But time and again, in newspaper articles and
reports, stories are told about another young man’s inability to reconcile
surviving his friends.
One of the lucky ones, Marcus Luttrell, was awarded the Navy
Cross for combat heroism in Afghanistan. He wrote a memoir (Lone Survivor) of the 2005 battle which only he survived. Luttrell told his story to honor the memory of
his comrades: “Their memory will never die out, and that’s what I wanted.”
Next week, we’ll look at some ways the US Navy helps
its members navigate the grief and guilt too many of them experience.
It’s a situation no one wants to find themselves in,
but if you are a first responder or in the military, it’s likely. For some
unfortunate people who are not in those professions, it can be even more
In David Halberstam’s book The Firehouse, he recounts the story of his neighborhood firehouse,
near Lincoln Center on New York’s upper west side. On September 11, 2001,
thirteen firefighters raced to the scene of the World Trade Center attack. One
returned. The only reason he survived is that a photographer saw his arm
sticking out of the rubble at Ground Zero. Not only did he suffer from guilt,
but some people hated him for surviving: why him and not one of the others?
Suicide is a growing issue, in the military and
among first responders. Grief mixed with survivor guilt is a significant
component of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Men and women (mostly
young) who put their lives on the line every day are used to being in danger.
But when a comrade dies in the line of duty, they are often ill-prepared for
the grief that hardens into survivor guilt.
You’d think that these are people who will mourn the
deaths of their colleagues and move on. Danger and death are part of the job
description. They take some comfort in grieving rituals. We see the impressive parades,
dress uniforms, bagpipes, black and purple bunting. But those rituals are
public, and are over within days.
What we don’t see – and don’t think about – is the
guilt they carry, the feeling they can’t shake that they could somehow have
prevented their friend’s death. They may even believe they should’ve died
instead of their friend.
What a terrible way to live: so terrible that
suicide may feel like their best option.
Survivor guilt is not limited to these specific
professions. People who survived natural disasters, or terrorist attacks, car
accidents or the early days of the AIDS epidemic can also feel crushing guilt
for having survived.
am I alive, instead of them?”
Next week we’ll look at some attempts to answer that
I’ve written about this before, but I thought this
was a good time to revisit the topic of self-care when writing about grief – or
any difficult subject. And I believe the same principles apply to those working
in hospice, therapists and grief counselors.
The fifth book in my series about grieving the death
of a friend will be about 9/11. I always knew it would be included, but I deliberately
positioned it late in the series. My blog posts about that day have been
difficult to write. It’s overwhelming at times to even think about it. So I
gather research, read books, and fill up a shelf in my bookcase. And I walk
away. Eventually, I’ll have to take a deep breath and dive in. But it will be a
In comparison, the second book, now at the editor,
is about losing friends to AIDS. I was somewhat surprised at how much anger was
involved – not just from me, but from the people I interviewed and wrote about.
I thought I’d put more distance between me and that subject, but I hadn’t, and
neither had they. Maybe the anger fueled me, not for the first time. But this
book took a relatively short amount of time to write.
I feel more detached from books three and four, and
frankly, that’s a relief. So is my latest venture, writing book reviews on
BroadwayWorld.com. I don’t review books that are in any way grief-related. I
decide what kinds of books to review. I have control.
And maybe that’s the bottom line: control. We often
feel like grief controls us, that we are being swept away. The feelings we
experience are so raw, so powerful, we are helpless to fight them. And many
times that’s right. We’re not in control: of our emotions, of our reactions, of
what happened to us.
When our lives – whether it’s writing about grief,
working with people who are dying or grieving, or grieving ourselves –
overwhelm us, we have to find the strength to step back. Having someone say
“you need to get past this, get over it” is not the same as hearing them say
“let’s go out for lunch” or “I’ll watch the kids so you can take a nap”. And unfortunately,
the former is what we hear most often.
So, if you are grieving or live/work in a situation
where others are grieving, do whatever you have to do to take care of yourself.
Even if it’s 15 minutes a day, do it. Turn off your phone, go for a walk, take
a power nap, cry, crank up the radio: do something that takes you away from
grief and gives you a tiny bit of control over your life.
Before you know it, those 15 minutes won’t feel self-indulgent:
they’ll feel absolutely necessary. They may turn into 30 minutes or even an
hour. You aren’t disrespecting the friend who died –or your work – if you do
this. You are refueling your body and your mind for the tasks ahead.
Don’t wait for someone else to make you do it. Do it
for yourself, today.
When you think about a friend who has died, what do
you miss the most?
Maybe you went to school together, and you miss
passing notes in class.
Maybe you worked together, and you miss getting to
know each other over shared projects.
Maybe you were neighbors, and you miss knowing they
were right there next door, a safety net and comforting presence.
Maybe you traveled together, and you miss exploring,
getting lost and having adventures only the two of you could possibly appreciate.
Maybe you only knew them online, and they died
before you had the chance to meet them face to face.
Maybe you hadn’t seen them in years – decades, even –
and wonder now why you didn’t make the effort to get together.
Every person who comes into our lives touches us in
some way, good or bad (sometimes both). We gravitate towards friendship for
different reasons: maybe shared interests, or a happy accident of time and
So it makes sense that we grieve each friend
When I think of Steve, I miss his sweetness, and
dancing with him at a black-tie dinner.
When I think of Carol, I miss her no-nonsense
approach to everything, stopping my excuses with a raised eyebrow.
When I think of Delle, I miss our impassioned
discussions over green tea after dropping our daughters off at school.
Different friends, different memories, different
What do you miss the most about your friends?
Last spring I wrote about a photographic exhibit Live for the Moment. The exhibit, based on a study by Dr.
Genevieve Creighton at the University of British Columbia, showed how young men
used photography to deal with the death of a friend. The study continues with
an exhibit this month in Whistler, BC, with photographs taken by a group of men
aged 19-25 who each lost a friend to accidental death in the past year.
|Live for the Moment|
What Dr. Creighton found was that even in the broad
category of “accidental” deaths, there was a wide range of circumstances as
well as responses.
The community responds differently to accidental
deaths “on the mountain” (skiing or snowboarding) than to those off the
mountain. The latter, at least in these examples, tended to be drug or alcohol-related.
So, a young man could mourn his friend who died in
an avalanche and be proud of him. But if he died of hypothermia, passed out in
a snowdrift after leaving a bar…well, that evokes a very different type of
Some of the men in the study were addressing their
grief for the first time. A few had already been lucky enough to reach out and
accept support from those around them.
But as I found in my own research, it’s not just
that men tend to be instrumental grievers: focusing on “doing” something rather
than talking about it. That’s the stereotype because most men are not
encouraged to talk about their grief. So this was a unique opportunity that
Matt Gore, whose friend died in that snowdrift, used
the study as a chance to give back, to help others dealing with the same type
of grief. That friend’s death made him quit drinking and try to help others
avoid the same fate as his friend.
A separate group of young men – who did not
participate in the exhibit – lost friends long ago. Long-term, they handled it
in different ways. Some saw that death as a wake-up call to focus and
appreciate their own lives, friends and relationships. Others seemed
permanently stuck, unable to “grow up” past the time when their friend died.
Creighton’s study points out the need for informal
grief support services for young men. One of her most fascinating suggestions
is for health care providers to train coaches, instructors, bar and restaurant
managers to recognize and counsel those who are grieving.
Granted, her subjects live in a ski resort town, the
type of community that does not like to discuss anything as negative as a young
man’s death – particular if it’s related to their major industry.
But I think the idea of training those in closest
contact to these young men is one worth discussing in a larger forum.
Sometime last year I was on my parish Yahoo group. I
mentioned my friend, Delle Chatman, whose encouragement led me to begin writing
about grieving the death of a friend. One of the women on the group posted:
“I think about her every day.”
When she typed this, it had been five years since
“I think about her every day” doesn’t mean she
thinks about her in a sad way, of course. It might mean that she simply walks
by Delle’s apartment building, or sees a gun-metal grey PT Cruiser like the one
Delle used to drive. Something triggers a memory.
There are times when I walk into the coffee house we
used to frequent and even now, six years later, I’ll look around,
half-expecting her to be holding court as she nurses a green tea latte.
The incredible First
Selectman of Newtown, Connecticut, Patricia Llodra, has begun the delicate
process of removing public memorials to the children and adults murdered at
Sandy Hook Elementary School. Concerned that the flowers, teddy bears and other
gifts were ruined in recent storms, she gave the order that they be removed –
after the families of those lost had one last opportunity to visit the sites.
Soldiers talk about their lost comrades decades
after combat, memories sometimes tinged with survivor guilt.
There’s been much talk of the definition of
“healthy” grieving, as opposed to a grief that spirals downward into serious,
clinical depression. But I don’t think even the American Psychiatric
Association can define just how long – or how - we grieve our friends.
Throughout this coming year, we will look at ways
people remember their friends. They are as varied as the friendships
themselves, but all are about preserving memories: memories that sometimes
never move from bad to good. And we’ll look at the toll that can take.
Everyone grieves in their own way. You may be
surprised to find that you grieve people differently, depending on how close
your friendship. You may be surprised to find you grieve more than you expected
– or less.
We’ll be sharing lots of these stories, as well as
the publication of the six books in the Friend
Grief series (see the Books and Events pages for updates).
It’s going to be an exciting and interesting year
here on Friend Grief. I’m glad you’re
along for the ride!